Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Bringing the Power of Lean to Education

The Des Moines school district has embraced the continuous improvement approach. It's making a lot of progress toward eliminating wasteful practices and transforming performance.

Blond student writing at her desk.
The district has streamlined how high-volume, low-dollar items, such as pencils and paper, are ordered.
(Flickr/Phil Roeder)
Financially strapped and under pressure to stretch strained resources, public school districts share many of the same challenges faced by other government departments to eliminate wasteful practices and utilize resources as effectively as possible. Across the public sector, organizations are tapping into strategies capable of transforming operations, and increasingly they are turning to the process known as Lean, which has its roots in manufacturing and emphasizes a process of continuous improvement.

While the use of Lean in government is not new, its application in the education sector remains relatively untapped. "If you look at the evolution of how Lean has grown, it was really manufacturing, then health care services, then government. And the most recent segment to hit the track is K-12 education," says Harry Kenworthy, manager and principal of the Quality and Productivity Improvement Center (QPIC) and the consulting organization's subsidiary, the Lean Government Center.

One school district that has embraced Lean wholeheartedly and with impressive results is Des Moines, Iowa's. Infused with Lean management principles, the district's continuous-improvement work transfers a common management tool to a new context, establishing the Des Moines Public Schools (DPMS) as a leader in eliminating wasteful practices and transforming performance.

DMPS' chief financial officer, Thomas Harper, and QPIC led the charge for continuous improvement. The district held a two-day training event in 2015, followed by additional Lean events for staff and administrators. Since then, DMPS has implemented strategic efforts on an ongoing basis within its administrative offices -- including creating a Department of Continuous Improvement -- and learned some valuable lessons along the way.

There are currently more than 150 continuous improvement projects in progress or completed by DMPS. The Department of Continuous Improvement website categorizes projects by department, project type and completion status. In tracking project successes, DMPS looks at metrics such as time savings and reduction in handoffs and duplicate work. Some highlights of successes so far include reducing textbook inventory labor costs by $80,000 annually by more fully utilizing current staff and not having to outsource support, and reducing paper timesheet submissions by 97 percent.

DMPS' Lean-informed pilot projects highlight areas affecting a large portion of the district staff, generating substantial buy-in as employees see the positive results of process improvements. In one pilot-turned-long-term project, the district streamlined how high-volume, low-dollar items, such as pencils and paper, are ordered. DMPS removed unnecessary steps and put the system on autopilot to automatically reorder goods. After successfully testing the process with one middle school, the process now is in use by seven schools.

Enthusiasm and effective strategic planning at the top are essential for continuous improvement tools to travel down the chain of command. In Des Moines, Harper's forward thinking and focus on the district's vision and mission propelled the Lean process efforts. "The departments have embraced the model and taken what used to be a very internalized model and are now really thinking about their impact on the schools and how they can best help the people they serve," says Emma Knapp, DMPS' continuous improvement coordinator.

This managerial enthusiasm inspires stronger performance among district employees. Lean processes use a specific coaching approach, converting a new behavior into a habit through deliberative and sustained efforts. Employees are trained to identify elements of waste, incorporate a problem-solving methodology and engage in daily data collection. The more than 100 Lean-trained employees across DMPS departments create a hub-and-spoke model from the Department of Continuous Improvement, empowering departments across the school system to tackle various challenges.

Although DMPS has grown familiar with continuous improvement initiatives, the process is ever-changing and requires attentive effort. The Des Moines schools' combination of managerial commitment, training and meaningful pilot projects presents a comprehensive example of process improvement within a specific public-sector market. As Lean-empowered continuous improvement within education spreads, other school districts can look to DMPS' work to inform their own operational transformations, ultimately supporting efficiency improvement among all citizen-serving public entities.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
Special Projects