Educational Leadership and Modern Assembly Lines

Devin Vodicka

This post was originally published on on January 26, 2020.

At the beginning of the industrial era, American schools were re-designed to align with the needs of the emerging workforce and economy.  As a result, education became mass produced and our systems and structures in many ways resembled the principles of industrial manufacturing.  One such example is the use of an assembly line model within which specialization of labor allows for the processing of “large lots” with a focus on efficiency for the workers.  While this model has been shown to improve speed and output, a significant drawback in a human context is that it also is designed to provide standardized treatments that result in uniformly consistent outputs.  In schools, this results in a focus on standardization and compliance.  As we know, humans are not all the same and we may in fact not want or need the exact same process and outcomes when it comes to our unique development.

Interestingly, manufacturers have also recognized that there is a need to provide customized outputs for the unique needs of their customers.  Their assembly line models have evolved to build on some of the efficiencies of an assembly line while also providing optionality for different ways of processing and unique outputs.  This new model, called cellular manufacturing, has actually been used since the 1970s and its benefit is that it allows for variation in the design and scaling of products in a way that “can be accomplished extremely quickly and precisely.”  

Without going into great detail, instead of each worker repetitively completing the same task (as in the traditional assembly line), in cellular manufacturing the worker completes a series of interconnected tasks.  In this way, instead of being responsible for just part of the assembly, the worker takes ownership for the entire process

“Cell workers are encouraged to think creatively about production problems and are expected to arrive at pragmatic solutions to them. While they are free to seek advice from plant management and staff, the identified problems and subsequent analysis, and usually the solutions, are entirely their own. Workers have the authority and are encouraged to implement and follow up on action plans to improve their work. Some managers ask cells to set improvement targets for themselves and measure their performance in comparison to these targets. In addition, workers are given the freedom to plan, coordinate, and control their work within their cell as long as they meet company standards of quality, volume, time, and cost.”

Almost twenty years ago I wrote a paper about how adopting the principles of cellular manufacturing could help educators better design and implement customized experiences that meet the needs of varied learners.  At that time, I was convinced that teams of teachers who worked with students for longer periods of time would be able to better serve their students.  Now we see examples of these models in action at innovative schools including Guidepost Montessori, the Khan Lab School, and many others.  

School leaders have an important role in creating the conditions to establish systems that are designed to be more adaptive and creative.  A few questions that leaders should be asking include:

  • How might we promote a shift from isolated professional practice to teams who work together to serve all learners?
  • How might we promote empower these teams to be creative problem-solvers who have the authority to improve their own work?
  • How might we ensure that these teams have sufficient time to connect, collaborate, and learn together?

I continue to believe that there is a great deal that we can learn from other sectors.  Cellular manufacturing has established principles of flexibility and empowerment that are critical considerations in our modern context.  If we are serious about improving learning experiences for all students, we must also be attentive to adjusting our systems to expand possibilities.

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