An introduction to lean learning

Neil Fedden on how lean techniques are changing the lives of workers with learning disabilities.

The origins of lean manufacturing can be traced back to the Toyota Company who became successful just after World War 2, when Japanese factory owners adopted a number of American production and quality techniques to streamline and improve efficiency within their factories. The processes used developed over the years into the lean tools used today.

Lean tools can benefit those with learning disabilities in a number of ways as they aim to standardise a process or procedure so that it becomes routine, with clear instructions that can be easily followed; once implemented they will also remove any activity that does not add value to a process.   

Catherine Burland works for the Parks Service of Portsmouth City Council. She recognised that lean techniques had the potential to benefit those with memory issues, dementia and autism, who are often heavily reliant on structure and routine.

Catherine now runs a council project at the Waterfront Garden Centre in Portsmouth where she applies lean methodology to support small groups of adults with a variety of learning disabilities. Her aim is to train these individuals to attain a standard comparable to a Level 1 NVQ in Horticultural Skills.

Lean tools can benefit those with learning disabilities in a number of ways as they aim to standardise a process or procedure so that it becomes routine

Catherine has used a number of lean techniques in her current role:

  1. Plan Do Check Act – to take action when a change to improve a process is identified; plan what needs to be done, daily, weekly etc.; check with the team to review how things have gone; take any corrective actions and implement.
  2. SMART goals and action plans to help support individuals to achieve their personal objectives.
  3. Cutting waste by recycling and reusing the team’s plastic waste (pots and trays etc.) which also reduces supply costs.
  4. The use of Kanban systems, which is a visual way of triggering the replenishment of stock. The stores person simply looks for empty bins and fills them up, which reduces down time lost re-ordering and prevents overstocking. Burland used to work in a children’s home where the weekly online supermarket food shop would be repeated as this saved time estimating meals for the week. Using the Lean Kanban system, upon opening the cupboard it would have been easier to distinguish which ingredients needed ordering as there would be a visual cue for replenishment.
  5. Introducing a 5S Auction Area when items are placed pending disposal before final removal from the business. The ‘auction’ is an event where a member of staff reviews the items pending disposal in front of the workforce to double check that nobody wants them before they are finally disposed of.

Catherine says: “Lean methods help to keep all of our team working efficiently and independently regardless of ability and keep staff free to focus on specialist support where needed and create further training resource, including prompt sheets for each area with visual sheets to show what the task is.”

Catherine told me about two cases that illustrate how lean methods can help those with learning disabilities improve their self-confidence and independence at work. One worker, let’s call them A, struggles with work following a significant brain injury. Shyness means A is not keen on too much customer interaction, although independent and able to work as part of a team without immediate supervision.

A works twice a week, but not two consecutive days and as a result would struggle to recall practices and procedures. One such practice is dividing compostable and non-compostable waste, however by using visual aids and standard practice management to show which bin different waste goes into, there have been no issues with waste divisions and A is able to work independently with less supervision.

A has an ability for grading and quality control, but often threw away alive or dormant plant material. By introducing the Lean 5S Auction Area mentioned above, the individual now places all plant material to be thrown away in the area to be inspected, thereby reducing unnecessary wastage of plants.

A also occasionally struggled to remember where the tools used frequently are stored even though visual aids were provided, so each worker was allocated their own bucket with tools under their seat in the recreation area, so they have just one place to look instead of several.

Another very enthusiastic worker, B has issues with eyesight and spatial awareness and as such can be accident prone. Due to the different teams of individuals working at different times, over different days, the need for visual and best practice management is vital.

For example, when watering, the hose reel was often put in different places around the garden centre and, once finished with, individuals  would often wind up the hose and leave it wherever they were watering. Unfortunately, B once tried moving past a wound hose reel, tripped and suffered an injury.

To avoid such accidents there are now two specific places painted on the floor so the hose is always in a safe position, whether it is being used or stored. B, and others, tended to leave tools wherever they were working, but by using visual aids to show where tools are stored has reduced this practice with tools being put away at the end of a task, without prior prompting.

Another problem was overuse of mugs with each team member choosing a different mug up to three times a day because they couldn’t remember which they had previously used. The team introduced named hooks and a photograph of the team member with their allocated mugs are placed alongside the corresponding hook, so every team member, whether literate or not, can see where each mug goes.

Visual instruction is also being used by Catherine at another council site – a sensory garden at a day centre for individuals with profound and multiple disabilities. Picture boards, such as those found in retail sales displays, are being Introduced to provide visual instruction for the individuals and their carers, so they know which plants are sensory, interactive, and why.


About the author

Neil Fedden is the owner and managing consultant of Fedden USP


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