Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Adopting the Continuous Progress Philosophy

I wanted to say a few words about the continuous progress philosophy, because it is fundamental to the direction that the School Board and District administration has been taking. In every organization, we can find inefficiencies. If we find a bunch of them this year, and get rid of them, we will find some next year, and the next year after that. An organization that is not finding inefficiencies and solving them is not being honest with itself.

Each year, with the cooperation of the executive team, the Board of Education concentrates on an area of operations to see if we can find improvements and efficiencies. Sometimes, we find major savings. Sometimes, the savings we find are not so large. When we identify problems or improvements, then someone will say "what is the matter with you, why did you allow this to happen" To that, I say, in a continuous progress organization, you are constantly trying to make things better. This year, we asked our auditor to focus on finding issues in the administration of personnel. We even suggested some issues that we knew about that we wanted to improve, so that we could get advice on how best to improve. With the assistance of our auditor, we identified issues, and we found some issues that we hadn't identified ourselves. My former Board colleague, Jerry Plachecki said about this: "If your auditor doesn't identify problems, that's when you know you are in trouble." And by that, of course, he meant that only in an organization that covers up its problems, does an auditor find absolutely no room for improvement.

Continuous progress is a philosophy that must permeate an organization. And making that happen takes a tremendous effort at the top, and throughout the organization. Creating a continuous progress philosophy is difficult, because of course, nobody likes to hear that there is a better way of doing things. The key is to welcome suggestions for improvement, rather than responding defensively.

I have this problem, just like you. When someone tells me that they are disappointed with something I did or said, be it on the School Board or at work (or even with my wife at home) my instinct right away is to explain that what I did was completely defensible or misunderstood. The continuous progress idea says that you cherish the people who care enough to give you ideas about how to improve. And that is really hard to do. But the continuous progress philosophy is one of the great keys to organizational improvement.

How does an organization adopt and implement the continuous philosophy? It begins with consciously adopting that philosophy as part of its central core values. In District 742, the Board of Education adopted the National School Board's Baldridge-based excellence model, called the Key Work of School Boards. One of the key components of that model is continuous progress: everyone can improve; everyone must invite proposals for change and improvement; an organization that fails to seek to improve itself is doomed to failure.

The continuous progress philosophy cannot sustain itself on talk alone, however. Every component of the organization needs to work on progressing. One of the keys to the continuous progress philosophy is really based on the Biblical idea of looking to change yourself first. In a continuous progress organization, we start by looking at what we ourselves can do better, instead of trying to focus on how you can improve everyone else. So often in an organization, we hear that we could just be better if everyone else can improve. In a continuous progress organization, everyone starts by focusing on how to make their own contribution to the organization better. Why does that work? Because it is way easier to change your own behavior than it is to change everyone else's, and when you improve your own behavior, it makes your proposals for change all the more credible.

This year, our Superintendent implemented a new system of evaluation, in which people he works with provide suggestions for his improvement. That system is now being replicated for other educational leaders in the District. But instead of making everyone do this first, he started by implementing the new system for himself. That's the continuous progress idea. We can all make change, and change begins with ourselves. Proposals for change are not threats---they are to be cherished.

Well, now you say, I don't think you are doing enough to improve, Jerry. Thank you for that, I say, (well at least I hope I do) I accept that as a challenge to further progress.

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