Saturday, June 21, 2008

Our Educational System needs more "Systems Thinking"

In the past few weeks I have had numerous conversations with many people about the complexity of our educational system. At times I have been frustrated of not being able to correctly articulate, or communicate the importance of “Systems Thinking” in solving complex process/system problems.

"Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

With every problem comes an opportunity. I can think of no better example that can relate the importance of “Systems Thinking”
than those that plague our educational systems.

When complex processes/systems fail, traditional ways of thinking and managing simply will not correct the problem. You need to be able to identify these types of failures and address them accordingly.


I have found in my work that identifying complex system failures can be accomplished by recognizing the following characteristics:

· The longer they are left unattended, the more vast their effects (Education System).
· Costs always surpasses what has been budgeted to correct the situation ($ always an issue).
· As effects emerge, unknown interdependencies rise to the top like a bad penny.
· The more that problems come into focus, the more complex they become.
· Past experience with simple systems and band aide solutions no longer apply.
· Root causes and their effects are impossible to identify, track and control (when left unattended for so long).

These characteristics identify the most troubling realization about complex educational systemic problems: They are inherently uncontrollable. They cannot be understood completely either before or even while they are happening; therefore, prediction and control are impossible. Conventional means of managing and problem solving will not work.

As I have said in many posts, without using “systems thinking” and involving all groups (interdependencies) from beginning to end you will only continue to band aid (tamper) the system.

I guess if I just plant a bulb and do nothing else, I may get a beautiful flower on it's own, but I bet it will be eventually surrounded by weeds and strangle the little fella.

It took take a systemic concentrated effort by members of the appropriate educational departments actively working together to solve the problems.

Conventional reporting structures and old-style power relations have also contributed to complex system failures. A certain amount of honesty and partnership must take place among process owners when addressing complex system problems.

Old trends, past practices, and inappropriate problem solving methods (i.e. tampering) make it impossible to understand the failures of complex educational processes/systems.


We have created an environment of complex processes/systems that require new methodologies to unravel existing entangled interdependencies. In order to reverse the trend, complex systems require unity, participation, and honesty to data, information and internal partnerships. These types of system problems require us to dissolve our past practices of hierarchies, boundaries, internal competition, conflicting management objectives and silence out of fear.

The failure of any complex educational process/system can’t be adequately addressed through departmental or grade level organizational structures or by a few internal/external consultants injecting their expertise into the system. Only those who work within the system know its inner workings. They are the only ones who know how to work around the systems when they fail.

Thus, implementing solutions to system wide or cross-functional grade processes requires test cases that secure the knowledge and expertise throughout the entire system/process (this may also include experts outside the traditional boundaries of the organization). Complex system problems like provisioning require unmatched levels of participation just to understand what is going on in the process.

It is vital that educational leaders provide the focus for implementing a process that identifies the members required for developing solutions to critical student affecting processes.

Educational and Academic Administrators need to develop a new mindset for addressing complex process/system problems. Margaret Wheately of the Berkana Institute suggests the following:

· Engage the whole system. Only participation can save you.
· Continuously keep asking, “Who else should be involved?”
· Create abundant information and circulate it through existing and new channels (dedicated Web sites or Intranets).
· Develop simple reporting systems that can generate information quickly and broadcast it easily.
· Develop quality relationships as a top priority. Trust is the greatest asset.
· Support collaboration. Competition destroys capacity.
· Demolish boundaries and territories. Push for openness everywhere.
· Focus on creating new, streamlined processes/systems. There is no going back.

I would like to add one more, “Don’t force change, and rather create the conditions for change to take place.” I have often heard, ‘what we need around here are leaders who will drive change.”

Leaders cannot drive change by themselves, just as I can’t stand on my deck next and order my garden to grow three inches every day. However, if I create an environment where the conditions are correct and I take an “active” part in nurturing it, there stands a pretty good chance that growth and change will happen in a predictable time frame.

Why? My garden needs a plan (includes the proper times, with milestones, etc…), it needs a method ( How) by which to cultivate the soil, prevent weeds, assure water and sunlight, fertilize at the appropriate times and keep the vermin (aka - doubters) away.

