Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Finally an Answer for School Leaders: Use the Power of Your People!

I recently read a wonderfully uplifting report about a promising new movement in educational transformation. APQC (the American Productivity and Quality Center), a 30 year old organization founded by visionary Jack Grayson that has done incredible work in industry, health care, and government, has completed a pilot study in 11 districts across the U.S. applying their approach to school improvement. The project, called Northstar, brought systematic thinking to district leaders to help them solve costly and time-consuming problems such as reducing utility costs, improving school bus safety, reducing drop-out rates, redesigning curriculum, and freeing up teachers for more instructional time. Their focus is on process improvement and performance management -- in other words, looking at the everyday work of school personnel to uncover opportunities for lowering costs, improving efficiency and effectiveness, and eliminating wasted time. 

Here's what I like about the APQC approach:
  • First, it acknowledges that schools are inhabited by passionate and smart teachers, administrators, and staff who really want to do a good job educating children. How many news stories lately highlight that aspect of school personnel? It's not the people who are causing the problems - it's the system, policies, and processes.
  • Second, it provides a collaborative process for cross-functional teams to identify top problems to solve, uncover root causes, and create solutions together. No heavy dependency on expert consultants and 'gurus' telling the leaders what pedagogical approach is the best, what technology to use, what software to buy -- no flavor of the month!
  • Third, it provides a customizable process that APQC consultants can align with district leaders' and stakeholders priorities and organizational culture. The approach helps districts focus on what's important,  especially under today's budget constraints and high achievement expectations, and drive toward solid solutions that all stakeholders can buy into.
  • Fourth, APQC builds capacity for the district to continue the process improvement and performance management approach to 'running the business' after the first few projects are successfully completed.
What I love about all this is the process perspective. Long ago I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Edwards Deming talk about process and I will never forget his memorable admonition to managers at General Motors, where I was working. When talking about all of the problems GM was experiencing, Dr. Deming said: "It's not the workers - they are not the cause of the problem (think, let's fire all of the teachers), they are doing the best they can given the system they are working in. It's up to management to provide a system in which smart people can be successful."

This approach is refreshing given all of the confusion in education today around the 'best program' to adopt. It puts solution development in the hands of the people who do the work, it leverages process and performance data, and it is guru-and technology agnostic! The APQC PPM approach has worked for 30 years in every other line of business -- it's time for school leaders to accept that they can learn something from those who have been successful in every other sector!

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