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Friday, March 30, 2012 - Does everything really matter? Using 5S for guidance
Shannon Flumerfelt, Ph.D. Endowed Professor of Lean, Pawley Lean Institute
Director of Lean Thinking for Schools, Pawley Lean Institute

Educators are wired to care about people. In schools, caring tends to be embedded in a cultural norm where it is the normal course of business to "reach them and teach them." On a daily basis, educators are involved in a cycle of making decisions and interacting with people driven by the ethic of caring.

Caring is expressed as a clearly defined attribute by educators, yet operationally, caring engenders some complexity for administrators. This is because the norm of caring can produce dilemmas for school leaders.

For example, educators may struggle with deciding how to choose which program to cut, given that all programs meet the needs of some. Or school leaders may feel uncertain about how much time to allocate to a problem, given that all problems represent the concerns of some. And yet, given that funding and time are scarce resources, decisions regarding spending have to be made and solutions to problems have to be deployed that will benefit some over others.

What this all boils down to is that educational leaders carry the burden to create responses that signal caring, yet still have to make forced choices that signal the opposite. In Lean, key paradigms, such as respect for people, pervade decision making of this sort, founded on the ethic of caring.

As educators work to ensure that caring is preserved, they often feel bound to respond to everything. The dynamics of this approach can become very stressful and confusing without some guidance, for there is no end to the ways that caring can be expressed in actions and decisions.

Consider a district where every administrator is handling every matter under the paradigm of respect for people and under the ethic of caring and translating that to mean that any person, any matter, any problem receives unregulated amounts of time and energy. This is a very common occurrence in schools where teachers and administrators find that their caring dispositions drive them to blind and unhealthy allocations of resources, time and energy.

After a while, this path can lead educators down a black hole where time warps and senses are altered to parameters of infinity. The educator is left with the reality of never filling the gaping holes and falling short of the ethic of caring. Therefore, there has to be a way to express that ethic authentically within the confines of resources available to be able to respond to the question, “Does everything really matter?”

To provide some guidance on the question, the Lean tool, 5S, can be very helpful. The 5S tool can be a minor technique or a major organizational strategy for creating guidance as a response to the ethic of caring. 5S is a five-step process of working your way through complex situations and getting to stabilized and sustained best practice. The five steps are: sorting (prioritizing what is value added and what is not), setting (establishing categories or themes of work), shining (making sure that the first two steps are value added by creating guidance), standardizing (scaling up the guidance), and sustaining (implementing the guidance regularly).

If you can imagine all of your challenges, tasks and problems sitting on top of your desk in a heap at the beginning of the day, this is a way to begin to use the 5S process within the ethic of caring. Also, imagine that all of your teammates also face a similar challenge with a shared pile of challenges, tasks and problems sitting on a departmental desk. Let’s walk through the steps that you individually and you and your team collectively can use to make sense of this pile.

First, by sorting through that pile (sorting), identify what work does align with caring and what does not. Set aside the work that does not align. On a team level, sorting means agreeing about what is of strategic or tactical importance and what is not in regard to the ethic of caring.

Next, for the work that does align with caring, set that work into categories based on themes (setting), such as instructional or operational, or priorities such as urgent or important. On a team level, a similar step is required, of filtering the value added elements into categories based on functional areas or delegated priorities.

For the third step, try working through one or more of the categories, critically looking for ways to streamline and improve the work (shining). On a team level, examine where redundancies are occurring and where things are working well and make adjustments to improve the flow and results.

For the fourth step, ensure that the 5S work is being done and that regular routines are emerging (standardizing). For the team application, make sure that everyone is trained and following the emerging protocols.

Finally, continue to engage in the work as prescribed by the previous steps (sustaining). On a team level, ensure that accountability is high so that the established venue continues.

As the 5S Lean tool is used – sorting, setting, shining, standardizing and sustaining – chances are that you will begin to distinguish a surprising finding. That is, doing everything for everybody all of the time is an approach that is loaded with waste – an approach that keeps you from realizing that everything does matter as an ethic of caring.

Instead, you will begin to understand the benefits of the guidance that emerges from the 5S process in terms of enhancing the realization that everything of value does matter as an ethic of caring. What is proposed here is that the 5S Lean tool, a simple protocol for creating clarity in your work, can help you to heighten your ethic of caring. For more information on Lean Thinking for Schools, visit