TCAPS Integrates Lean thinking First up: student data collection

TRAVERSE CITY – Traverse City Area Public Schools is ready to think lean when it comes to redundancies in their system. First on their list? Reducing the duplication of data requests for the more than 10,000 students in their 300-square mile district. To do so, they've teamed up with Northwestern Michigan College to learn and apply Lean principles to their schools.

What is Lean? "Lean thinking is about serving more customers with fewer steps," said Rich Wolin, director of training at NMC. "If you can increase your capacity to serve and serve faster, you gain more customers. It's switching the focus to the needs of the customer instead of the needs of the business."

Surveys show that Lean thinking pays off, according to Wolin.

"Six to 12 months after the end of a Lean project, there is a 10-to-1 return on investment," he said. "That's huge. Say you invest $10,000 on a Lean project. That's $100,000 or more saved over time."

For TCAPS, it's a $16,000 investment with NMC to garner the skills needed tackle the huge remake of their student data collection process, said Paul Soma, CFO/COO of Traverse City Area Public Schools.

"When you enroll at TCAPS, you have to fill out a lot of the same paperwork over and over, for each program," Soma said. "Parents wonder why? Why isn't this in a database somewhere?"

The problem, Soma said, is that TCAPS is a huge institution with a multitude of activities that has grown over the years, outgrowing its own system as its spawned into a district with 1,300 teaching and support staff, 13 elementary schools (including one Montessori school), two middle schools, two senior highs, and an alternative high school.

"We have principals spending time manually collecting data, making their own Excel sheets to analyze student data," he said. "We have data but it isn't always accessible."

The Lean training through NMC will turn those numbers and names into a system that works for both the staff and the students.

"The result is that we are missing opportunities to serve our customers – the students," Soma said. "We are missing things like knowing when siblings are entering kindergarten or middle school. These are opportunities to serve them and keep them in our district."

And this is how the program will pay for itself over time, said Alison Arnold, director of marketing communications for TCAPS.

"If we can gain just three new students, we've paid for the investment," she said. "It makes our first impression better and it prevents oversaturation of information from parents, which could make our school feel impersonal."

Lean thinking is a philosophy credited to Toyota in the 1980s that focuses on rethinking old practices to reduce waste. Toyota made headlines with its "just in time" manufacturing process where customer demand was met without the burden of huge (and expensive) inventory.

Toyota also counted on the collective intelligence of all parts of its staff – from front-line workers to big wigs in the corner office. Likewise, TCAPS is pulling staff from throughout to rethink the collection process.

"This isn't being done on theory alone," Soma said. "All levels of our staff are involved. I went to the sign-up process myself to see what parents faced and it was eye opening. We are asking for input from administrative staff, principals, technology and others."

Arnold also went through the sign-up process firsthand and is seeing things from a new perspective with the NMC training.

"NMC has helped us see the workarounds we've created for our problems," she said. "It's time to cut the waste and redundancies and set up a clean work flow."

And even though much of today's manufacturing is built with Lean thinking, Soma said that it's only now starting to spread into education, health care and governmental settings.

"It feels like schools are the last one on the bandwagon," Soma said, "but TCAPS is the first school to do this. We are leading the charge."

And, they are spreading the word. Soma recently co-presented Lean Thinking for Schools – Transforming the Way We do Business at the Michigan School Business Officials' Financial Strategies Conference in Lansing.

In the last 16 months, Soma said over 100 TCAPS staff members have received Lean training and the district has 50 Lean projects underway. The student data process is the biggest undertaking, with 12 staff members working on the project. BN