Is Your School Toyota or General Motors? Creating a Culture of...

column | PK-12 School Models

Is Your School Toyota or General Motors? Creating a Culture of Proactiveness

By Jin-Soo Huh (Columnist)     Nov 2, 2016

Is Your School Toyota or General Motors? Creating a Culture of Proactiveness

As we head into the thick of the school year, the excitement that once surrounded new initiatives in September begins to fade, and problems in implementation become exposed. Whether your school or district initiative is a move towards competency-based grading or the rollout of an online program, issues are bound to come up and changes in situations can derail a plan.

The real success of any school initiative can hinge on how one plugs up the leaks in an implementation. What kind of culture does your campus have—and is it conducive to dealing with those snags that will naturally pop up?

Is Your School Culture a Toyota or General Motors?

Recently, I was reminded of two different philosophies in approaching problems when I listened to an episode of the NPR series, This American Life. This episode examined a moment in the 1980s, when Toyota was able to manufacture cars at a higher quality and at a lower cost than its American counterpart, General Motors. GM factory workers were told never to stop the line for any reason. As a GM factory worker put it, “You saw a problem, you stopped that line, you were fired.” The company valued output, which resulted in poor quality cars.

Toyota took the exact opposite philosophy. They set an expectation that workers should be finding problems and ways to make the process more efficient. When a problem was found, the workers were expected to stop the line and the problem would be fixed on the spot. Bonuses were given to workers for those who found ways to shave time off of the process.

The two approaches distinguished these companies, as one sees similarly in schools. In truth, Toyota’s approach is one that schools adopt, because : 1) there was a culture of continuous improvement instilled in all employees and 2) there was a system in place for employees to bring up concerns and to have the concerns addressed.

Schools introduce new initiatives with the goal of increasing their students’ knowledge, skills, and mindsets. Having these two aforementioned key traits in a school can make the implementation and buy-in so much stronger. In this way, schools can avoid the tendency to blame the quality of the initiative rather than the quality of execution.

Structures to Create Continuous Improvement

Collegiate Academies in New Orleans stands out as an especially strong example of a Toyota-style culture. Founder and CEO Ben Marcovitz is obsessed with creating a strong adult culture because of the impact it has on student culture and learning.

Setting a culture of encouraging staff to find concerns is meaningless without systems to address them. It can even be more detrimental than having no system because the excuse of plausible ignorance disappears. Here are some ways Collegiate Academies encourages its employees to “pull the cord”:

  • Tacticals: Staff members attend meetings called ‘tacticals,’ where they bring up pain points. This can be done in teams like administrator leadership, individuals in the same grade level, or whole staff. Items are discussed and solutions are made right then and there under the guidance of a leader like the principal. If the issue is too big, a group is designated to explore the issue further and make recommendations (This was an idea taken from Patrick Lencioni’s "Death by Meeting".)
  • Productive paranoia: This mindset instilled in staff is one in which they operate as if conditions can change unexpectedly, so always ask, “What if?” A system that manifests this mindset is premortem meetings where stakeholders meet with the prompt, “This completely failed. What went wrong?” Have the meeting as if it is the future; it allows stakeholders to anticipate everything that can go wrong, in order to come up with contingency plans (This was an idea taken from Jim Collins’ "Great by Choice".)
  • Shoutouts: Something as small as publicly shouting out a staff member who pulled the cord can help to create this culture.

Structures to Create Continuous Improvement

Having outlets to address issues makes sure frustrations do not fester and solutions are created. Moreover, it creates a stronger investment in the initiative since all voices had the opportunity to chime in on solutions.

Rollout of online programs is a prime space to leverage these systems. I’ve seen it myself at my own Alpha Public Schools, where a teacher alerted us that a student was unable to login during a recent online program rollout. Our team did some digging and discovered a bigger issue with scheduling that affected more students. We were able to create a new system so that other affected students were able to login.

In our case, early productive paranoia allowed an early intervention on the issue—without it, we could easily have killed student willingness to try the program and teacher investment in the system.

Implementing initiatives as large as a new online program or instructional model is going to have its bumps. Administrators that are able to create a culture of continuous improvement by instilling this expectation in their staff and establishing systems to support this culture will have far more success in their initiative’s implementation and success. How do you build a more Toyota-like culture in your school?

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