Education and Manufacturing
from Tom Lane author of
Perceptual Intelligence




Return to Return to Free Management Books   8/1/20



In my career, I have had the opportunity to consult to mostly manufacturing companies, but along the line, I also worked with a few school systems. The folks in   the schools were always a little reluctant to use me, after all, what did world-class manufacturing have to do with how our educational system operates. They saw them as worlds apart and it took some explaining to help them see the connections. The following items are some of the most compelling things that I have discovered that would say that educators would learn greatly from understanding what we have learned in moving toward world-class manufacturing.

1. Batch production versus one at a time production. Traditional manufacturing would always "batch" like products together and make large quantities at one time. The logic being an "economy of scale" and reduction of changeover costs. The fact that this approach created tremendous expense in inventory, movement, storage, space, handling, quality, and scrap was lost in the accounting methods. Just in time manufacturing builds what the customer needs, as they need it and eliminates much of this hidden expense. Making things one at a time means a lot had to change in supplier connections, material handling, flow layout, machine maintenance, etc in order to facilitate this approach. In schools, we still operate with a "batch production" mentality with children. We batch kids by age and push them through the system based on some "average" level of learning/knowledge for that "batch". Batching in schools, just like in factories, was done for the convenience of the support system and not for the core process of making things or teaching kids. This becomes a key roadblock when attempting to shift to a new way. To teach kids one at a time is to be student centered in the educational process. It acknowledges that each student is unique in capability, readiness, pace, and other learning factors. Teachers know this and I think do their best given the system they live in. As with manufacturing, shifting to one at a time, meant a new relationship with suppliers who now had to be much more involved and intimate with the production process. They no longer just sent stuff when ordered. Again, the suppliers with children are parents, and they would be required to change their behavior to make a "one at a time" education system work. Just like in factories, new requirement standards were developed and suppliers held accountable. Can we hold parents accountable for how they deliver their children to the school? Of course, but it would break some old traditions.

2. Control based supervision versus participation. To make world-class factories work, we need all the mental effort of each employee applied to the multitude of problems that arise in a complex manufacturing process. The old idea that the boss or the engineer can only do the thinking slowed down the process and created bottlenecks and waste in the factory. Creating self-managing teams or other structures that let all workers have input on how to manage the production process tapped a storehouse of creativity and opportunity that was previously ignored. The same in the classroom. The notion that only the teacher has the control and knowledge to be dispensed did not allow for students to manage their own learning, create new learning, partner with other children to learn jointly (a whole other issue about competition in the classroom that prohibits cooperation, much the same in factories where workers competed for favors, raises, promotions, etc that led to ineffective work) and other self managing techniques. In the best factories, we go to where the knowledge resides and create methods, standards, and structures to facilitate the sharing of the information. In traditional factories, knowledge was power and it was held close to the chest to gain advantage. Is this the same in classrooms, where the brightest do not share, coach, teach, assist or otherwise help those who have fallen behind and need help? Or with the teachers who don’t want the students to know exactly what knowledge will be tested so they can maintain some power over students through the grading process.

3. Over adoption of technology. I was always amazed at how often new machines, new computers, new software packages, new material handling devices, etc were quick to be brought in only to see the promised "return on investment" disappear and never raised. What happened was that the new technologies were sold to support system specialists who did not have a sense of what is the core or central thing this system is to do. (Make products in a factory, increase learning in a school) Of course, the fragmented technology was sold on that basis, but it was never integrated into the overall system as it currently operates. What you had was a series of add on approaches that were not workable or were immediately changed to fit the underlying premises of the current operations. Either way, it did not create much improvement and worst of all it created a distrust of change and improvement. I think schools have done the same to the classroom. New teaching methods, computers, school configurations, etc were pushed by the educational experts without addressing some of the fundamental aspects of how current operations are and will they accept the technology. In world-class factories, it is clear that the making of products is prime and new technologies are "pulled" into that as needed rather than pushed in by the expert outsiders.

