Hello, I hope this finds you well. Most schools in Connecticut have had three or four snow days already, so I hope you are warm and dry wherever you are. The last Coaching Letter, #102, was about small cycles of continuous improvement, and so is this one. It also connects to Coaching Letter #94, in which I tried to make the link between strategic planning and small cycles of continuous improvement, and to that end quoted Amy Edmondson in “Your Strategy Should Be a Hypothesis You Constantly Adjust”: “We call this approach ‘strategy as learning,’ which contrasts sharply with the view of strategy as a stable, analytically rigorous plan for execution in the market. Strategy as learning is an executive activity characterized by ongoing cycles of testing and adjusting, fueled by data that can only be obtained through execution.” In other words: small cycles of continuous improvement.

CL #102 elicited quite a large response, and I’m planning to incorporate some of that feedback into this and the next Coaching Letter. Thank you to everyone who emailed (or called or tweeted or whatever it is you do on LinkedIn), I really appreciate it.

Since writing #102, I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading and thinking about Mike Rother’s book, Toyota Kata. I had a teacher leader-like job (I forget the actual title) in the 90s when the idea of Total Quality Management, allegedly based on management practices at Toyota, really permeated school and district planning in the US. I say “allegedly” advisedly; I don’t remember reading anything that I would consider a primary source on TQM, just the handbook on school planning that the district issued. I hadn’t read Deming’s Out of the Crisis, which was published in 1982 (here’s a link to Deming’s Fourteen Points, and you can read more about Deming in this Wikipedia article), nor Hackman and Wageman (1995), and Toyota Kata wasn’t published until 2010.

If I had read in any depth about the improvement practices at Toyota, I would have realized that what was being promulgated in schools wasn’t remotely close to what actually happens at Toyota. The message that educators got was that it was all about having goals, action plans, timelines, and benchmarks. We duly starting cranking out school improvement plans that followed that format, and we never looked back. For more on this, see my article in the Kappan, the afore-mentioned CL #94, and my colleague Richard Lemons’ blog post.

Hackman and Wageman (1995) attempted to summarize and synthesize the literature that was being generated about TQM, and when I read it now, this is the part that jumps out at me: “A recent survey reports that the single most commonly used TQM technique is formation of short-term problem-solving teams with the overall objective of simplifying and streamlining work practices.”

How did we miss this? I feel like it took me 20 years to figure out something that I should never have been misled about in the first place. I also think it’s interesting that this is the essential feature of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and for as many schools where these are working as they were intended, there are many more where they are misunderstood and misapplied. When I talk about PLCs as being, in effect, collaborative action research structures, I am usually met with blank looks. For some insight into how these might work (plus a take-down of the misunderstandings about how to use assessment information and an argument for classroom formative assessment), I highly recommend Dylan Wiliam’s 2007 article in Ed Leadership, “Changing Classroom Practice.”

I highly recommend that you read Toyota Kata, and its companion book Toyota Kata Culture. (If you’re not likely to find the time to read the whole books, I will tell you that I have flags on almost every page between 102 and 158 of Toyota Kata). They put at the fore the routines (“kata”) that Toyota uses in order to improve constantly—Toyota’s ethos and its over-arching strategy is that it is constantly improving, and everything it does is in service to that. As Mike describes in his book, the work of improvement comes through the asking of these questions in daily coaching cycles in which the leader acts as the coach—you will see the parallels with the PLC questions, and indeed with other practices that I will write about in a future CL:

  1. What is the target condition?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?
  4. What is your next experiment? What do you expect?
  5. How quickly can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

There are some essential features to this system that you have to understand—this is not a comprehensive accounting, please read the book for more detail.

First, the target condition is not the same as a numerical target. Instead, “a target condition is a description of a process operating in a way—in a pattern—required to achieve the desired outcome” (p.103). I think the closest equivalent to that in education is the idea of a shared understanding of high quality instruction—see CL #86 for more on HQI.

Second, there is no assumption that the supervisor knows what to do. The assumption is, rather, that a new practice has to be found, and that will only be found by experiment.

Third, there is no substitute for going to see what is actually going on. Data are always the outcome of a process, and you can save yourself some time by going to see the process rather than always making inferences from the data.

Fourth, you have to be able to see failure as a source of learning. Here’s a short excerpt from Toyota Kata (about a non-Toyota factory) that I think really resonates in education:

We would go to the factory floor to try something and several people would fold their arms and say, “Well, let’s see if this works.” Of course within a short time the test failed. They were right, I was wrong, and the experiment would be over. At the first signs of problems, difficulties, or a failed step, it was announced that, “Well, that doesn’t work,” and often, “Let’s go back to the way we did it before because we know that works.”

Eventually it dawned on me how to deal with this question. Now, when arms fold up and people say, “Let’s see if this will work,,” I say, “I can save you the time. We already know it probably won’t work. Despite our best efforts to plan this, we know that within a short time there will be ‘charred and glowing pieces’ lying around. We just don’t know in advance when, where, or why it will fail.”

At this point the arms usually start unfolding a bit, and I follow with, “What we should be asking ourselves is not will it work, but, let’s see what we need to do to make this work.” After calibrating a group’s thinking in this way, I am always impressed with the smart ideas people from all levels come up with to get us closer to the target condition.

It’s almost winter break and I am, frankly, a bit surprised at how important it has been to me to get this Coaching Letter written. I have been corresponding with Mike Rother about why it is so hard to inculcate these continuous improvement practices that he refers to as “scientific thinking”. My current theory is that we have conflicting mental models—in education, the Toyota Kata butt up against our theories-in-action about what accountability is, how feedback works, and what planning looks like. I like a good challenge, so I will keep puzzling over this issue.

In the meantime, I hope you are able to take time for yourself over the next couple of weeks. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Email: istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Website: http://ctschoolchange.org/
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org

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