Tuesday, April 28, 2009

IKEA as role model

Recently, members of a staff group expressed some of the challenges they faced in carrying out their work. Their concerns and the possible improvement strategies that they had identified were summarised by a third party in an email to the Principal. The email was intended to be a starting point for discussing the situation.

In response the Principal provided the members of the team with a comprehensive email containing several key documents and advice and instructions. The Principal's email was rather like something from IKEA. It was presented as having all the required bits and pieces (information) and a set of matching instructions.

While some specific aspects of schools can be improved using the IKEA method, the 'constructivist' notions of IKEA are fundamentally different from those involved in constructing the knowledge, arrangements and actions required to make a school effective.

For example, the construction of an IKEA item is a generally a once-only task and most customers would produce very similar items. In addition, the item is largely independent of the context in which it is constructed and the use to which it will be put. Also, the construction of one IKEA item does not impact on the effectiveness of other IKEA items even if they are same room.

In contrast, the aspects of a school are in a continual state of flux... the knowledge, arrangements and actions need to be continually constructed and reconstructed. And no one have the full set of instructions. In this information age, information and instructions are not enough. IKEA is great at furniture but it is not a suitable role for dealing with the complexity of schools.

Dealing with complexity requires on-going conversations in which experiences and insights are shared, and knowledge, arrangements and actions are co-constructed. Rather than trying to produce fail-safe kits (a la IKEA) it is wiser to undertake small safe-fail experiments to find out what works and what doesn't and then respond to the results: nurture and extend what is useful and curtail what is unhelpful. And the time, incorporating the best as part of 'our story'.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Monitoring school (system) capacity

One of the reasons that this blog focuses on small changes is because schools do not have an unlimited capacity to do good things. At the same time the number of good things that schools could being doing is almost unlimited, especially if one considers all the desirable and effective approaches that already exist for improving school performance.

One of the differences between implementing solutions and fixing problems is that the former tends top lead to low cost, sustainable arrangements. The later tends to lead to counter measures which usually require additional resources... time, efforts, $, arrangements...

It is true that many decisions about what to improve arise from the need to address problems that already exist. However, addressing an existing problem thoroughly can significantly reduce recurrent costs. The following guidelines may be useful

  • An identified problem represents an opportunity for improvement
  • An identified problem may require containment and resolution in the short term
  • Understanding how the problem arose may enable arrangements to be improved so that the problem is less likely to recur
  • Such improvements may require very little change: many problems can be reduced and even solved by ensuring that things get done on time, by the right people...
  • While counter measures may be still be required they need to be understood as an additional cost and not an improvement

It is wise to assume that the school is already near capacity. Thus, preferred improvement strategies are those that release resources rather than incur recurrent costs. Indeed, releasing resources is the key to increasing a school's capacity:

Attention to small everyday things and, everyone making it easier for the next person can be powerful ways to increase the school's capacity. The resources released are then available for higher order endeavours.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The myth of cost savings by cutting spending

In response to the global financial crisis many governments are trying to reduce costs by cutting back on services. This is described as cutting costs although it is actually simply cutting spending. The spin is based on the implication that cutting costs is both necessary and desirable...whereas, cutting spending might mean that someone misses out. And they probably will.

While it is true that such a strategy reduces the cost to government (at least in the short term) it almost never reduces the total cost. There are two common outcomes from such a flawed strategy:
  1. The total cost increases because
    • Processes become less efficient since they have to be developed using different arrangements and this may not happen (efficiency = 0%, effectiveness = 0%)
    • Actually require more resources - new arrangements have to be established
    • Processes become less effective creating backlogs, rework and deficiencies
  2. The cost moves towards those who can least afford it - those who have the least resources
The only way to genuinely reduce costs is to improve the systems involved.

Note: A new improved system may emerge spontaneously as a side effect of cost cutting - the edge of chaos phenomenon - however this is a very risky and unpredictable strategy.