4. System integration and alignment. Traditional operations are constantly struggling between varying demands from the many "support systems" that are meant to help produce goods or services. This comes from the fragmented mentality of most people who look out for their job or their department and do not see the workings of the whole system. Without this "system seeing" there is no possibility to align my support tools or methods with the many others in other departments. We get confusion and frustration from the people we are to support. In schools, the biggest fragmentation is the break between grades and schools and the fragmentation between subjects. In both grades and subjects, there is no connection made for the student about how this prepares you for that or how this subject relates to the one in the previous class. It is all a jumble of separate events that leaves students to not even consider the possibility of connection, integration or a synergy of learning. There is no continuity of the learning that begins to show how the actual world really works. The same was true for traditional factories. Workers showed up, put their heads down and did what they were told for that day. That the system was breaking down all around them was a mystery to some extent. This was also true of managers and executives who, from a fragmented view of the system, were at a loss to eliminate the magnitude of waste that was putting them out of business.


There are many more similarities between how we operate factories and schools in a traditional way and it goes back to the mindset we were brought up with. This mindset of fragmentation, control, individual success, outcome versus process, and others travels with us in all our organizational creations. It is no accident that our schools and factories are the same at a fundamental level. To shift away from this is the challenge of true leadership. There are schools beginning to look at operating in some very different ways and they run into the same kind of resistance we had in the early applications of world-class manufacturing. People feel in control of the old way, even if it is not very effective, and this is a major barrier. We seem to value this sense of control more than we value a sense of high system performance. Maybe it is because we have seen so little of excellence in system performance. We have a distrust of system and especially the government and big business aspects of that. But the fact is, we are all part of a very complex system that needs some big time changes to support where we need to go as a nation and as a world community. We need to learn from excellence no matter where we find it.

Tom Lane



I am not a school teacher, administrator, or otherwise directly connected with any school system. I am a business consultant, who for 30 years has been trying to help corporations make fundamental changes in the way they operate in order to compete in a world market. The following are the things I have witnessed that I suspect stem from our educational system that play out in adults at work. By the way, I did not do well in the educational system since I thought it was mostly BS and that is not the degree!

  1. How to not be curious. We have learned well that if you find an answer, stick with it and forget about exploring other alternatives, especially if it gets you approval and reward from the system around you. This is the wall I often faced when dealing with executives who are deemed successful by the corporate  world and now have no curiosity about how to do things differently. When they speak of "making change" what they really mean is "making the way I already know, work better". They have learned well that "curiosity killed the cat" and that means the "fat cat" of the corporate world. Why be curious when you can be rich is the mantra. In schools, we teach that curiosity takes you out of bounds from the current curriculum of your grade level or beyond the capability of the teacher to control. It is only safe to be curious within a tightly bound exercise or limit set by the need to have a standardized grade. 

  2. How to not ask questions. This goes with the above learning, but it deserves special attention. I have done various exercises in workshops to get workers at all levels to go to "root cause" of a problem. This means to ask questions of an ever-penetrating nature that takes you into a more systemic and fundamental cause of ongoing problems within an operation. People cannot do this! They quit after one or two questions if they come up with something that seems reasonable. The notion of pushing beyond that to other connections is lost on them. Because of this lack of capability, we have persistent problems that linger on and on in operations that should have been resolved at a root level long ago. We learned in school, that to persist in questions is to embarrass the teacher. All investigative questions will become more and more difficult until we usually hit the competence level of the teacher. Since teachers do not want to be taken to the "I don’t know" level, they discourage this type of activity. Now some will say that that would be disruptive to the classroom if everyone were always asking the questions that kids are naturally capable of doing. Yes it would be, but how do we set aside time to keep that skill alive and not kill it outright to preserve the order.

  3. How to not see connections. The old adage of the "right hand does not know what the left is doing" is alive and well in today’s corporations. Even though there is an unprecedented amount information technology available, we still mostly work in a sheltered vacuum, mainly concerned with our individual or departmental effort only. Schools are exceptionally adept at teaching this "connective blindness" by what they teach and how they teach. The "what" or content is always separate with little or no connection to the other content being handed out in the other classes. The process of "grade level" and "distinct classes" gives a powerful unconscious conditioning that things are separate and when the bell rings or the semester is over or summer is here there is a break in continuity that will not be mended.