I guess if I just plant a bulb and do nothing else, I may get a beautiful flower on it's own, but I bet it will be eventually surrounded by weeds and strangle the little fella.

When facing complex educational process/system problems, administrative leaders need to create the conditions for the appropriate groups to come together that will identify the system interdependencies. Boundaries need to be removed and hierarchies mean nothing. Surrender control and create partnerships of shared responsibility. Abolish internal competition, and support people in developing system wide solutions and contingencies that will ensure student "Dreams" for the present and the future become a reality

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mr. Russert was a Champion!


Like many people this past week I was saddened with the sudden passing of Tim Russert of Meet the Press Fame.

I considered him an expert in his field of journalism and analysts of world affairs. He was always professional and a gentleman and produced a “Quality” show each and every time.

With his passing I stared thinking what is an expert he was compared to so many so-called experts that seem to be everywhere today.

Experts keep things simple and can pass information and knowledge to other people. Want an example? Mr. Russert using a “Whiteboard” and marker during the last election to explain the Electoral College. That is an expert!
Experts are everywhere; CNBC the Finance show must put on an expert in something every two minutes. Doesn’t matter that each one seems to contradict the previous one and the talking (yelling) that goes on when they have four experts and a host (another expert) debating (talking over one another) one subject with I’m smarter than you has me turning the channels quickly as I can push the remote button.

How about infomercials? I think the same people who buy these products/services are the same people who have donated money to television preachers and evangelist who build massive homes and churches the size of my local shopping mall.

Have a crisis and everyone has an expert on the radio and television talk shows and news stations. The best are the college professors from local colleges who have done some report on the subject in question, which make them an expert (aagh). I also cringe every time a Wall Street person who is introduced as an expert on money and the market.

If we have so many experts how come we are in such a mess when it comes to our money and educational situations. How come when these experts are proven wrong they are not brought back on the shows to explain their expert reasoning? Then all of a sudden a new topic or crisis emerges and they are back again on the tube and radio spewing miss information.

Mr. Russert was an expert, better than that he was a “Champion.” Champions are proven experts in their field because they work on their expertise (application) everyday, they have trained long and hard to prepare to compete at the highest levels in their field and many are awarded and respected by their peers and competitors. Best of all they don't shortcut corners, they work hard to excel at their work.

We need more champions; all you so-called experts can stay home or at your place of work and look in the mirror.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Quality Tool/Technique: "Six Sigma - Been There, Done That"

Six Sigma – Been There, Done That!

I recived an Email yesterday asking my views (actually help to keep it a float in a mid size company) on Six Sigma. I decided I would post a write-up I did in 2005, since my views have not changed.

I have received a number of questions about my earlier comments on quality (see Quality and Me…) and would I provide some thoughts on Six-Sigma. I thought it must be time since I received an Email from one of the leading On-Line Six Sigma Resource Groups with the title story being “The Warning Signals of a Failing Six Sigma Program.”

Other requests have come from friends stuck in the middle of a stalled effort, and from others who are responsible for the implementation while the company they work for continues to downsize (but please remember, the officer says “this has nothing to do with the quality effort).” Gosh, how many times do they think the rank and file is going to believe this crap? When are leaders going to wake up and discover the best time for improvements are all the time not just during downtimes? That means make it part of you job, don’t flaunt it, or sell it, just do it.

I will only comment on my experiences. Please understand that Six-Sigma goes by many derivatives today (Design, Mfg, Transactional/Service, Lean, Financial, IT, etc), much like many of its quality predecessors programs (TQM, TQL, TQC, CQI, PMI, etc). Most consultants and many quality groups will disagree with my statement, because their programs are unique where others have failed. I wish everyone would just state the program they have today is an “evolution” of earlier programs, instead of taking the first training day explaining the differences of their new and better process which “they” have developed. Six Sigma was no different when it came riding out of the west (Arizona) with all the answers. A few consulting groups located in Arizona did a brilliant marketing campaign and led the way for all other consulting groups to add Six-Sigma to their bag of skills (ISO, Reengineering, etc).

