“Turn the accountability screw a quarter turn.” This was a phrase that a former boss, mentor, and now good friend used when we had the opportunity to work together many years ago. It is a phrase that has stuck with me.
I used this saying recently during a conversation with Don Soifer, of the Lexington Institute from Washington, DC, who visited our school system to learn more about work we are doing with blended learning. It was a wonderful opportunity to host a guest from Washington and an even rarer opportunity to host one as insightful as Mr. Soifer. He genuinely cared about what he was seeing in our school system, and he listened intently to students, school staff, and district personnel as he visited sites across our system. After his visit Mr. Soifer inquired about our continuous improvement model and the relationship to accountability, and his insight regarding our intent was right on target.
Upon hearing “turn the accountability screw a quarter turn” people sometimes think oh, that describes a “gotcha system.” Nothing could be farther from the phrase’s true intent. It doesn’t mean what individuals may think it means at first glance. It actually means tightening up and refining processes. We are all about the work of teaching and learning in this school system. We constantly strive to improve and refine. We have to. There are students in this system for whom we are their best hope for a better tomorrow, and because of that we constantly try to improve.
How do you refine processes in a system of more than 41,000 students and 5,000 employees? That is what we are often asked. We refine by thinking about how we organize ourselves to do the work. I picture cogs in a wheel – many cogs that turn and rotate. Perhaps I picture that mental image so easily because for a while, when I was a small child, my father worked at a company that built the gears and cogs that turned to move machinery. Sometimes he brought home tiny gears that had flaws in them and encouraged me to look at them under a microscope I had gotten for Christmas from the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Wish Book. (I think he had dreams of me being an engineer or scientist.) I kept those miniscule gears in a matchbox and examined them over and over looking for the flaws that caused them to be cast out of the batch because they were irregular and were not produced to the standard. Perhaps all that thinking about gears and wheels and cogs and organizing them to turn and move is why I now have this mental image in my mind- the image of a system with overlapping parts (work teams) all turning in the same direction (system alignment) and moving the system forward (increases in student learning). One of my work team members (Sean) has assured me he can create a widget to capture this mental image. He did actually build the first draft of the visual below.
By creating cross functional work teams who do the heavy lifting in unison, by designing key work processes, and by taking these processes through multiple iterations to harness the collective wisdom of the organization for refinements, while setting high standards and developing processes for answerability, we are able to strive for continuous improvement. This is the first blog post of what I hope will be many more installments around our continuous improvement model that is built on the Baldrige Performance Excellence Criteria framework. Tonight this seems like a good stopping point, so I will end this blog posting with this statement.
As a colleague said to me today, “While we realize these processes set the context for the work; the heavy lifting occurs at the school building level with classroom teachers and school leaders. Our job as district leaders is to build capacity for that.”