Fragment: Open Leaning? Pondering Content Production Processes

A long time ago I read The Toyota Way; I remember being struck at the time how appealing many of the methods were to me, even if I couldn’t bring them to mind now. My reading was, and is, also coloured by my strong belief in the OU’s factory model of production (or the potential for the same), even though much of the time module teams operate as cottage industries.

Even in the first few pages, a lot still resonates with me:

We place the highest value on actual implementation and taking action. There are many things one doesn’t understand and therefore, we ask them why don’t you just go head and take action; try to do something? You realize how little you know and you face your own failures and you simply can correct those failures and redo it again and at the second trial you realize another mistake or another thing you didn’t like so you can redo it once again. So by constant improvement, or, should I say, the improvement based upon action, one can rise up to the higher level of practice and knowledge.

Fujio Cho, President, Toyota Motor Corporation, 2002, quoted in The Toyota Way, JK Liker, 2004.

As I start to rereading the book, more than fifteen years on, I realise quite a few of the principles were ones I already implicitly aspired to at the time, and which have also stuck with me in some form or other:

  • hansei, reflection, to try to identify shortcomings in a project or process. (Back in the day, when I still chaired modules, I remember scheduling a “no blame” meeting to try to identify things that had gone wrong or not worked so well in the production of a new module; folk struggled with even the idea of it, let alone working it. I suspect that meeting had been inspired by my earlier reading of the book.) This blog (and its previous incarnation) also represent over fifteen years of personal reflection;
  • jidoka, “automation with a human touch” / “machines with human intelligence”, which includes “build[ing] into your equipment the capability of detecting problems and stopping itself” so that humans can then work on fixing the issue, and andon, visual alerting and signalling systems, with visual controls at the place where work is done (for example, visualising notebook structure).
  • nemawashi, discussing problems and potential solutions with all those affected; I am forever trying to interfere with other people’s processes, but that’s because they affect me;
  • genchi genbutsu, which I interpret as trying to understand through doing, getting your hands dirty and making mistakes, as well as “problem solving at the actual place to see what is really goong on”, which I interpet as a general situational awareness through personal experience of each step of the process (which is why it makes sense to try doing someone else’s job every so often, perhaps?)
  • kaizen, continuous improvement, a process we try to embody, with reflection (hansei) in the continual rewrite process we have going in TM351, which continually reflects on the process (workflow), as well as the practice (eg pedagogy) and the product (the content we’re producing (teaching and learning materials));
  • heijunka, leveled out production in terms of volume and variety, which I get the sense we are not so good at, but which I don’t really understand;
  • standardised processes and interfaces, which I interpret in part as some of our really useful building blocks, such as the OU-XML gold master document format that is in many respects a key part of our content production system even if our processes are not as efficiently organised around it as they might be, and what I regarded as one of the OU’s crown jewels for many years: course codes.
  • continuous process flow “to bring problems to the surface”: we suck at this, in part because of various waterfall processes we have in place, as well as the distance from production of a particular piece of content to first presentation to the end user customer (the student) can be two or more years. You can have two iterations of a complete Formula One car in that period, and 40+ iterations of pieces on the car between race weekends in the same period. In the OU, we have a lot of stuck inventory (for example, materials that have been produced and are still 18 months form student first use);
  • one piece flow, which I now realise has profoundly affected my thinking when it comes to “generative production” and the use of code to generate assets at the point of use in our content materials; for example, a line of code to generate a chart that references and is referenced by some surrounding text (see also Educational Content Creation in Jupyter Notebooks — Creating the Tools of Production As You Go).

I also think we have some processes backwards; I get the feeling that the production folk see editing as a pull process on content from authors; with my module team cottage industry head on (and I know this is a contradiction and perhaps contravenes the whole Toyota Way model), I take a moduel team centric view, and see the module team as the responsible party for getting a module in front of students, and as such they (we) have a pull requirement on editorial services.

I’m really looking forward to sitting down again with The Toyota Way, and have also just put an order in for a book that takes an even closer look at the Toyota philosophy: Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production.

PS via an old post on Open Course Production I rediscover (original h/t Owen Stephens) some old internal reports on various aspects of Course Production: Some Basic Problems, Activities and Activity Networks, Planning and Scheduling and The Problem of Assessment. Time to reread those too, I think. Perhaps along with Daniel Weinbren’s The Open University: A History.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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