Too many proponents of lean manufacturing get all caught up in the buzz phrases, acronyms and Japanese terms that can be handy shorthand and might impress consultants’ clients, but they also confuse and put off anyone trying to understand principles of lean for the first time. Cutting through all that is Robert O. Martichenko’s book Everything I Know about Lean I Learned in First Grade.

This is a highly entertaining and quick read in which the author takes readers along for an all-day visit to his daughter’s first grade classroom. While helping the teacher and observing everything around him, Martichenko happens on revelation after revelation that parallels his experience in industry as a lean consultant. It’s all mixed with a dose of good humor (his daughter has typical first-grader reactions and mild embarrassment to her dad’s fascination and excitement over efficiency discoveries, for example), and clever illustrations by Liz Maute.

Each chapter takes on one event during the day and applies it to a common concept. From the point when his daughter gets ready for the bus all the way to after-school soccer practice, Martichenko deftly compares positive practices in school with similar lean practices in industry. For example, labels, signs and name tags serve to illustrate the visual cues important to the success of lean transformation. Supplies ordering procedures point up successful pull systems (just-in-time, kanban).

My whole family got a kick out of the section when he visits the school cafeteria for lunch. The school in the story has too many students for the capacity of its cafeteria, so somebody has figured out a system of making sure the students get through the service and checkout lines in the least amount of time possible. The cafeteria organizer calls it “keeping to the beat,” but Martichenko recognizes it as what lean advocates call takt time, the available work time divided by customer demand for the product.

The organizer explains that he has to feed 1,000 students in 150 minutes and that if they didn’t use the beat system, it would take all day, with some students having “lunch” as early as 9 a.m. or as late as 2 p.m. This really sounded familiar in our house, because the local high school got in trouble for doing exactly that – spreading out the “lunch” schedule through the whole day. I guess they missed the takt time lesson in first grade!

Each chapter in the book includes a basic story of what happened at a particular point in the school day, followed by several summary conclusions to bring the points home. Then a section from “Orlo the Wise Old Owl” makes more direct comparisons of the school lesson to the business world. Some of it might sound childish, but it’s straightforward and simple and really helps to make key lean principles accessible. In about 100 pages, you have an entertaining and thought provoking introduction to lean that crosses age, occupation, manufacturing, and service boundaries, showing that lean principles apply everywhere.

Originally published in a limited edition in 2008, this book has been newly reissued by the Lean Enterprise Institute for wider distribution. It’s well worth reading and sharing, and we’re happy to add it to our lean library.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.