The same problems that exist today (see above article for reasons) are the same problems that stalled or killed the earlier programs. Trust me on this; I am not going to show a matrix listing all the similarities. Did all that many times within my own organizations.

In the United States just about all of these programs started out in the Manufacturing sector where the quality principles and SPC tools are somewhat more applicable than the Service (many consultants also call this transactional) sector. Then as successes and momentum gain they add the Service Sector because that is the area where most of the previous programs have stalled or failed.

Many people I have talked to will not believe that Six-Sigma can work in the service factor. I know this is not true since that is the sector I have worked in most of my career and implemented many, if not all of the programs listed above in the last 25 years. Granted, they all came and went, but there were some real gains and improvements for those work groups and departments willing to make quality of way of life in how they do their everyday work. Those that failed, refused to take the time to understand this key factor and chose to have quality remain exclusionary with the Quality Experts and Staff groups owning the show and being responsible. Of course the Quality Department’s view was that they are there to help you with trained experts (i.e., black belts), and it is your responsibility (Department VPS).

My Six-Sigma Journey: I will not provide the names of the quality groups involved. The point here is the message, not the messenger group (there are too many).

1) Since the late 80s one of my responsibilities as the quality guy was to attend the training and seminars by the many consulting companies (this also included companies that spun off their quality departments to provide training to other companies) promoting improvement techniques and determine if our company should pursue a contract. I also attended (60+) on my own to keep up with the latest learning’s.

2) The one effort we did when the Baldridge Award was at its highlight was to take our officers and Quality People on trips to the winners companies and learn from them the secrets of their successes. We did this for the first three years of the Baldridge Award; this really held the momentum of our quality effort. I must say, that the best of the best (I have visited many on my own too) was Milliken in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Tremendous people and leaders who really understood the importance of improvement and that were their customer and their people.

3) I attended my first training and seminars on Six Sigma in 1998 and 1999. Much was being published, all the Quality magazines adds were now shifting from TQM, Process Mgt and ISO to Six Sigma and many companies jumped at the chance to learn from the consultants who once worked at GE and Allied Signal and opened up shop in Arizona. One of the instructors was someone I had 10 years earlier for Team Leader Training.

a. The training material at this time was written for the Manufacturing Sector (one of the groups asked me to help them write one for Transactional – I declined).

b. 95% of the training was a combination of the successful predecessor quality programs. The remaining 5% was devoted to using more SPC Tools i.e., ANOVA, Chi-square, Order of Significance Charts, etc) than the common Control Charts and Histograms. The other difference was the new tools could be done by computer software so employees should no longer be afraid of statistics. I asked if the rank and file employees had become smarter since I had found most of our employees had 7 – 8th grade math skills. I was told that was the glory of Six Sigma, the computer will provide the answers and your Black Belts, or Master Black Belts will provide the support. Looked to me like exclusionary (rank and file teams supported by a quality department separate group or outside experts who eventually train in-house experts) rather than inclusionary implementation (part of how I do my job, I should not have to rely on outside help).

c. Another big difference the new consulting groups did which I thought was a good idea, although very expensive was to have your people trained to be Black Belts at their location. The idea was to go to class for a week or two and then come back and apply your learning’s to a process that would produce big savings, thus attacking the bottom line, where other quality efforts did not (not true where I worked). Total time would be about six months. Black Belts or Master Black Belts were not handed out easily, a number of successes had to be acquired before receiving your belt to add validity to the position.

d. In 1998, a much larger company who was rich in Quality having won many of the National and some International Awards for Quality acquired the company I worked for. The old style quality which one them accolades was being fazed out and Six Sigma was to be implemented because on of our major suppliers (big kuhunas of Six Sigma) said if we want to continue doing business with them we need to have Six Sigma Processes.

e. Quality at my old company was being internalized and was beginning to be considered part of everyone’s job; we earned some ISO Certificates (another story) and were consider value added members of the company. Once the merger took place and things settled down we were integrated with the much larger Quality Department (I took another job in the field which allowed me to continue my skills transfer program with the working folks) who was starting to look at Six Sigma Programs.

f. This took about a year for them to decide and they selected one of the old time consultant groups who had just added Six Sigma to their name. I attended the first training class and would eventually be certified as Green Belts after taking 5 classes over a 2month span.

