Kaizen Education: What can school leaders learn from a world-leading Japanese car company?

Phil Denton CEO Evaluate-Ed, comes from a career in Headship, here he discusses the Kaizen approach to improvement and how Evaluate-Ed can assist you with the implementation of this to achieve your goals.

The approach to school review and improvement – evaluation to excellence – is something that can transform a school’s performance. When this activity becomes a daily habit, with shared language and agreed goals, improvement every day can be a reality for schools. In the world of car manufacturing, improvement is essential in order to keep ahead of the competition and ensure that practices within the organisation are cost effective. The principles employed by one of the world’s leading car companies, Toyota, can help school leaders enhance their school’s performance. 

As a Headteacher, I was fortunate to work with Premier League football managers, business leaders and Education leaders. The more I sat with these leaders, the more I came to appreciate that they had a clear vision, values and, just as importantly, they had rigorous routines that helped them work towards these goals every day. For many schools, the school improvement plan or self-evaluation form is intended to be the document that details where they are at and where they are going in a strategic sense. All too often, however, these documents can be debated, devised and delivered only to sit on a shelf for 3 months until the next governing body meeting or a time in which they are required for external review.

More and more organisations are utilising a Japanese approach called ‘Kaizen’.  Kaizen is a compound of two Japanese words that together translate as “good change” or “improvement.” Together, the two components refer to positive continuous change. The world-famous car company, Toyota, has this philosophy at the very heart of their production and manufacturing lines. They translate this philosophy into their mantra, ‘Always a Better Way’. It is the underpinning philosophy of Evaluate-Ed, a platform designed to bring Kaizen to Education.

For Toyota, Kaizen has been an approach which has maximised quality of performance and products, eliminated waste, and improved efficiency both in terms of equipment and work. The basis for this continuous improvement, or Kaizen approach, is not a team of senior leaders that are all-knowing experts. Rather, the process humanises the workplace and empowers individuals to identify areas for improvement and offer practical suggestions. For example, where there is an issue on the Toyota production line, any member of the team has the ability to pull a lever which stops the entire line.

The continuous improvement is delivered through daily huddles, or a Kaizen blitz. In these meetings, individuals review their particular areas and discuss ways to maximise performance and reduce waste in activity or time. Importantly, it then becomes the responsibility of these individuals to make the changes that will then improve their particular area. In order to bring this approach to life, Kaizen involves 6 key steps which facilitate continuous improvement.

The 6 steps to a Kaizen school

1. Staff Involvement

Whatever the area for development, the Kaizen approach is to involve the people that will be making these changes. The foundation for the change is ensuring that there is a realisation that the change needs to happen at first. For example, if there is an issue with waste management in the school, the Kaizen approach is to ensure that the site team, kitchen team and office staff are aware of this. The responsibility is then passed on to them to find the solution rather than this being a leadership directive.

In the classroom, a frequent issue faced by schools can be lateness to lessons. This will often involve the very students who need the time in the lesson to further their learning and their late arrival can be disruptive to the learning of others. A Kaizen approach would be to sit with teachers and to discuss how this can be tackled. The Evaluate-Ed process allows for this with a series of questions that assess the performance of key areas. A solution is agreed and then it is the responsibility of the teachers, support staff and leadership team to carry out this approach with frequent reviews and adjustments. All of the aforementioned, is punctuated by frequent huddles or team discussions to review and revise the approach.

2. Gather a list of problems

People have varied priorities and they place differing levels of importance on the issues that will concern a school. It is, therefore, important, before setting about problem solving the first issue raised, to gather the range of key issues that the school is facing. A widespread gathering of issues and opportunities is fundamental to ensure that people feel heard at the very beginning of the deliberate process.

3. Encourage solutions and then choose an idea

The whole aim of Kaizen is to be improvement solution focussed. The process, therefore, quickly moves to discussing and then choosing solutions to tackle the issues that have been raised. The underpinning acceptance here must be that any given solution may not achieve the desired outcome. It is the role of the team to plan thoroughly, implement with commitment, monitor systematically, and review with honesty but without ego!

An improvement planner, built into Evaluate-Ed, provides schools with this systematic support to plan, do and review.

4. Test the solution

How the solution will be tested needs to be agreed when the solution is put into action. The Kaizen approach uses objective measures which can be reviewed and reflected upon to ascertain the success of the approach. For example, if the issue is lateness to school and the solution is an immediate consequence for lateness, the data relating to punctuality is the key measure of success. If the issue is lunch time queue waiting times, then the reduction of this time is the key measure. As a result, the objective of the solution focussed work or Kaizen approach is clear. Once again, it is important that the test is just that and is not a process which guarantees success. 

