Making Change in Education II – Complexity vs. Lean Six Sigma (learning isn’t like money)

One of the facebook comments on my last post on managing change was about how the corporate world had learned many, many lessons about managing change that we should be learning from in education. A cagillion dollars has been spent and saved using a variety of change management techniques that make companies more effective, more efficient and perform better for their shareholders. And that’s fine. There are any number of processes in education that can be cleaned up. The trick is to know what it makes sense to tidy up and what actually has the kind of complexity that doesn’t respond as well to those forms of change. (spoiler alert: learning doesn’t)

I had the opportunity in the spring of this year to dig into Lean Six Sigma. It’s an approach to change management that comes out of years of work done at Toyota (and other places) meant to make the factories more efficient and the cars more reliable. It worked. Like really well. Suddenly processes were far more replicable, and the cars coming out were far more reliable. Basically (warning, gross oversimplification to come) it involves you getting together with all the people involved in a given process, collecting a pile of data, and building a new process focusing on getting rid of the things that suck. There are concepts like ‘flow’ and ‘kanban’ that run their way into modern culture that are central to the approach. 

When I was working on an LSS project in the spring I kept coming up against what seemed to be a weakness of the approach. We were working on making the time it took to get a product to a customer shorter. Ok. That’s fine. We were looking to have it take us less effort to get a particular task done, thereby costing us less money. Alright. That’s ok as far as it goes. But what happens when you are talking about the quality of the activity. How do I enter “have the client feel respected” or “make it a safe place to make mistakes” into the chart? So much of the logic of the system seems to centre around the ‘good’ being ‘doing something faster or more efficiently.’ I can totally understand that when what we are doing to keep score is checking to see how much money we made… but how does this translate to protecting the environment or improving education? What is a unit of climate protection? What is a unit of learning? And, even if you do believe that those units of measurement exist, they don’t exist in isolation. We can’t talk about improved learning without considering the impact on teacher wellness. You can buy local or organic, you might be supporting pesticides but incurring more fuel usage through shipping. 

The answer for me lies in the distinction between complicated and complex as it is posited in the work of David Snowden. A complicated process is one that is a series of tasks, some times a very extended series of difficult tasks, but still a series that you would like to being able to replicate. (think – like a factory). So you might want your provisioning of laptops for your school system to have a full LSS review reducing downtime in the system and increasing the usefulness of the laptops. Great. You could fix this problem if you apply the right kind of structured review to it (and maybe find some more money). But it forces you to ask yourself who the client is (is it the IT tech or the student for instance) and then that will guide the decisions you make it provisioning. If its the IT tech, you might have a laptop repair process that makes it the least effort to repair. The student might have to wait until ‘laptop repair day’ but that would make it easier for the IT tech to do their work. If the client is the student, you may create a process where laptops are swapped at the school level as soon as any problem is discovered, thereby guaranteeing that the student always has one. LSS for the win.

Complex problems are one where you can never really solve a problem. You work at pieces of the problem to try to make them a little better, your terms of measurement are always going to be in flux. Your variables are going to be changing. Learning is certainly like this. We have so many conflicting messages around learning. We want to develop creative, independent learners and yet we measure their obedience in doing the things we asked them to do. I give you some content, you remember it, I’ll test it to see if you did what i told you to do – but we want you to be creative. The problem, I think, is that like LSS we all want to believe that learning can be measured so that we can see if we’ve improved it. I know we need to measure learning, but needing something doesn’t make it possible. Imagine trying to measure our other deeply human experiences, like friendship… or love. 

The desire for measurement of this sort leads us away from the complexity inherent in the learning system. Learning, like love, can’t have a lean six sigma chart designed for it. Once we’ve identified something in our education space as complex (as opposed to complicated) a new set of tools has to emerge. We have to have deep conversations about what our goals are. We need to talk about what our values are and how they translate to our lives. And then we need to engage with our system in a broad based, patient way that allows us to make change. As Snowden would put it, Probe, Sense and Respond. Try some things, see how they work, iterate and try again. You’re never going to get to best practice, because the situation is always changing. 

When I think about trying to encourage a prosocial web, I see it as a complex challenge. I can’t just send a bunch of resources to teachers and say ‘teach these things to your students’. While there are certainly digital practices that I think are better than others, none of them are going to work ‘just by being applied’. They need to be part of a larger effort to make teachers aware of how they use the internet themselves, of making parents aware. We need to understand that our protectionist strategies (limiting screen time, web blocking apps) just further put dangerous and mean activities our children on the internet further underground. We need training, we need dialogue, we need courage… but most of all we all need to get together and decide that our goal is to try and make the internet a better place… rather than trying to hide from it. No LSS approach is going to do that. Only human approaches… only messy results. 

