School Buses on a highway

Lean Six Sigma in K-12 Public Schools Near You?

We recently completed an organizational opportunity assessment for a K-12 public school system in my home state of Michigan.  Implementing Operational Excellence (OpEx) and Lean Six Sigma (LSS) in public school systems is not a totally new idea, but as a practical matter, my research shows less than 1% of school districts nationwide are seriously looking at OpEx as a means to improve.

About eight months ago I met a group of school superintendents in Southeast Michigan to offer some ideas on how they could embrace best practices in OpEx and LSS to help them cope with declining funding, enrollments and in some cases, declining outcomes in education for our precious children.

I won’t say that the idea that they are probably wasting 30% to 50% of every dollar they are spending to run their school districts was met with much enthusiasm.  In fact, they were not a little defensive. “We are already Lean!”  “We have been squeezing everything we can for years.”

From their point of view, they are partly right.  The majority of K-12 public school districts in Michigan either have or will soon move to privatization of many functions that are not central to education, such as janitorial, building maintenance, transportation and food service operations.  While there have been meaningful savings realized from these efforts, these in and of themselves are not sufficient to solve their financial issues, as these efforts only reduced the wages and benefits cost components.  These measures do little or nothing to improve the inherent processes themselves.

Add to this, waves of across-the-board staffing cuts, increasing class sizes and requiring certain administrators to wear multiple function hats.  These measures all have helped but still are not nearly enough to get them where they need to be.  Further, these measures are risky in terms of causing a deterioration of the quality of education, assuming we are continuing to do education exactly as we have done before.

Getting back to my conversation with the school district superintendents – these hard-working and dedicated professionals all feel they are already as ‘Lean’ as they can get!  And without saying it outwardly, were probably wondering just who am I (Ron Crabtree) to suggest there is a lot more that can be done to reduce the cost of public education without sacrificing the desired outcomes we are looking for?

All that said, one of the superintendents who had just accepted the superintendent job at a successful school district in another part of Michigan did indicate an interest.  I gave all of them a copy of our book, Driving Operational Excellence and suggested they read chapter 23 “Challenges for the Future”, written specifically with public education in mind.  This chapter was written by James Hardin, a 40-year veteran of public education and a passionate student of OpEx.

After a few months, that one superintendent reached out to me to take me up on my offer of a free assessment of their district.  After he carefully confirmed we truly were offering to do our organizational opportunity assessment at no cost, he welcomed us to his school district to see what they are doing and offer any recommendations we could to help.

Our assessment process examines people and culture, processes and enabling technologies.  More details about these components include:  interviewing school employees at all levels in all functions – with a series of questions that we have carefully developed over the years to learn about the culture of the district and employee opinions about their work; what’s hard, levels of teamwork present, where things can be improved and what they see as roadblocks to change.  During process reviews, we interview subject matter experts in a high-level review of key processes in administration and teaching, the areas where the biggest short-term opportunities exist for improvements and further cost reductions.  We also conduct a detailed review of the financial aspects of the district – to understand where the money is spent and to get a directional idea of the probable financial impact of a full OpEx/LSS deployment.

Along the way, we interviewed more than 20 individuals in all functions and at all levels.  We have also reviewed several of their administrative-related processes like enrolling new students and handling employee benefits.

We learned that there are in fact many areas where significant improvements can be made to reduce the cost of operations without sacrificing the quality of the desired outcomes.  Here are some examples:

  • Even though the bus drivers have been outsourced to reduce payroll and retirement costs, there is much that could be done to reduce the total cost of transportation, which includes the equipment, maintenance, and fuel.
  • Though janitorial and building maintenance has been privatized, what further savings could be realized with applying concepts like Total Productive Maintenance and Overall Equipment Effectiveness from the Lean tool box?
  • In our digital age, the district still pumps out millions of pieces of paper every year from their print shop operations – to the tune of more than $250,000 per year. Moving to a paperless approach would create recurring savings to offset the cost of technology.
  • None of the administrative processes are documented or mapped-out so that efficiencies can be identified. There are virtually no measurements at the process level that can be used to support continuous improvement.  For example, the new student enrollment process involves over 20 steps involving expensive and overworked school counselor staff.  In just a simple audit we can easily see the total cost of enrollment from a labor expense perspective can be reduced 50% or more.  This can easily be accomplished without any sacrifice to the quality of the enrollment and the resulting ‘customer satisfaction’ realized.  Add to this that every school in the district has a different process and requirements, none of which are documented and it’s easy to see that this is not a simple thing to address without some hard work examining and questioning the current state process.
  • Listening to the process of handling the necessary documentation and process revolving around scheduling and paying substitute teachers made me all itchy and scratchy. Even though some of the process is automated, there is still a lot of manual paperwork and decision making involved with plenty of mistakes being made.  This results in a lot of ‘double checking’ and later, adjusting entries to get the financial data right.  How much of this adds value?  Beyond the requirements to make sure that we have the right substitutes in the right rooms at the right time – not much of this process adds any real value.
  • Even though this district is above average in its use of technology to boost learning efficiency, there is much yet to do to handle the mundane stuff like grading student papers and tests. There is still a huge amount of manual recording required with current methods to capture student achievement and other funded and unfunded mandates for information.  As teachers described their day and the kinds of things that frustrate them, I could not but wonder . . . If we still made products in America as we did 80 years ago – what kind of results would we have today?  That answer is obvious – there would be zero manufacturing jobs in the United States today.  Without getting into a political soap-box position here, one has to wonder if the way we educate is not due for a serious overhaul to make it relevant to the modern realities.  That’s all a great topic for a future ezine I think, and certainly, THE most difficult problem to tackle in public education – bar none.

During my first introductory meeting with the school board members, I posed this question:  What would you do if you found it was possible to do everything you are doing today, with no decrease in education outcomes or enrollment, with 30% of the administrative and support employees in your school district?

To my elation, they did not shrink from this question due to fear of political or other kinds of fall-out.  What they did do is give some careful thought to how, as the ‘leadership’ and ‘board of directors’ of the school district, they would want to manage that kind of change.  Since this is a developing story, I plan to share more about how this develops down the road.

In the meantime, if you are interested in collaborating with us on the quest to apply OpEx and LSS in public education, you know how to reach me.

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