5. Analyse the results

Quite simply, the data or information relating to the issue identified is then measured to see if the desired effect has been achieved. If not, the solution is not adopted, and if it has been successful then it is adopted. Though this process sounds simple, there are many ideas in Education and beyond that are adopted because they seem like a good idea. For example, learning styles of students often coined in the acronym VAK. This flawed research resulted in the adoption of approaches to teaching which, had they been tested thoroughly, would not have received such credence in the sector.

6. Regularly repeat this process

The Kaizen approach can be built into your working week. Whether it be daily leadership team huddles, weekly departmental huddles or network team huddles. Every team can adopt this same approach in order to continually review, revise and repeat.

The pros and cons of Kaizen

King Kaizen

Kaizen is an approach focussed on gradual, manageable improvement. It moves significantly away from the hard launch of the school improvement plan at the beginning of the year which requires significant change from 1 September. Kaizen is, in many ways, a subtler approach that endeavours to avoid the resistance of the school team who have been weary with the annual changing of strategies and approaches.

The approach seeks to improve morale because there is a belief in individual responsibility and capability. There is heightened sense of the value of individual members of staff. As Dan Pink writes in Drive, maximum motivation of team members is created in environments that foster ‘Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose’. The Kaizen approach taps into all three aspects of this philosophy.

As the practice and routines of individuals improve, this can be celebrated but perhaps more importantly the enjoyment of the workday increases greatly. There is a sense of collective responsibility but also an individual development which is rewarding for those creating this change. Kaizen is also dependent on teamwork and discussion. With increased teamwork and communication, the workplace can become more cohesive as well as competent.

School leaders can also be clearer on the work that individuals and teams are collectively working towards. It also becomes clearer when someone is not working towards the shared goal. This can then be explored through the line management processes with more objectivity.

Systems can then also be introduced to ensure that Kaizen is a daily task, not a beginning of your SIP or termly SEF review. Kaizen can become the norm and something which drives the performance of individuals, internal school teams and the entire school community.

Questions about Kaizen

For schools that do not have cultures that have positive relationships amongst the departments, it may be that that work needs to be done on this area first. It may be that mediation or role clarification is required in order to give the Kaizen approach an opportunity to be established and then thrive.

It is pivotal that Kaizen is built into the school calendar in order that it does not just achieve short-term benefits and then fizzles out. It needs to be explained at length to all staff and then a plan for adoption must be clearly set out.

Alternatively, a case study can be created by trialling Kaizen in one particular area before it is adopted school-wide.

Seeing Kaizen with your eyes

Toyota does not just accept statistics or the feedback from their workers, the leaders of the organisation utilise an approach referred to as Genchi Genbutsu. Put simply, Go and See For Yourself is aimed at telling leaders that they need to see Kaizen in action in order to praise, revise and discuss with the team ways of continued improvement with a clear understanding of the day-to-day operational realities.

In the Toyota system, this is often the factory floor. In school, walking the corridors, carrying out the lunch duties, observing lesson change overs and walking through the classrooms should all be part of the process. The problems identified or perhaps not seen by those working at the chalk face, can be seen and understood through observation and more informal discussion.

Genchi Genbutsu does not just happen. Like Kaizen, it needs to be built into the week with observations and walk arounds being deliberate acts that are monitored and reviewed. Whether it is a schedule or a system of collating the intelligence collected, information needs to be collected so that it can be used to inform the ongoing work around Kaizen.

Laying the foundations for continual change

With both Kaizen and Genbutsu, a consensus for change makes both facets of this process something which becomes a cultural norm. In order for this to be achieved, Toyota work to a principle of Nemawashi.

Nemawashi refers to the groundwork for building consensus. The process involves sharing the idea for change, gaining feedback and opinions. The literal translation means ‘going to the roots’. Having a deep understanding of the opinions of the team allows people to feel heard and opinions to at least be understood.

Beyond simply understanding peoples’ thoughts on a change or approach, leaders can understand their teams more by speaking informally, gaining knowledge on their families and circumstances. While people will often have disagreements about individual decisions, relationships are fundamental to the success of any approach to organisational improvement.

Over the last 3 years, I have been part of a team working to develop a platform to support the successful implementation of Kaizen. Evaluate-Ed is that system. The platform offers leaders the opportunity to get a deep understanding of their school. It then supports leaders with evaluation reports and an improvement planner that can structure school improvement. Beyond that, we have an incredible team of experts ready to support schools with their improvement journeys.  



Phil comes from the role of Headteacher and is also an author, having written ‘The First 100 Days’, a story about what we can learn from Premier League managers about being successful over your first 100 days in a role and beyond. Phil has had several articles published in the SecEd magazine.

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