Lean Management

A fascinating read about ‘lean management’ techniques, as applied in public schools. Check it out at Jacobin, written by Will Johnson.

The team concept is a critical component of lean production. In lean workplaces, labor journalist Jane Slaughter writes, worker teams are designed to enlist workers “in speeding up their own jobs… It is no longer enough for workers to come to work and do their jobs; they need to become ‘partners in production.’”

School managers promote teams as empowering for teachers; according to management, they give teachers a say in how their schools are run. In reality, these meetings highlight how little control teachers have over their time and workload at lean schools. Morning meetings can be particularly miserable, as teachers desperate for preparation time are forced to sit through an agenda focused on management concerns. In fact, the apparent purpose of teacher teams is to shift administrative workload onto teachers.

Sound familiar, arts administrators? The next section caused me to spit out my drink. Sorry white shirt.

In Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept, Jane Slaughter and Mike Parker note that production in U.S. factories was traditionally supposed to keep moving 24/7. Breakdowns were considered crises. In a lean factory, however, supervisors speed up the production process until a worker drops a widget, loses a finger, or has a nervous breakdown. Such breakdowns are viewed as a positive because they allow management to identify weak links in the chain of production. As Slaughter and Parker write, “If the system is stressed…the weakest points become evident…Once the problems have been corrected, the system can then be further stressed (perhaps by reducing the number of workers) and then rebalanced.” The line can then be sped up again until the next breakdown occurs.

I had never thought about this concept in relationship to human productivity, but this feels so familiar.


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