Interview from the UK Lean Summit 2015 – Christleton High School

Toyota Lean Management Centre has been supporting the Lean transformation of Christleton High School, near Chester. In this interview for Planet Lean, Head of Student Services Sarah Williams discusses how the experiment started: the improvement of the education delivered to students with special needs.


Planet Lean: What convinced Christleton High School that Lean was the way to go?

Sarah Williams: In January 2013 we were told there would be cuts to our budget and we started to look into opportunities to make the Students Services department more efficient. We would start with training that could help us to identify better ways to manage the department, and I was given a choice between education support and industry support. I picked the latter.

Christleton’s Headteacher had attended a training course at Toyota’s Lean Management Centre (our school is located in Chester, near Toyota’s engine plant in Deeside), and it was they who started to support us in our journey. Our Lean efforts began in September 2013.

PL: How did the implementation of Lean principles and practice start at the school?

SW: Toyota helped us to set our target: turning 10% of our waste into value added, so the first thing we had to do was to identify the waste. We struggled with the process at first, but sent all the necessary documentation and measurements to Toyota, who got back to us with 69 areas of waste. It was decided that our implementation would focus on the identified top 20 of them.

Then we all had an away day with the head teacher, governors, etc., during which we had to choose whatever wastes were the most important for us to eliminate first. Toyota’s advice was to pick those that would give us quick wins first, and only after that move to medium-term and long-term goals. Over the past two years or so, we have worked on quick wins and medium term goals.

Currently, however, the whole focus of the Lean initiative is on the long-term goal of securing direct value added to the learning for students with special needs, which are a responsibility of the Student Services department.

PL: Can you share examples of these quick wins?

SW: One of our biggest wastes was that teaching assistants (TAs) often struggled to find available classrooms. When they finally located one, after wasting 10-15 minutes, they’d often find it locked! One of our first changes was therefore to centrally timetable the TAs to the classrooms. Now they get their own designated classrooms and they all have a set of keys. No more aimless wandering.

Another important change was on access arrangement testing for dyslexic children. It used to take at an absolute minimum 40 hours to assess 40 children, whereas now we are using an online product and we can test the same number of students in just 30 minutes, which leaves 39.5 hours for intervention.

We have also made important inroads in the child protection element of our work. In our school Year Heads (teachers responsible for a full year group of students, with a role that includes for example auditing staff’s training needs or establishing expectations for students’ work and behavior, academic performance, attendance, etc. within the year group) also have a pastoral role: when for example social services became involved in a case, they used to contact either the Year Head or our department. The work was disconnected, and there was no definition of who was doing what. Invariably, when things went seriously wrong that piece of work would land on my desk, but I hadn’t always been engaged in the process so I often ended up spending time looking for paperwork. We established clear roles and responsibilities, and now there are only two key persons responsible for those cases in which social services are involved.

There have been other quick improvements, like the restructuring of meetings. We have shortened them from one hour to 20-30 minutes and we now measure their impact afterwards.

PL: What can you tell me about your goals for the medium term and long term?

SW: Of course these changes will be harder to achieve, because they require a massive shift in mindset. However, we are determined to keep finding more and more ways to add value to the teaching we provide in the classroom, for example by writing curricula that really address our students’ needs.

Thanks to improvements that we are already implementing, we will soon be able to measure how big an impact teaching assistants are having on the learning of math and English, for the first time ever.

We plan to train TAs to deliver the teaching of these subjects more effectively, but we also want to improve their ability to help children develop self-esteem and confidence. We are already on that journey: at the moment we have an external counselor coming in and offering a confidential service to students who might need it, but the school can’t use that information. In the future, our mental health team will be trained to do the job themselves.

PL: What was it like to work with Toyota?

SW: It was difficult, at first, and I felt dumb because we couldn’t understand how Lean could possibly apply to education. When you are a teacher, you are not used to not understanding something! However, once we got started with the kaizen improvements we realized how big an opportunity Lean offered. And I am happy to report that we were successful in turn 10% of our waste into value-adding activities.

PL: What is the most significant change that the Students Services department experienced since the introduction of Lean thinking?

SW: Staff mentality, for sure, and their acceptance of the fact that being busy is no longer enough to know you are doing good work. Now they are aware that there is no point in being busy on a piece of work that is actually wasteful.

We are starting to have more open conversations about what our students need and on how we can deliver more value to them, even though agreeing on what value is can often be a struggle. We still debate sometimes: for instance, we all agree that a lesson is a clear example of value, but what about planning a lesson? Is it value adding or is it necessary but not value adding?

In the end we came to agree that the direct interaction with the child is what constitutes value, and we are going to keep digging to expose all the waste that might lie in those processes – including the lessons. After all, there is nothing you can’t kaizen!