While I was blogging this past weekend at Startup Weekend EDU Santa Clara, one idea crystallized even more for me the lean mode of thinking should be applied more frequently to school administration.  (If you want a brush up on lean thinking, here’s an earlier blog.)

I don’t need to convince Startup Weekend participants that they should follow a lean startup model—that’s what much of this past weekend was about.  Most teams struggled with defining their problem statements and refining their solution because doing this kind of work is hard and time consuming. It’s much easier to stay madly in love with your original startup idea.

Our LessonCast Learning team has spent hours working to define a single problem that we’re trying to solve, only to return to it again and again as we infuse new learning into our understanding of the problem. Still, it’s worth it. Until a problem is properly defined, it’s almost impossible to know if what you’re implementing is solving something.

Lean thinking clearly applies to launching a startup but I’m also going to be more deliberate about applying this philosophy during my work with my school district.

Many times the reason that decisions aren’t made is because the problems haven’t been clearly defined. Many great ideas bubble up; those ideas that are implemented usually happen because someone was able to persuade the right people to move it forward.

What would be more valuable—and rarely occurs—is for school administrators (including central office staff) to focus on defining the problems more clearly first. This past year our school system had each school and office complete a comprehensive needs assessment based on quantitative and qualitative data, which is a good start, but doesn’t completely capture what we need to be capturing.

Some common problems are never defined narrowly enough. For example, many school districts have students who are struggling readers.  There are many intervention strategies out there—outside programs, professional development, changing the organizational structure, adding instructional coaches, creating literacy campaigns.

However, a school can’t know which solution meets its needs best until the problem is more narrowly defined. For example, what’s the problem when some students struggle to read?

  • It is because the material doesn’t engage them?
  • Because their home situations are distracting?
  • Because they have gaps in learning?
  • Because they have learning differences?
  • Because they can’t focus because they’re hungry? Tired?
  • Aren’t in school enough because of suspensions?
  • Can’t sit still all day?
  • There are high rates of lead in their houses?
  • Because it’s not cool to enjoy reading?

We rarely take the time to dig this deep. Until we do, how are we supposed to recognize which solution is the best one to solve our problem?  If students aren’t focused because they’re hungry, that’s a very different solution than a student has a learning difference. In the first example, the solution would involve getting access to nutritious food for students. In the second, students would be tested to determine needs and a range of supports could be implemented. If the material isn’t engaging, then curriculum and instruction need to be addressed.

Lean thinking has the potential to focus on our limited resources on solving the real problems as well allowing us to see what works and what doesn’t more quickly and more efficiently.