At this time the Six Sigma effort was taking off and many consulting groups were offering training faster and cheaper. Faster meant many things to many people and less costly got upper managements ear. What earlier took months, even a year to obtain a Black Belt was now being done in weeks.

At my company the Six Sigma Department (first consultants did not want the old quality groups leading six sigma) was the old quality department. When we went to training all of our material supplied by the outside consulting group was done in a process management-manufacturing format (Where it used to say Quality or Process it now said Six Sigma, I know because they forgot to change some headings and I used to instruct process management classes). During the 5 classes training sessions we helped the instructor re-write the manuals to add transactional examples so that our employees could relate.

Eventually training was rolled out, those employees that went through the old Process Management Training saw little difference, and new employees saw value to the training. Because it took a year or so for the Six Sigma to take hold in “some” departments, the Six Sigma Group decided to change the rules.

My Department was one that took on the Six Sigma effort and since I had the background I was chosen to represent us in developing a Six Sigma Team and making process improvements. There were 8 teams all total from other departments led by others who had taken the reduced 3-day training. They even named a VP to lead the effort (no Quality or Six Sigma background).

My team chose to use Design for Six Sigma as our approach (this was a problem for the Six Sigma Department, they had not heard of Design for Six Sigma and challenged my process, they eventually understood after I sent a number of examples and documentation on DFSS). The team did a masterful job (especially the designer JCR) and we gave at least 10 presentations. The key was to present the new product/service and not sell Six Sigma. Let the results sell the process (Six Sigma Dept was not happy, they wanted to take credit).

As I mentioned earlier, the training classes went from 5 days to 3, and best of all, the Team Leader would earn a Black Belt after your team finishes. Since our product/service was getting the attention of the President and VPs, the Six Sigma Department wanted me to apply for my Black Belt so as to bring attention to their efforts because one of their main objectives was to have so many Black Belts by the end of the year.

I chose not to apply even though my team’s effort actually saved thousands of dollars and productivity time. Sad to say the 4 of the 8 original teams never got past the Define or Measure Stages, the other 3 teams finished but never provided any savings. They all earned Black Belts.

I informed the Director of the Six Sigma Department that I would not be certified under their program since it would undermine my previous certifications and those that were truly earned by others in different companies, nor would I contribute to another flawed implementation that was now being run by a group that had to have so many Black Belts and Green Belts to save their jobs.

Go to this site for 10 Six Sigma Quality Reports

Click on to read a related post by me on Six Sigma,

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Bus, the Big Apple and it's time for "Dreams"

The past three weeks have been very eventful and a time for reflection and good sense. Prudence is key and decisions like the ones I need to make can only been done in the silence of one’s own mind.

Since I retired early from what I now call my "Early" stage career I am now faced with staying in my current "Mid" career job or moving to the next chapter. I still consider this my mid stage because my next move will not be retiring it will be a shift in a new upward direction.

At one point in time I felt old because I was always looking backward. I now look ahead to each day because looking forward keeps me young in heart, spirit and physical sense of ability.

Sometimes one can learn more with their eyes closed for about two hours on a bus ride in the middle of the night when all is silent as opposed to during the day with over fifty geeked kids on their way back from the Big Apple spending a week in the most vibrant city in the world.

What a great week it was, never have I seen so much in a week with so many people (majority middle school age). Accompanied by school officials and parents it was a very excitable and learning experience for all. For me the best part was meeting some new friends. You get to know them fast when you spend two 11+ hour days on a bus together plus 16 hours a day during our trip.

Our trip brought excitement, reflection and sadness with every turn of the bus while we were in the city walking from one highlighted place to the next. While I had been there before in my business career I never was able to spend the time walking the streets during the day and night and seeing so many people all at the same time that make up the naked city.
The city did not disappoint, we saw every facet of life (good and bad). However it does seem that I encounter some of the strangest folks (Wacko Willie the pervert, bums, lost boy on Liberty Island, pick pocketed student, crazy bus (I don't like driving at night, I can fit through the toll)and cab drivers, bus driver with two autistic children and some I just can’t put a name on).

