Coaching Letter #24 was about the book It’s Your Ship and what I like about it.  I made a connection to the management practice called Total Quality Management, or TQM, and I think I should have spent some time clarifying a few things.

TQM is most closely associated with the work of W. Edwards Deming, who was a mathematician and physicist.  He was a data guy, and was especially insightful about the relationship between the data and the processes that produce the results that the data measure.  In particular, he pointed out that it is the system that is producing the results, and that we should not ascribe to the people working within the system more power than they really have to change the results.

In other words, if a pencil factory generates only 95 pencils of acceptable quality for every 100 pencils produced, and that is true no matter which worker is assigned to the production line, then there is no point in rating the workers as below proficient, because the workers are just one part of a system that generates substandard pencils.  To improve the number of perfect pencils, you have to improve the system—i.e. the process for producing the pencils.  Hence the emphasis on improving the process (to generate fewer imperfect pencils), rather than quality control (finding the imperfect pencils when they’ve already been produced but before they are shipped to the customer).  The concept of looking at the whole system in order to improve is the reason that the practice is called TotalQuality Management.

Just as measuring results is pointless without paying attention to the process, paying attention to the process is pointless without measuring results.  In education, we sin on both counts.

To further complicate matters, we are not always clear about what we mean by process.  When Deming talks about process, he is talking about the chain of causation leading from initial actions to final outcome.  When I work with school and district teams, I am frequently trying to backwards map the process for planning purposes, by asking these questions:

  1. What knowledge, skills, and characteristics will our students leave us with?
  2. What does that mean for how teachers teach?
  3. What do teachers need to learn in order to provide the classroom experience students require?
  4. What supports do teachers need for changing their practice—from school administrators, instructional coaches, central office, and so on?
  5. What do administrators, coaches etc. need to learn in order to support instruction?
  6. How will the implementation of all these steps be monitored and how will that information be used to improve the process?

However, we also use process to talk about something much softer, especially when human capital functions like professional development and coaching are concerned.  We invoke constructs like trust, community, relationship, norms, and adult learning.  It’s not that I don’t think these are important (I do!) but they do not exist at the expense of taking a hard look at the way the system works.  This is why I’m so sensitive to being thought of as a “process person” when I think that implies that I just want to listen to people and ask open-ended questions (“so, how do you feel about that?”).  I often feel that there is a perception that leaders are process people in the technical sense—paying attention to strategy and data and accountability, and coaches are soft process people—paying attention to whether everyone feels heard and valued.

The truth is that both coaches and leaders are infinitely more effective when they have command of both kinds of process.  Sometimes coaches can learn from leaders when it comes to paying attention to outcomes—coaches and professional development do not exist in isolation, they exist only in service of improved student achievement.  And leaders can learn from coaches when it comes to making sure that everyone is clear on the goals, has time to think about and practice new information and skills, and is supported in trying new things.

In fact, one of the things I think about a lot is that we would be so much better off if leaders and coaches spent more time talking to one another.  Coaches frequently do not have enough information about what they are coaching towards, and leaders frequently over-estimate how much can be accomplished without purposeful, scaffolded conversation and experiment.

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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