School Bureaucracy: The Flattening of Structure — Deming, Toyota, and Lean Management

Summary: A look at management philosophies from the corporate world that encourage worker input.

So it is the New Year, and we are back in our traces. Vacation in the Florida sun still warms the Northwest gloom to which we’ve returned. A kayak tour in the mangrove tunnels, though Floridian, lends insight to the precarious nature of today’s New Orleans. A sunset on Boca Grande will be one I will describe numerous times in the months ahead – the blue iridescent water, the pink glow around the horizon, the scalloped shadows on the white sand, and magical visits from dolphins just offshore. A heron stalked its way along the sand amid its human, transfixed audience. As with memorable trips in the mountains, the images will return to me in flashbacks for days.

Schools. I did promise to go easy on my complaints about bureaucracy, and instead examine mechanisms that hold promise for “flattening” the bureaucracy, in the parlance of those who think about these things. “Flattening” refers to practices that bring levels of hierarchy into closer communication with one another in various ways, either by limiting distinctions between levels or by self conscious establishment of conversation between levels. In other words, move consciously to render the bureaucracy at least somewhat less bureaucratic, therefore more efficient and creative, less frustrating and corrosive to the spirit. At least that’s the idea.

A fundamental component of the phenomenal rise of Toyota in the years since the Second World War has been the transformation of the Japanese “brand” image from cheap junk to quality product. This metamorphosis goes well beyond image to the substance of the Toyota automobile. For perhaps the last forty years, not only Toyota but Honda and Subaru have set the standard for durable automobiles that just keep on going, while the reliability of comparable American manufactures has lagged.

Ironically, an American industrial organizational expert, Edward Deming, played a key role in this reversal of fortune. Obscure in the early 50’s on this side of the Pacific, he found his audience in Japanese industrial circles more receptive, depleted and devastated by war as they still were. Deming preached a gospel of quality control, of continuous improvement, and of worker contribution to systemic progress. Over the years as Toyota adopted Deming’s principles, those principles seem to have been transformed by language and culture into something uniquely Toyota. In turn in more recent years, American manufacturers, back on their own heels, have taken to studying Toyota’s techniques, among them “quality circles”, which in a triumph of globalism, have been successfully reintroduced onto factory floors in this country. Quality circles recognize the value of input by front line workers in the improvement of both quality of product and efficiency of manufacture.

Through brief research on the internet it is clear that the industrial philosophies and techniques involved are rich and complex, and not subject to easy reduction. Yet that same brief internet survey (abetted by years of eclectic reading on my part) suggests the Toyota experience might hold lessons for school organization.

For example, if it has been important to its rise to industrial might for Toyota to invite input from workers on the factory floor, then might not American schools utilize some of the same mechanism?

Also on the internet I looked for examples of Deming’s thinking applied to school organization, either directly in his name, or through derivatives, though I never in many year’s of reading about education recall having encountered one such reference. The magic of Google brought only a few references, including one from a researcher in North Carolina in 1997 that reported he had found little transference of Deming’s principles to school management orthodoxy.

From my position of partial knowledge (I told you I was dangerous!) it looks as though Deming and Toyota’s principles, also now transformed into something called Lean Management, have seldom crossed the membrane between private and public and fertilized thinking about the organization of American schools, though it may be that enough of their thinking has entered the orthodoxy as to flavor school organization in some places, albeit without direct reference to Deming or Toyota. The Gates Foundation flirted with related ideas in its championing of small schools, but I don’t know if their experiments self-consciously reflected Toyota’s experience. At any rate, Gates seems to have abandoned (to my thinking prematurely) that direction.

By no means do I claim expertise in organizational theory; however, there are aspects of the Deming/Toyota/Lean systems as I read about them that I think hold promise to our thinking about schools and their organization. Simple internet searches of “Edward Deming”, “Toyota Production Systems”, “Lean Management” and related topics such will quickly bring the curious to more of an introduction to these concepts. For example, if you are among the curious, look for concepts of waste reduction and “muri, muda, and mura.” The dive into Deming and Toyota will continue next week with a taste of these principles.

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