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Christopher Martin


Kindergarten Kaizen

In the classroom we take our first steps toward continuous improvement

Published: Thursday, September 14, 2017 - 11:03

It’s said that the first five years of children’s lives are important to their future development and growth. Most of that is spent at home with parents and loved ones, before children are thrust into the first stage of their next 13 years of development: kindergarten. Being a parent of two youngsters, it didn’t take me long to notice that children are exposed to the wonderful world of continuous improvement almost immediately after stepping into the classroom. But it’s up to us to not only help them sustain it, but also to be aware of, and acknowledge, the process.

Classrooms are a tour de force of common techniques we talk about regularly at Quality Digest. They have to be; after all, one classroom can have as many bodies as a small business, each one producing work and learning new skills on a daily basis, and all of it must be tracked meticulously. A teacher lives or dies by her system of keeping tabs on what student has turned in which assignment, as well as grades, class participation, and attendance—and that’s not even taking into account tracking a year’s worth of lesson plans and work that absolutely must be achieved to stay on schedule and meet strict state and national education requirements.

However, I’m more focused on the experience for the students themselves. Look around just about any classroom, and you’ll find dozens of small examples of techniques used by any business striving for continuous improvement. For my kids alone, I’ve seen shadow board-like setups for the kinders, helping them remember where to put back the glue and scissors; kanban boards for older students (and the teacher!) to track their weekly progress; even the equivalent of a plan-do-check-act process for those dreaded group projects that students are tasked with setting up.

A classroom’s layout is full of wonderful, creative ideas to help kids find what they need efficiently, and to save the teacher as much time as possible to focus on the actual instructing. One classroom I visited had a self-serve check-in for the students, with cards they flipped around to indicate their attendance, rather than having to go through an agonizing and time-consuming roll call. This has the extra benefit of enforcing some personal responsibility first thing in the morning. Another class similarly avoided roll call by having the seating arrangement in groups of four; any group missing a member would simply announce the absence of a student to quickly take roll.

How about an iPad docking center (yes, some classrooms have iPads now) that includes a spot for each iPad to easily identify if one was missing, along with a charging cord mounted with an ever-useful binder clip. If a student wants to use one, he must produce his attendance card to check it out. Even something as simple as hanging useful information on the wall that can be easily referenced from any desk in the room goes a long way in improving the learning experience and saving time.

Though they might not recognize the term, every teacher should be familiar with the gemba walk because they all do it. Even as adults we can remember back to the days of quietly working on an assignment, only to suddenly feel the teacher’s gaze peering over our shoulder and assessing our work. Of course, our dread was misplaced because the instructor would simply take the opportunity to offer constructive feedback as the work was being done in the moment, rather than waiting to correct it later.

How about hoshin kanri, the technique to ensure that the strategic goals of a project or policy are carried out companywide? Last year my son’s fourth grade class put on an impressive stage production that required several months of planning and practice. Everything from the costume design, the music, and the choreography was handled by the students themselves. While it’s unlikely that a class would use a traditional matrix, which you’d see put in place by a business initiating the concept, a rudimentary chart was effectively used to keep track of deadlines and milestone goals along the way, and every student was involved with a unique task, each contributing to the final production.

The play was about Sherlock Holmes, pirates, and petrology. It was wonderful.  

Of course, I can’t forget my favorite, the 5 Whys, although I admit that this tool is used most often by me to find out why my son didn’t get his homework in on time, but still! It doesn’t take long for a kid to realize that they are complaining about something that, in the long-run, was avoidable if they had looked at the big picture from the start.

This is all largely invisible to the kids, however. Sure, they understand the processes of their classroom and the goals, but they don’t necessarily realize what’s happening and how efficient these techniques actually are. I know this because of their absolute, colossal failure to translate any of these techniques to home life, whether it be homework, projects, or daily chores.

“Dad, I can’t find my pencil.”

Enough was enough. At the rate my son lost his pencils, you’d think they were a scarce object desired by all, snatched up by an adjacent kid the second my son looked away. Since he’s in the fifth grade, it certainly seemed an appropriate time to teach him the beauty of 5S, and explain to him not just what we were doing, but why.

We started simply, with his backpack. Erasers, sharpeners, crumpled up wads of paper, food wrappers, books, and assignments—from last year—all filled the bottom of this abyss, so after sorting (aka trashing) most of the items, we moved to straightening up, and the rest of the “S’s” followed naturally.

Starting with a basic empty binder, we customized it with dividers (each with a set amount of paper), and colored tabs for each section, which would then be labeled by subject. From there, we added two project folders that could hook onto the three-ringed setup; one would be used for paperwork that he was bringing home for good, and the other would be used specifically for homework that was to be completed that night. For good measure, we included a one-page planner for keeping track of important dates and assignments, and a handy, clear pouch. This last was crucial; in this, he would not only store his essentials (pencils, erasers, lead, calculator), but he could also see at a glance what was in it and immediately know if something was missing or needed replacing.

Sort, straighten, shine, standardize. That’s 4S... the only one left is sustain, which at this point is yet to be determined. It’s a simple start, but an important one that I hope can bridge the gap between classroom efficiencies and waste at home.

Next, we’re considering a kanban board for chores, and a complete overhaul of toy storage and clean-up... but for now we’ll see if he can keep track of those pesky pencils.


About The Author

Christopher Martin’s picture

Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin is an account manager at Quality Digest and a freelance journalist in his nonexistent spare time. With roots in covering the entertainment industry, he has expanded his reporting to include the ever-growing and ever-important role of quality management in everyday life.  


Great analogy

I simply did not realize how much of kaizen is taught at such an early age. Shadow boards! Well, of course. I can see this article being used by a corporate trainer, saying to a class of employees "If kindergartners can use this techniques to produce better quality, don't you think we should use them in our factory?" Very creative look at kaizen. Thank you.

Kindergarten Kaizen

Nice article.  Reminds me of a piece of paper my son brought home from kindergarten 15 years ago or so.  It was sort of a work instruction, with illustrations of "not quality", "almost quality" and "quality" work for coloring, making letters, etc.  I still have it as an example of how, no matter the job, there can be documentation of how to do it correctly.