Empowering Others to “Pull the Andon Cord”

Eric Chagala (Ed.D. Educational Leadership) is the founding principal of the Vista Innovation & Design Academy (VIDA). Eric believes that all kids need a place to matter, that schools have souls and those souls need to be nurtured, and that our actions say what we believe about kids. EricChagala.com


When my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child, we moved into my parents’ spare bedroom. We had just rented out our house, and we were six weeks away from closing escrow on our new home where we would go on to raise our little family. While we were living in the spare bedroom, we had to quickly adopt some survival skills. This was a great adventure, mainly because of me. I am not only a super-sensitive person, but I also think that I am funnier than I actually am…

To survive this six week adventure, my wife and I quickly realized that we needed a special “stop” signal that either of us could invoke without angering the other. We needed an alert system that, without words or sensationalism, indicated “feelings are about to be hurt.” Living in such a small space with so much external stress, we needed to ensure that effective communication and systems were in place to end teasing, nagging, questioning, or eye-rolling before the point of no return. The signal? If one of us were about to experience hurt feelings, we were to extend our arms and close them shut, like the jaws of an alligator. This signal means, without question, hesitation, sarcastic remark, or huffy sounds, that everything was to stop. Immediately.

Our youngest demonstrating “the signal.”

The Andon Cord

Almost a decade later while reading the book The Lean StartUp (2011) by Eric Ries, I was fascinated to learn about a mechanism at Toyota that worked in radically the same way. It is called the “Andon Cord.” The Andon Cord is a cord that any worker along the assembly line is expected to pull if a problem or concern is seen. Pulling the cord is not something determined by rank or seniority. Pulling the cord illuminates a series of immediate responses by supervisors that may or may not actually stop the entire line of production. Ries (2011) explains that it “allows any worker to ask for help as soon as they notice any problem, such as a defect in a physical part, stopping the entire production line if it cannot be corrected immediately” (p. 187).

Without naming it, in How (2011) by Dov Seidman, he explains the power of this concept as “it (quality) became the responsibility of every employee at every level of the task. Power shifted from the top of the hierarchy down to its base; anyone, at any stage of the process, could stop the line” (pp. 211-212).

This is much like what my wife and I had developed to get through our in-between-houses-time, and in fact we still use the signal today. Frankly, much of the success of our marriage has been forged by this strategy that puts the responsibility on both of us for acting and responding appropriately in a predetermined and understood fashion.

I was speaking to a visitor touring our school in the spring of 2017, and he took the story of the Andon Cord as a quality control tool and superimposed it as a strategy for ferreting out instruction that didn’t meet “his” standards. In fact, he quite-excitedly gleaned that this proven concept from industry empowered him to be more direct and quicker to make note of low-grade instruction at “his” school.

So bothered by his interpretation, I was inspired to write this post. I told him that I thought the transference of the concept of the Andon Cord from manufacturing to education was more to do about empowering all people in the organization and flattening the hierarchy, aka, culture. It was not immediately about quality control on instruction. I told him that, in fact, I thought the story taken in the context as he processed it was actually damaging. Whether he wanted to hear it or not, I continued that, ‘from my perspective, the power of the Andon Cord idea speaks to…’

  • The value and importance of a flat hierarchy. No title or position makes any one person more insightful, valuable, or responsible for what happens on campus. I believe that schools have souls, and those souls need to be nurtured. We all have that responsibility to say something when and if something doesn’t feel right.
  • The value and importance of empowering all people in the organization. This ties into a flattened hierarchy, except is even broader, because typically even in a “flat hierarchy” there is still a hierarchy.
  • The value and importance of the right culture. Transferring the concept of the Andon Cord to education is about culture. All schools have culture, but not all schools have “good” or the “right” culture. Yes, it sounds subjective. More specifically, when I say “good culture” in reference to school transformation efforts, I am referring to cultures that are prone to taking risks, and where vulnerability is a mainstay of the work that the majority of the campus is willing to engage in—both adult and student.
  • The value and importance of people being willing to stand up and say “time out,” to say, “this needs to stop,” to share a concern, or interrupt a process. The Andon Cord is a metaphor for a culture agreeing that if we have an issue or concern, we voice it in an appropriate way where it can be addressed.

I was greatly impacted by a Keynote I once heard given by Anthony Muhammad during which he spoke about “toxic” school cultures. One of the important take aways for me surrounded the idea of “parking lot conversations”: the conversations that spread angst, discontent, fear, anger, half-truths, lies, and frustration. These conversations do nothing to solve an issue or offer opportunity for discussion and transparency because they take place in the quiet of a parking lot. The Andon Cord philosophy with school culture says both that “we are safe to signal time out” in public and that when the parking lot or teacher lounge conversations slide to the negative and unproductive, colleagues are empowered to say “time out, did you have the chance to bring this up to… (or) at…?”

Pull the cord.

Stop production before bigger problems develop later. Let’s fix things as we see them, while they are fixable. Let’s not wait until issues have sourly festered and are in need of full repair. The responsibility lies on all of our shoulders.

Once our schools empower everyone with the responsibility to “stop production” when a flaw, fluke, issue, or problem is seen, we will realize a stronger school culture. But this requires “leaders” to be vulnerable and open to people pulling that cord. Once we get the right culture in place, we will have a solid footing to develop the protocols, tuning mechanisms, and discussion points for really digging in around weighty elements of school transformation, like instruction. And while it may seem like a long road to get to that “main event,” it is an investment that will yield much richer results in the end and speaks to adage of “go slow to go fast.”

Andon Cord Photo Credit

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