Lean: The Measurably Efficient Musical teaching aids

LEAN in schools is intimately connected to how today’s corporate workplaces are organized. These classroom exercises help students understand and critically analyze the management theories behind Lean.

Modern Times

charlie_chaplin02Lesson plan by Bill Bigelow and Norm Diamond, Zinn Education Project

Level: Grades 6 – 8

This lesson uses Charlie Chaplin’s hilarious classic film, Modern Times, to help students think about the impact of “scientific management” on the workplace.


  • Reel 1 of Modern Times (available in public libraries).
  • Lesson Plan

More lesson plans from Zinn: http://zinnedproject.org/teaching-materials/

Register with the Zinn Education Project for free downloads of this other lesson plans on issues such as work, colonialism, racism, and other social justice issues.


Lesson plan by E. Wayne Ross

Level: K-12 to university level

“The fight in schools today is not merely about the contemporary version of production quotas (i.e. test scores), but as illustrated in Clockwork (and the related readings) the heart of the struggle is about what people will know and how they come to know it – and who makes the decisions.”
E. Wayne Ross

Activity: Students view the film Clockwork with three goals in mind:

  • Identify the basic elements of scientific management.
  • Describe how they are implemented in K-12 schools.
  • Discuss the impact.


  • Clockwork‘ documentary film. (E. Berietbart, producer/director, 1981. Available from California Newsreel).
  • Excerpts from:
    • Bobbitt, F. (2004). Scientific management in curriculum-making. In D.J. Flinders & S.J. Thornton (eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader. (2nd ed. pp. 9-16). New York: Routledge Falmer.
    • Callahan, R. (1962). Education and the Cult of Efficiency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Taylor, F.W. (1911). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Backgrounder: A lean family tree

by P.W. Elliott

The Roots of Lean

Lean is a management system derived from the Toyota Production System, created by Toyota executives between 1948 and 1975 as a way to ‘design out’ waste and inconsistencies on the factory floor. TPS seeks ‘continuous improvement’ – hence all the measuring and counting, to show how much you have improved.

Its roots are in Federick Taylor’s “scientific management” principals (called Taylorism), developed in the 1880s and 1890s, and Henry Ford’s idea of the ever-faster assembly line (called Fordism), developed between 1890 and 1910.

It was Taylor who came up with the idea of following workers around to count their steps and time their movements, and Ford who decided everything should be standardized.

So how did some old manufacturing theories end up in today’s hospitals and classrooms?

New Public Management

In the 1990s, Taylorism (now called Neo-Taylorism) was revived through a movement called New Public Management. This system advocates taking ideas used by private corporations – such as the Toyota and Walmart – and applying them to public services.

New Public Management can effectively identify solveable workplace problems – but it also has an ability to turn human services into assembly lines.TapeHead

Although New Public Management aims to ‘free’ people from Taylorist hierarchies and factories routines of the past, it can’t escape its own roots. A few common outcomes are:

  • Increased workplace surveillance
  • More hours spent filling out forms and measuring things
  • Long meetings to produce groupthink
  • Increased competition among workers, teachers and students
  • An ever-expanding, highly paid managerial class
  • Ever-shrinking, lower paid, deskilled front line staff
  • Distorted results, caused by misleading or false measurements (just ask the leaders of the former Soviet Union, big fans of Taylor’s scientific management!)
  • Privatization of program design and evaluation
  • Leagues of pricey consultants – who inevitably declare everything a roaring success that requires their continued services.

Lean Times in Saskatchewan


In Saskatchewan, New Public Management first arrived in the form of Total Quality Management in the 1980s, followed by Lean in more recent years.

Lean was first introduced in Saskatchewan health care by consultants such as John R. Black, author of The Toyota Way to Healthcare Excellence. It has since been expanded to all provincial ministries and agencies, employing many additional private consultants and firms.

In our schools, Lean is manifested in things such as:

  • Increased reliance on private consultants and copyrighted curriculum
  • Higher demands on teachers to fill out paperwork
  • Less autonomy for teachers to use their experience and knowledge
  • Standardized testing
  • Open concept P3 schools – sold with the promise that office-inspired architecture can close ‘achievement gaps’
  • Cuts to education assistants and support staff
  • Application of Just In Time marketing concepts to school resources; obsession with measuring and eliminating ‘excess capacity,’ leading to school closures and overcrowding.
  • Moving teachers and staff around, so they don’t become ‘specialists’ or form emotional attachments to any particular school community
  • The endless measurement of every aspect of the student’s school day, with a view to eliminating any ‘wasted’ time (muda) that does not immediately connect to achievement data and ‘time on task’ (takt time).

Private corporations create a perfect circle around this, selling software to track student scores, followed by textbooks and lesson plans that promise to close the ‘achievement gaps’ their software reveals, along with standardized testing regimes that ensure such products and services will always be in demand.

Lean has culture-building social customs, such as awarding coloured belts, and its own language, comprised of a mixture of Japanese, German and English terms. To learn more, read A Lean Glossary by 3S Health Saskatchewan.