My most memorable moments are from the Special Education students who behaved admirably. All parents worry before field trips but none as much as the parents of a special child who often need daily medication. Out of over 150 students I did not once notice or hear of one them having or causing a problem. I can’t say the same for some of the General Education students who took every opportunity to cause a problem or suddenly have "selective Hearing" when instructions were sent hour on where to be and with whom and at what time. All in all it was a very well run and managed trip.

Lesson Recalled - continue to encourage young people they hear so much negative.

Lesson Recalled – tell young people the truth, they know when you are lying or what I call being plastic (not sincere).

The trip provided me with the time, information and experience that I needed to make a decision in the upcoming weeks as to stay in my current position or move to a new venue in the educational arena. I choose to move to my next leg of the journey.

Prior to my trip I had a very insightful meeting that stroked all my early career stage passions as well as those in my mid career stage. It’s about "Dreams" and what can one do starting from a canvas and rock and paint a masterpiece upon a foundation built from the ground up.

For me, everything starts with a “Dream” but the dream requires plans, hard work and execution for it to become reality.

The new position in a different school system will provide me the opportunity to guide students, staff and administrators on the positive things they should do as opposed to the negative, which is what I believe, must happen for positive change to occur.

Daily I continue to think about what my next opportunity will bring and the new friends I hope to make. I am convinced that each stage and change I make will lead me to the next door of opportunity as long as I am vigilant.

The best part of all is that it is time to bridge the new things I have learned over the past 4 years with those things I have learned from my 30-year business and teaching career that I already know. I believe now I can even be more effective in my on-going quest for "Profound Knowledge" and serve others who look to me for guidance and structure to obtain one’s dreams and my own for a passion for educational excellence.

It’s now time once again to challenge conventional wisdom and the balance of things to come. Through servant leadership all dreams can become true and the kicker is one can also be happy doing it at the same time.

As with any job change it is always hard to say goodbye, especially to the students and the friends I have met and worked with over the years.

Sadly, I heard this week that someone said I was leaving because I did not like some of the people I work with on a daily basis. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would have not left for any other reason than the new door that has opened and I must go through to continue my journey.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

So what is the definition of a great leader?

"A great leader is one that never asks the question "What's in it for Me?" But, asks, "What's in it for all those people who are around me that

I am responsible for their well being."

Do you think our leaders today in industry, education and politics ask this question before they make decisions? Based on the amount of work going to other countries and the health of our education system and the silliness of decisions made in local, state and federal governments I would say no, how do they sleep at night? Easy, it's all about
Wake up and realize the only way to be a great leader is to be a servant leader to those people you are leading. And, guess what? You will be a much happier person too!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Process Improvement in the Sales Process

Over the years one of the more challenging areas to implement continuous process improvement was in the sales process. I have found many sales people to be results driven and time focused. To get them involved for an extended period of time to work on process improvement is to know what drives their behavior. Sales people continuously face rapidly moving sales targets, demanding customers, increased competition, and they always juggling time schedules in order to get everything done.

Along with many others, sales people want to know why they should get involved, after all they are paid to sell and generate revenue. It’s important to let them know that applying quality principles will assist them in closing more contracts, create more customer preference and loyalty, spend less of their valuable time correcting things not done right the first time, generate more commissions and do all of these things in the same or less amount of time.

Bottom line sales results are not the only reason for sales people to get involved in process improvement. Sales people supply the input for a number of core processes like order fulfillment, customer satisfaction studies and competitive comparisons. I have often found that sales people do not believe they work in a structured process. When they begin to realize they are part of the sales funnel process (see below) they become more willing to help prevent errors and defects and start looking at ways to be more efficient and effective by implementing process and quality output measures. CLICK ON PIC TO ENLARGE.

Think of the sales funnel like a plant conveyor belt, sales leads and information pass through the funnel (Process Measures P1 – P5) just like raw materials are passed on a conveyor belt. The Quality Output (Q1) of this process is a timely, accurate and complete order (closed) that meets customer requirements.


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