Building Excellent Systems: Top-down or Bottom-up?

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“We have to take these pockets of excellence, these islands of excellence and make them systems of excellence.”

These could be words of an executive in encouragement of a kaizen team, spoken in any number of languages, at any number of organizations on the lean journey over the past few decades. However, these are not. This sound byte comes from the unlikeliest of places. They are words of Arne Duncan, Former CEO of the Chicago Public School and currently the United States Secretary of Education. He spoke them during an interview on Daily Show with Jon Stewart February 16, 2012.
Recognizing that “the answers to every challenge are out there” within the state, district and neighborhood levels where ordinary people are working to improve education bottom-up, Arne Duncan expressed his view that the role of government was to identify these pockets of excellence and provide resources to “take to scale what is working”. In lean terms, yokoten.
Another key idea that was debated during the program was the pros and cons of standardized testing in schools. On the positive side, set standards allow measurement of performance in a common way. On the negative side, education can devolve into an exercise in completing worksheets in order to score well on tests. The actual value of learning by students may be constrained by the need to “teach to the test”. While Arne Duncan defended the merits of standardized testing, he talked of looking beyond test scores to other long-term outcomes including graduation rates and the percentage of students who continued on to higher education. On the whole, the Secretary demonstrated a few of the key characteristics of a lean leader during the interview.
A lean leader seeking to build systems of excellence must do three things:
1) Clarify and keep constant the long-term purpose of the system
2) Identify the standards, measurements and steps toward the purpose
3) Actively seek out, connect and recognize the correct actions and behaviors
The constancy of purpose must survive beyond the changes in the chief executive that happen every 4 years on average in the Western corporation, or in the United States Presidency every 4 to 8 years. This is barely enough time to build lasting systems of excellence, and certainly not enough time when these changing regimes lack a common vision and actively seek to undo the work of the previous one.
What could persist through such changes in leadership that we see every 4-8 years in the United States or in the CEO positions? While beliefs, preferences and policies may shift left, right and center, the results of scientific experiments themselves are remarkably consistent over long periods of time. The growing awareness of lean principles is helping to enlighten leaders of organizations in virtually all sectors to the benefits of managing like scientists. But sadly we are probably many decades away from evidence-based politics.
The role of creating constancy of purpose that lasts beyond the transition from one executive to the next falls once again to that great gourmand of strategy: culture. People must choose to live within a society, identify their shared values and long-term priorities within a society, their wishes for the future, and what they are willing to do towards achieving them.
A common sense statement of the operational excellence principle of gemba kaizen, phrased as, “let the front line people and organizations figure out what works in actual practice, based on evidence rather than bias, and then copy the successful practices across all other regions where they are applicable” almost a political statement: government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Articulating what we share in common as long-term priorities, making sure that islands of excellence are free to form, and insuring that systems of excellence are made from islands and pockets; these are important functions we should demand from our executives.

4 Comments

  1. david k waltz

    February 27, 2012 - 6:00 pm

    Jon,
    Reading the quote of Duncan, I am reminded of Tom Peter’s “A Passion For Excellence” – somewhere in that book he talked about a retailer that just sent people to the store in Indianapolis (might be wrong about the exact city). The other stores were to learn from there, take what they liked and leave the rest, and go on to create their own great stores somewhere else. Not a replica, but their own interpretation of the example that made sense for them wherever they were.

  2. Zane Ferry

    February 27, 2012 - 11:30 pm

    Great connections, Jon – education, government, constancy, culture. It has been pointed out that a thriving government by the people is characterized by a small set of immutable principles passed from generation to generation with a sense of constant peril. Substitute ‘corporation’ or ‘healthcare system’ or ‘industry’ or ‘public school district’ in that statement. Each new reading is just as true as the first.
    How happy the quest for excellence would be if a high degree of peril simply cancelled the laws of organic system growth. Leaders could force positive change rather than striving for years to foster it. Trees would mature in a day and bear fruit overnight. Voting and compromise would be obsolete, and the survival of (institution of your choice here) assured.

  3. Rob

    March 2, 2012 - 11:09 am

    Reading this I’m reminded of Demings teaching:
    The appreciation of a system involves understanding how interactions (i.e., feedback) between the elements of a system can result in internal restrictions that force the system to behave as a single organism that automatically seeks a steady state. It is this steady state that determines the output of the system rather than the individual elements. Thus it is the structure of the organization rather than the employees, alone, which holds the key to improving the quality of output.
    How would could we apply this thought process to government and education?

  4. Emarlia

    April 26, 2012 - 6:59 am

    Indeed Anna, we are so focused on the teccnihal achievements of Lean and we move so fast ahead that, sometimes, we forget to bring our people along. That is what I believe was different in my trips to Japan; I had no feeling that it was a gap between the management’s understanding of the goals of the organization and the production associates. If it was one, I didn’t see it. In any case, it was absolutely no difference in the commitment they all had to Continuous Improvement.We did design our training material in such a way that people experience in a non-threatening environment the basic as well as more advanced Lean concepts. Playing with LEGO after almost every major concept helps everyone to see immediately the applicability of it. I would need to understand more about your company and where you are on your Lean journey to give you some clear suggestions. Nevertheless, if you are just starting or are not too far into it, I would recommend starting with the very first module and the very first experiential game. Our goal is to provide value in the most efficient way. As you can see, the prices of our products reflect a close control of the cost. We are not only sharing from our Lean experience, but we also believe in leaving Lean. Thank you for your comments. Let’s keep in touch. If you want to e-mail me, here is my e-mail address: