My First Grade Teacher Practiced Lean Management

By on October 19, 2017
My First Grade Teacher Practiced Lean Management

Last week, there was one of those windy, rainy days that invite self-reflection. As I looked out my office window, I reflected on the various lessons I’d learned about the ways in which management style impacts employee performance. And for some inexplicable reason my mind shifted to memories of Miss Tinnin, my first grade teacher at Central Elementary School in Ferguson, Missouri.

And I thought about my performance as a student/line worker in her classroom. I was one of her star students. Well, maybe not the star that would have been my buddy, Don. Actually, Miss Tinnin’s class was filled with star performers.
And I started to think about what it was about Miss Tinnin’s method of managing our group of super energetic urchins that turned us into hard workers, absolutely devoted to making her proud of us. We really wanted to be high performers. And most of us were.

Just what did she do to drive this transformation? She was an expert practitioner of the techniques of Lean management. Of course, Miss Tinnin never heard the term “Lean management.” When I was in first grade no one had. Most managers, and many teachers, used command and control management techniques. Miss Tinnin didn’t. So how did her unconscious use of the techniques of Lean management play out in the classroom? Here’s what happened on the “plant floor” in our first grade classroom.

Miss Tinnin understood the importance of “going to the Gemba” – Lean language for the place where work is done. She spent very little time seated behind her desk. She knew that the only way to know how her workers were performing was to observe them in action. She’d walk up and down the classroom rows, talking with each of us individually about the work we were doing.

We weren’t in any way afraid of Miss Tinnin. As a result, we would readily talk with her about problems we were having with the work we were doing. She made the three prime values of Lean, trust, respect, and candor, the guiding characteristics of our classroom. We respected Miss Tinnin because we knew she respected us. We were candid in our interactions with Miss Tinnin because we trusted her.

Miss Tinnin understood the power of “Hansei,” a Lean technique that involves looking back and thinking about past performance and discussing how it could be improved. Early in the school year, Miss Tinnin formed a rhythm band in which all of us were performers. We performed in school assemblies, at Lion’s and Kiwanis Club meetings and other community events. Our initial performances were quite shaky. But each performance was better than the one before. What drove this continuous improvement? It was the power of Hansei. After each performance, Miss Tinnin would assemble us in a circle in the classroom and we’d talk about our performance. We’d discuss what went well and what needed to be improved. Because we respected and trusted Miss Tinnin we weren’t afraid to talk about problems that we had had. Through the power of continuous improvement, driven by these Hansei sessions, we became quite good and in May of the year we performed on KMOX radio.

The work we did in her classroom was the epitome of “smooth flow.” Miss Tinnin was acutely aware of the value of time. She was also aware of the importance of keeping her little workers continually engaged in the process of learning. The work we did moved smoothly from one lesson to another. There was no waste of time in her classroom.

Miss Tinnin had never heard of 5S and its function in creating lean, orderly, and clean work environments, but her classroom could have passed any 5S Workplace Scan with flying colors. All of the tools and supplies we needed to do our work were very neatly arranged around our work area. The room was set up that way when we came into it. Over time, an interesting thing happened. More than a few of us had come into her classroom with little awareness of the importance of order. Some had been raised in families where disorder was the order of business. They changed and by mid-year we were all 5S practitioners, insisting upon keeping our classroom lean, orderly, and clean.

So what’s to be learned from this story? Here’s what it means to me. Miss Tinnin’s management practices worked because they were attuned to the human spirit. Just as Lean management practices are. She created a work environment filled with high degrees of trust, respect, and candor. On the other hand, Command and Control management techniques depend upon brute force to work. And without it, over time they don’t work. They are aberrant practices, out of tune with the working of the human brain.

The techniques Miss Tinnin used to drive high levels of performance in her classroom are precisely those techniques that drive high levels of productivity and product quality in companies who have been transformed by the power of Lean thinking and work processes.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of Lean training and consulting resources that will drive the kind of championship performance seen in Miss Tinnin’s First Grade Rhythm Band. I’d value the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these resources. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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