  4. We learn to not see process, only outcome. The entire quality movement coming out of Japan for the last 50 years is mostly based on "process management’ both at a production level and at a managerial level. We cannot see this thing called process even when it is pointed out over and over. We want results, outcomes, numbers, objectives, milestones, ends, or whatever other words you can fill in here. All this defies the simple notion that "process determines outcome/result" and to improve a result, there must be a change in the process. This is not some exotic theory; it is straight forward, in your face fact. This screaming by executives for better results without concern or awareness of process is the ultimate in arrogant stupidity. Where did we get this stupid? Schools from K-12 to the MBA programs reinforce and emphasize the "result orientation" both in concept and practice. We want to max the test, hit the standard score, get the A, be #1, graduate with honors, know the right answer to feed back on the test. This scoring and grading process insures that a focus on the process will be secondary if at all acknowledged. Socrates, one of the great teachers of all time, was teaching his pupils a dialogue method to explore process. You know where that got him.

  5. We learn to believe there are answers. As a consultant, one of the most frustrating things you run into is when a high level executive brings you into their organization and wants you to tell them the answer to their problem. When I reply that there is no answers, only approaches and constant adjustments and improvements, they look at you with the "why am I paying you so much money" look. They do not realize that if their was an "answer" to organizational effectiveness that could be "given out" someone would have done it long ago and we would not have all the wasteful operations we are living with. There is no answer. But the schools still sell the answer notion because that is the easy way for teachers to grade and the system to measure the students for the next level to accept or reject. In actual life, there are no answers, only an ongoing complex situation that we try to manage through with the best tools we have. Many of life’s biggest problems come about BECAUSE of people with the right answer. Think about it.

  6. We learn to be externally oriented for success. One of the major points I make in my leadership teaching is that it is very difficult if not impossible for an ambitious leader to create fundamental change. The reason is, that the ambitious person wants the approval and reward of the system AS IT IS, and to really change that seems like a loss for them. To be externally oriented is to believe who we are is deemed by our title, position, rank, fame, fortune, etc. This way of operating is the most securing way for the system to sustain itself and not change. Again, all this starts in the school, where we put "gold stars" on papers, rank the class, separate the smart from the not so smart, and otherwise collude with the idea that it is our "doing" not our "being" that is important in this world.


A little caveat at this point. I sound like I am putting the blame of many ills all on the backs of the schools. I do this only for the brevity of this paper, but the source of all this is within every aspect of our society and us as individuals. We collectively collude and condone all the above and do not challenge it in any way. The schools are simply used as a concentrating (or concentration) mechanism to focus this learning and pass it along from generation to generation. The schools are doing what we want them to do and we are doing what the schools taught us to do. What a circle!! Ever thought of breaking it?

Tom Lane



Children see very clearly and directly what is happening in their little world. When they are just beginning to talk, it is very cute and we think "kids say the darndest things" and have a good laugh. As we all grow a little older, our nice clear observation skill is no longer cute and we begin to be told to "don’t say that, it isn’t nice". Or we are told that what we are observing is not really happening. "Mommy and daddy aren’t really fighting, we are just having a conversation." The world of social correctness or now called politically correctness, starts to influence our most basic interaction with the world around us, which is that we observe and ask questions or comment about that which we directly see. When we do not quite understand something at this young age, we watch and look to see what will happen next before we conclude about "why all those ants make a trail from the crumb to the nest". This is when we are open and learn the most in our lives. But that fundamental interaction is one where we are our own authority. We may ask questions for explanation, elaboration, or definition, but at the core, all that is to help us grasp the world WE SEE. For most of us, this is the last time we will be our own authority on what we see in our own lives.

