School Bureaucracy: The Flattening of Structure: Muda, Muri, and Mura

Building on last week’s introduction to the history of the Toyota revival following the Second World War, and its use of the thinking of Edward Deming, this post explores some of the managerial concepts that have been key ingredients to the Japanese automobile mastery of international markets, which may in turn provide fertile ground for school reorganization and teacher revival in this country.

A key concept in the Japanese management philosophies derived from the teaching of Edward Deming is the effort to eliminate waste, as a way of building profit. Three sub-concepts drive the hunt for waste in the production system — muda, muri, and mura. I thank Wikipedia for the following explications.

Muda roughly translates as an examination of the manufacturing process for “non value adding work.” If certain motions and processes are identified as not adding value, then they are to be eliminated. Those who exist in particularly rigid school bureaucracies may nod knowingly. Though in my personal school circumstances I can’t say I do a lot that I don’t think arguably adds some value, partly because of my own decisions, some of what I do is more valuable than other uses of my time. Perhaps in our financially strapped profession, muda would also ask what are the highest values in our hierarchy of tasks? Lower value adding tasks would be sacrificed in favor of higher value adding tasks.

While this concept may be more clearly applied to profit oriented manufacture than to student learning, its philosophical underpinnings could profitably undergird how we spend our time and energies in schools. As it is, new duties chronically are assigned on top of previous ones, and inevitably priorities are made via whatever is the latest program or initiative du jour. Because there is only so much staff time and energy available, older practices that may hold higher value simply sink into the tar pit. I see little systemic effort to evaluate priorities, or to identify the highest added value within a menu of possible activities.

“Muri” translates as overburden, unreasonableness to the point of absurdity. Here I laugh. This one I definitely relate to. I scramble into too much of my own personal time to complete the heavy load of tasks on my professional plate, and now our central office, via our principal, has downloaded a new responsibility that will either simply not get done, get done shoddily, or replace something else that itself may have higher value.

The contrary wisdom in muri is that such overburden leads to shoddy workmanship, poor production, problems with worker morale, and the like. This is not a union call to equitable working conditions, but an overt recognition by management that an overburdened worker is a liability to the efficiency of manufacture, while a worker challenged within a system in which it is more possible to do his or her part becomes an asset. How enlightened this seems from inside the belly of the beast I inhabit.

Note the inherent respect for the worker, and the recognition that the guts of the enterprise is on the factory floor. I argue that the guts of the school is within the classroom and within the teachers’ purvey, a concept which gets lip serviced somewhat these days, but I suspect a great majority of line staff  would respond much as I have just above.

“Mura” refers (if I understand it correctly) to the synchronization of systems within the production process so as to reduce the waste of over inventory on one hand, and on the other hand the waste of down time in one unit of production while the preceding unit catches up. True that kids and learning do not readily fit into this system of thinking as well as do widgets. But once again some useful inferences can be drawn for the benefit of schools.

One inference involves an implicit paradigm shift from hierarchical communication, so familiar to school bureaucracies, to systemic communication, which engages multiple way communication both horizontally and vertically. In an oversimplified industrial example, personnel on the final assembly line and those who operate the separate production line that makes the engines have to be on the same wave length so that each line synchronizes its production pace with the other. In a school, teachers of freshman need to communicate with teachers of seniors so that the younger students learn the building blocks they will need as seniors. Similarly, the discipline and teaching of a wayward student requires the consultation of teacher and administrator. The administrator enthralled with his new program needs to hear the concerns of the teacher who recognizes the value of the idea but already feels under water without the addition of new duties. In each example, a genuinely mutual dialogue may produce an enhanced final product. And so forth.

Further integral in these notions of system is the implicit respect given all levels. If I recognized that I as a principal or superintendent cannot do my job without the full cooperation, intellect, and energies of the people in the systems with which I engage, then I must respect their implicit power to support or sabotage, and if they then produce, I must respect what is essentially my subordinate’s professionalism. I would wager that few of those who work in hierarchies, school or otherwise, feel respected in this way.

It is a short journey from respect given workers/colleagues to putting the onus on management to design systems in which teachers cum workers can be successful. Put another way, managers in such a philosophy recognize their task is to “fix the system”, not the people.

The tendency to blame both up and down the hierarchy is muted by the systemic approach. The finger is less likely to be pointed at one or another, but the question becomes, “how can we work together to produce a higher level outcome.” Teamwork is the norm, is in fact the lifeblood of a systems approach.

Parenthetically, in the family therapy world, there exists a centrifugal tendency in dysfunctional families to blame the parent, or to blame the kid, or the step parent, ad infinitum. A systems approach mutes these upward cycling accusations by working to refine the family system, which is seen as the cause of the dysfunction in the lives of the individuals, rather than some flaw in the individuals themselves.

Finally, back to respect given to all human elements of the organizational process. This need not mean the abdication of managerial prerogative, but does describe a kind of dialectic, worker and manager, teacher and principal, engaged in an in depth dialogue about the work at hand, in which each unique perspective is exposed to the other in a mutual challenge and response, with the notion that the ultimate implementation will represent more than the sum of the parts. James Womack, a founder of what is called the Lean Enterprise Institute, as I mentioned earlier as an offshoot of the Deming/Toyota partnership, put it thus:

“The manager after all doesn’t just say ‘I trust you to solve the problem because I respect you. Do it your way and get on with it.’ And the manager isn’t a morale booster, always saying, ‘Great job!’ Instead the manager challenges the employees every step of the way, asking for more thought, more facts, and more discussion, when the employees just want to implement their favored solution.”

“Over time I’ve come to realize that this problem solving process is actually the highest form of respect. The manager is saying to the employees that the manager can’t solve the problem alone, because the manager isn’t close enough to the problem to know the facts. He or she truly respects the employees’ knowledge and their dedication to finding the best answer. But the employees can’t solve the problem alone either because they are often too close to the problem to see its context and they may refrain from asking tough questions about their own work. Only by showing mutual respect – each for the other and for each other’s role – is it possible to solve problems, make work more satisfying, and move organizational performance to an ever higher level”

I could live with that.

The culmination of the paradigm shift is an emphasis on continual improvement. Systems are not static; they are ever in flux. There will not be a point of arrival, but always adjustments to changing conditions of the human or economic environment. While hierarchies tend to stasis, systems with internal communications have a better chance of making adjustments to changing economic conditions. In the case of schools, the adjustments might be to alterations in the funding environments or to the subtle differences between individual kids’ needs.

Sounds almost utopian, and I assume falls prey to all the interpersonal foibles to which the species succumbs. Yet as a system in the perpetual making, in a competitive setting where failure to succeed means the death of the organization, this philosophy has had demonstrable success in the Toyota post second world war “miracle”.

With modest progress, but still in a statistical scorched earth environment metaphorically related to post war Japan, would not American schools benefit from some absorption of the principles that lifted Toyota to its heights? Some would argue that such cooperative enterprise is more fitted to a communitarian culture such as the Japanese, and less so to the American ethic of the isolated struggle. If that is to be the argument, then apparently it is no wonder that the Japanese auto makers have come to dominate the world automobile market, and in recent revivals their American counterparts have found it useful to borrow some of the same philosophy, as we shall see in subsequent posts.

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