We are confronted by the complicated/complex division everyday in education. Do I want to know if a medical students has remembered the nine steps of a process of inquiry to work with a patient or do I want to know if they built a good raport? How often do we choose the thing that is easier to measure… simply because we can verify that our grading is ‘fair’. How often do we get caught in conversations around how ‘rigourous’ an assessment is when what we really mean is ‘how easy is it to defend to a parent who’s going to complain about a child’s grade’. 

It does seem like we struggle to believe in complex problems. And, for me, they are the most important ones we are confronted with. Managing complex change is the most important work we do. 

Making change in education – champions are for charlatans

I’ve been using this expression in a few talks recently and I thought I should clarify what I mean by it. These are notes for future gathering… feedback always welcome. The lists of ‘things to look for’ are not meant to be exhaustive.

Most of my professional career the standard argument for making change in education is to work with the ‘willing’ first and move your way to the more resistant. This idea of seeing very willing people as a ‘trojan horse’ or as ‘change leaders’ has been so prevalent that I never thought to question it before. In the last year, however, both working with the department of education in PEI and now with the medical school, I’ve started to realize that It’s a losing proposition. Worse, I’m starting to believe that it’s the ‘approach’ that people often turn too when they have no plan.

Who are these champions
The name itself is a little misleading. There’s a sense in the expression that these are the people who are your winners. They give 110% all the time. They keep their stick on the ice… insert sports metaphor for ‘winner’ here. These are the people who will rarely say no. They are the people you lean on, the people who will stay up another hour at bedtime to plan for the next day. They are the 20%.

There are any number of charts about change and most of them offer some separation of 20/60/20. That first 20 are on board for everything. They are the early adopters. They jump in without really checking if the sharks are in the water. The bottom 20? They’re the people who never want to do anything. OLD THINGS GOOD. NEW THINGS BAD. They want to keep the status quo the same… for any number of reasons. The middle 60 is where the magic is. If you can convince the middle 60 that they want to change something, your change is going to stick.

The middle sixty
There are any number of reasons that people end up in the middle 60 of your change chart. For some it has to do with the way they are committed to their families. For others, they may have other interests outside of their employment that take up their free time… some are lazy… some are disorganized. Some are mostly reasonable but just a bit obstinate. They are, however, by interested in the best interest of your organization. They are, in education, the teachers that make the difference between a good school and a bad school. Treated badly, they will not be happy, or effective. Treated well… things are fine.

Why we shouldn’t aim for the champions

  1. It’s not super ethical. These are the people already working extra (usually unpaid) time. If you want to keep your champions healthy and happy, don’t use them on half baked ideas.
  2. You’ll create super stars. Super stars, in a school, are that teacher that get all the toys, lots of help, and lots of accolades. No one likes that teacher. And they create a false model. Other people will look at that person’s success and either think they aren’t good enough for it… or that it only worked because they got anything.
  3. It’s not sustainable. That person will not be able to give you an extra five hours a week until the end of time. They will move on to something else exciting soon enough. You want to embed your change in the middle 60 if you want it to last.

Why champions are for charlatans
Educational technology is replete with consultants who have never managed change. They may have been good teachers or just like to take your money, but this doesn’t mean that they are going to help you change your school. I am always suspicious of the consultant who wants to work with the school superstar. (odds are they were a school superstar too before they became a consultant). Real change is hard, and slow, and takes careful planning. Superstars mostly just give you the appearance of change.

It’s important to listen to everybody. There are lots of good ideas out there. But if someone comes to you with an idea and wants to prove to you that it works because three teachers at a district used it… ignore them. That’s proof of nothing. If they tell you to get a few teachers started and that will spread… I’d ask for evidence of it. That has not been my experience.

What you should be looking for from a consultant

  1. A plan that lasts longer than a year
  2. A plan that has the hearts and minds training of the middle 60 as a core component
  3. Someone who is asking you for money to interview a variety of staff – teachers, administrators, admin assistants.
  4. A plan that solves a problem you actually have, not one that sells you a piece of technology because ‘you need it’.

Remember the opportunity cost
Just because an idea is a good one, doesn’t mean you should do it. Your middle 60 are busy. Every time you try and fail at a project you reduce the chances that they are going to work with you next time. Even if your project works, they can’t be working on other projects at the same time they are doing this one. An opportunity costs means that when your people are busy… the can’t be finding new opportunities or doing other things.