The conditioning that sets in is to establish that others are authorities and we must learn their views and their concepts and their notions of what reality is all about. Whether that is scientific, religious, social, relational, or business, it is all about adopting another’s view and distrusting our own. Now this is not to say that we should not learn from those who have gone before us. That would be senseless to "reinvent the wheel" at every turn in one’s life. But, if we hold to the core of "trusting what we see" first and then take that which is provided by authorities and with our own mind, see if it fits with what we see. Of course, the world is not going to let children do this. To let this happen would mean that the authorities would lose their power over others, and they are not going to let that happen.

I first began to notice this when I ran leadership seminars. The business executives in my program would all spout off the various theories, models, or other content associated with the topic at hand. To me, these "learned views" sat like ill-fitting suits on these guys. By that, I mean that they knew the words, but seemed to be unable to make application or connection or relevance in their own situation. But they did provide cover for them so they appeared to be knowledgeable and intelligent. I always looked for too many quotes or "Maslow says" or "according to the latest study" or some other referenced source other than their own experiences. I would have them do exercises to describe the best leadership that they experienced at a personal level. Often, I would get back broad statements that said little. "He motivated me" is one of the most typical. I would ask how they saw motivation and with a little coaxing they would finally describe something that is directly observable. This exercise always saddened me a little, since it showed how we do not trust our own life experiences. It is not real unless an authority says it is real. How sad.

At this point in my life, I watch to see how often someone uses some external authority to justify and fortify his or her position. Or how they have immediate verbal reaction without asking questions or observing what is going on. They are parroting the authorities of a lifetime of conditioning. What do we really observe with that clear mind of the child? Can this be re-learned or is the un-learning of years of "authority following" too difficult to let go of. Can we reverse this process of living through the frameworks of somebody else and begin to form our own sense of what is going on? Can we begin to trust our own seeing without the blessing and confirmation of some long gone authority figure? Watch your reaction at this point. Because that is where all this begins, here inside ourselves with our past. Do you observe first or jump immediately to conclusion? Where did that conclusion come from? Is it real in your life, or is just convenient? Are you afraid of speaking to your seeing when it is not the popular thing to do or say? Can you observe and form your own conclusions or has your mind gone asleep to that kind of awareness? Are you willing to be the authority for your own life without inflicting it on anyone else?

This is not to say that we do not use what great minds have developed, but only to not ever let another mind take over for your life.

Tom Lane



Most individuals and organizations I have worked with over the past 30 years have not attained much of their potential. I have tried many different tactics, methods, approaches, and strategies, and I have come to the conclusion that not very many people or organizations of people are receptive to fundamental transformation. It would be like a factory trying to make high quality products with low quality raw materials. It can not happen that way. In the human development business, we do not like to talk about this "supply" problem, but it is certainly real. It would be foolish to think that all individuals are equally prepared to do the work of personal or organizational transformation. On the contrary, I would say very few people are receptive to this work and the lack of screening actually harms the efforts of the few who may be ready. Let me explain.

What I see is two basic arenas that determine receptivity to transformation. The first is the notion of order and disorder. I have referred to this in the past as "above the line and below the line" work. Here I am saying that to begin this work, a person must be on the line of having established order in their living or in their organization. A disorderly life is not capable of placing the required energy into the work of transformation. Same with an organization or a factory.

The second requirement is the notion of doubt. By that, I mean a sense that a person questions the givens of the society, culture, community, business, etc of which he/she is a part of. On the other hand is the person who "buys in" to what society holds out as the definition of success and fulfillment. Without a sense of "is this all there is", there is not the groundwork for the seeds of transformation to take root.

If we put these two together, we get a matrix that describes four different individuals(or organizations), of which only one is receptive to the transformation work. It would look like this:







Person 1. This individual is most unreceptive to the work of personal or organizational transformation. This is someone who unconsciously buys in to the conditions of society or culture and whose life is in disarray. They would usually name themselves as victims and feel like life is overwhelming them. They are working hard at keeping their head above water and are in constant danger of going under. They measure themselves by the criteria of those around them and usually find themselves coming up short. For this person, speaking of transformation to personal or organizational excellence is like speaking a totally foreign tongue. This kind of work has no place in their world and there is no way for them to associate or connect with this. It is a waste of time on their part and the part of the teacher to try to begin transforming work.

