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20 Oct, 2020 - 3 min read

Coping with crises through lean and agile thinking

During 2020, we’ve all had to learn to cope with a slowly unfolding crisis that has no obvious end point. Teachers and students have had to move in and out of lockdowns and manage changing circumstances that have disrupted teaching and learning, social and family relations, assessment and qualifications, mental health and financial security. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on education worldwide with learning moved online in many countries.

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School closures caused by COVID-19 (coronavirus) as of September 7th, 2020. Creative commons image by betseg – Own work, CC0

How do we even begin to cope with these challenges? By planning.

The most important step is to recognise that planning is key, even if specific plans have to be thrown out and replaced on the fly. 

As former U.S. President Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.” More recently, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development emphasised the importance of “responding to change over following a plan”.

So, what can help us with having this adaptive mindset? 

Lean thinking, which originated in the Japanese motor industry, may have some useful suggestions to offer. Manufacturing organisations have to be ready for all kinds of crises: a factory burning down, a key supplier going bankrupt, a major overseas customer applying trade tariffs, workers going on strike, a major production fault requiring a recall of thousands of products, a competitor launching a superior product. This list goes on, and all of these could potentially escalate into existential threats.

The mentality of the lean educator is to always plan for things to go wrong in order to get things right. 

In lean systems, there is always a “Hoshin” plan, which sets the direction to be followed if all goes well. However, we also need to be continually aware of what might torpedo our Hoshin plan; we always need a Plan B (and Plan C etc…) in our back pocket. Our planning should build in adaptability and flexibility at incremental change points so we are ready to react to unplanned events. The level of response should also be appropriate – we should not ignore events but neither should we overreact to them.

Having more than one plan is important, but even more important is the way we react in our relationships with others. 

The essential concept is “people first” – making sure there is a chain of help available for all those involved (students, colleagues, whānau etc.). We must be ready to address new problems and keep the communication flowing between all the stakeholders, and re-route the work based on collaboration with those stakeholders. 

The lean educator orchestrates, rather than directs, the response.

Another important aspect of the lean mindset in a crisis is to focus on the potential positives. For example, the enforced move to online learning for many led to concerns that a lack of training, infrastructure and preparation would lead to poor learning experiences and lack of sustainable progress. On the other hand, many have seen it as providing an impetus for new hybrid models of education that may have significant advantages. There are, after all, some clear benefits of online learning. “Research shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom... e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom”. The lean educator develops a mindset of "kaizen" – continuous improvement – but also has to be ready for "kaikaku" – radical change. That is, we always strive to get better, but in a crisis we look for entirely new ways to improve.

In essence, the lean educator handles crises by…

  • Reacting, not overreacting

  • Always having potential problems and other plans in mind 

  • Continuously adapting plans to meet the situation

  • Keeping up communication

  • Collaborating with others

  • Orchestrating rather than directing

  • Identifying the positives in changing practice

  • Looking for learning and teaching moments

As the well known writer in agile methods, Kent Beck suggests, we should always be ready to “embrace change”.