Person 2. This is an individual who has followed the rules and created an orderly life but has not question on the validity of the rules set by society. They have achieved an education, gotten married, had kids, got a promotion or two, bought the house, raised the kids, saved for college, joined the club, planned for retirement, done their civic duty, and are generally considered very responsible people. They believe in the dream held out by the general population. This person is not receptive because they do not have an inner life that wonders about the way things work and why there is so much turmoil in the world and in themselves. These are successful people often, who do not wish to rock the boat that they help create on a daily basis. The problems of the world are written off or justified by things like "evil" or "poor up-bringing" or character flaws. They want to keep things the same and continue to receive the rewards of their hard work in the system as it is and themselves as they are. They have no energy for transformation since they do not really see a need for fundamental change. These are often the people who run the system they are part of.

Person 3. This is the rebel. These are the ones who have always questioned and pointed out the hypocrisy of most cultures and societies. They rail against status quo and all the trimmings and attributes. They seem like a wonderful candidate for this transformation work, but they lack the necessary order in their lives. They want to talk about the possibilities of humankind while they can not get through their day without a breakdown or crisis. I remember one such person who I used to talk with. He seemed like someone truly receptive to a new way, but I found out that he could not hold a job, lived with his parents at 40, was in a constant stream of disruptive relationships, and strongly felt that life was against him. He liked to talk, but ultimately he had not the energy to make a transformation of his living. His life was chaos and I believe he used intellectual "doubting" and questioning as an excuse to avoid the simple requirements of living in the world you find yourself.

Person 4. This is the person most equipped to do the work and have some success. This is someone who is quite capable and even successful in creating an order in his or her life. They have performed to societies standards and possibly excelled, but they do not "believe in" the game. There is an inner doubt and question that something is missing and lacking in the way the world works and the way their life works. They have a firm foundation and are not spending most of their time fighting fires and feeling in crisis. They are told by their peers that they have it made and should be satisfied with that. They are not. Something tells them that there is something more that is possible that has nothing to do with dismantling or destroying the current world they live in. It is rather a "going beyond" this world and building something based on a different set of structures and awareness. This person is receptive to transformation work.

As you think of these four categories and realize that only 1 in 4 has any probability for success and then realize that the majority of people live in the 3 categories that are not receptive, you begin to realize why there is so little success with the creation of personal transformation to excellence. Most of the people or organizations that sell this notion of personal excellence are in business to make money, not to truly transform. If that is the case, they realize that the majority of audience is in the Person 1-3 category and to fill up seats and create sales, they must cater to those. This means that the products of these organizations are designed to fail in their claim to transform. Actually, what most of them claim to do is to enhance Person 2 as the model of success and transformation. These companies are part of how the society perpetrates the notion of making money, being successful, becoming famous, etc. is what life is about. Sometimes they throw in the notion of being a good citizen or community leader to make it look like they are not totally money driven. But they do not come close to speaking about fundamental change. Their interest is to sell the products and services they have to the biggest audience they can find. If you are interested in transformation, avoid anything that has wide appeal for it can not be fundamentally transforming.


As a final note, for person 4, it must be noted that it is a long and sometimes difficult journey. Having too many persons 1-3 around you in this drains the energy required to do the work. The doubters will doubt the work itself eventually, since it will not fix their problems with ordinary life. The successful #2’s will begin to back pedal when they see that the self images they rely on to feel good about themselves are being challenged. They do not want to lose that which they believe they worked hard to attain and possess. They want to keep that illusion alive. Person 1 will be the least distraction since they will not sign up for very long and will self select out. It just will remain a mystery to them.

This lack of front end screening has been a major cause of so little success in this work and the main reason it will remain remote, small, and somewhat out of the mainstream of personal development.

Tom Lane