Want to Improve Quality, Listen Up

Often those with authority over a system/organization—frequently referred to as ‘the leadership’—use the thing they believe is valued by most as a way of resolving a complex problem such as quality. That is, they throw money at it!  Since money is the thing we greatly value, then what better way to demonstrate commitment to quality than to willingly spend it in the name of quality! Even though money is often required to solve such a complex problem—clearly energy is expended—this does not mean that everything can and should be resolved with the offering of money.  The U.S. government’s initiative to improve the quality of education illustrates this common practice quite well.

The U.S. government initiated The Race to the Top –and before this it was No Child Left Behind—that essentially uses accountability for results and a bag of cash—$4.35 billion to be exact—to get the attention of those in authority of public education within each state.  However, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, “the U.S. has been trying without much success to spend its way to education excellence for decades.”  Pay for success: Sounds great!  After all this is what business does, so it must be the best thing to do!

Obviously the intent is to incite—actually to incentivize—each state to focus on getting better results (i.e. educational outcomes) in their school system.  Offering money in a society that greatly values money is a sure-fire way to get peoples’ attention.  I am sure the argument is that the allure of money will get people to do something.   After all, nothing is being done now!  Of course the prospect of getting the money will most likely cause some action, but it isn’t that clean and simple.

Misguided Management

Seemingly it is believed—erroneously I might add—that popular business practices are effective.  Accordingly, The Race to the Top is fashioned after what leaders of business organizations often do—create competition, manage by results, incentivize and devise pay-for-performance schemes.  However the popularity of these practices is neither credible nor sufficient evidence to support their effectiveness.  Yes they get people to take action—so too would yelling Fire—but getting people to act is not quite the same as preparing people to improve quality.  These popular business practices have never proven to be effective over the long run, so why the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) includes these as the levers for improvement of quality lacks scientific support and is thus unclear.

When the context is competitive then nothing is more important than winning.  Some might argue this is what we want from our education system, people who know how to win!  Politely, no! This is not what is needed!  We really need graduates who know how to learn at higher levels and who find learning joyful.  We need people who can think critically and who can perceive and understand subtle trends in the world around them. If these were realized, we might then have a society of people capable of seeing trends way before it is obvious even to the casual observer and making decisions that help society realize human progress, not mere material growth.

Managing by results means results rein supreme. Some might contend that knowing how to get results is what it is all about!  When getting results is what matters the process becomes the least of people’s concern.  Hitting the numbers—by hook or by crook—is what becomes important!  We see this play out in business all the time yet we seem to ignore its cause.

What management really communicates is that process and quality are irrelevant, and it is all about results after all.  Thus what is (tacitly) learned is how to rig the system or fudge the numbers in one’s favor so that the results show oneself to be the winner.  In this environment, might we see fraud and cheating scandals in the future?  We see it occurring in business all too often—can you say Enron, WorldCom and Wall Street!

Getting What You Pay For

Last but surely not least is merit pay—pay-for-performance—based on the meeting the set numerical goals to determine one’s compensation and/or continued employment. The argument in support of this system is that it incentivizes (i.e. forces) people to ensure that they measure up.  If a person’s job depends on it, then it will surely bring focus to what they do.  This is nothing more that management by fear—the antithesis of what underlies quality.

Of course we want people to do quality work!  But this merit pay arrangement changes the relationship one has with their job—it changes what one does. What this essentially does is causes people to choose between outcomes and process. In business you might say it is not the product or service that matters it is the sale!  Guess what will win out?  In education this translates to teachers becoming trainers and students becoming highly trained test takers—yet test scores don’t equate to a quality learning experience!

Merit pay sounds great but it doesn’t work as intended because it rests on erroneous assumptions, and there is credible research to support this.  Also, if it worked as well as its widespread use would indicate, then the vast majority of business organizations would exemplify the pinnacle of performance from top to bottom.  But they don’t!

Learn How to Think About Quality

The very things that would help—systems thinking, statistical thinking, theory of human development and learning theory—are disregarded. Instead, managers/leaders continue to apply the same level of thinking–reductionism and competitive context setting—that supports poor quality. Throwing money at a problem, absent of understanding, no matter the amount is never a sound approach.

What must be understood is that the system—the organization—is designed and managed to produce what it is delivering.  Thus a fundamental change of the system and the way it is managed, not changes within the system, is required.

In short management must re-think and thus re-design the system, and not merely manipulate the parts in pursuit of better results. Holding the worker accountable for better results is simply avoidance behavior.

Management therefore must detach from what habit of thought provides and use critical thinking before using the organization’s money as a first step toward quality.  Management needs to learn about quality and its’ improvement toward understanding the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of quality—educate one’s self rather than begin the wholesale training of workers.

Clearly when those in authority focus on results and employ money through competitive and accountability schemes in an effort to improve quality, it is a signal that they haven’t a clue of what to do.

17 thoughts on “Want to Improve Quality, Listen Up

  1. Hi Greg,
    You’ve packed a lot of understanding, not just information, into yet another insightful article.

    There is too much to discuss by typing so I will call you today.


  2. I came upon one of your posts at Huffington (under a blog by Robert Reich) and I instantly became a fan. Today I come upon another of your posts and I am even more impressed. I only wish that there were people in our government that could get someone like you on board to design and implement laws and policies in the Department of Education (and other departments–Would you consider taking on tax reform?). As a teacher I have, for years, been trying to promote similar views to yours (although you are much better at communicating and clarifying the problem than I am) with little or no luck.

    I have a little story that I think sort of illustrates what a reasonable rational approach like yours is up against.

    In the high school where I taught Physics for 30 years we had a problem with violence (fights mostly) in the halls during passing periods. An Assistant Principal who was tasked with finding a way to reduce the violence came up with the solution of shaving one minuet off passing period (was 5 min–now 4-min). When this was proposed I was against it as an unreasonable way to solve the problem because it would cause the 95% of students that did not cause problems unnecessary stress in moving from one class to another (the school was very big–3,500 students) and cut into what little personal and social time they had. I, of course, was dismissed as somebody that just didn’t get it. Six months later at the end of the year recap meeting the Assistant Principal got up and reported that thanks to the change in passing period time referrals for fights and violent behavior in the halls were down 30%. This was taken to be a great success and improvement. I raised my hand and asked what the effect on tardies had been. The response was that the data wasn’t available but no complaints about tardies had come to her attention. (My complaint had been made to the head Dean and some how had obviously got to her.) I then raise my (the only one) hand again and I said I had a suggestion that I thought might improve things even more. Hearing this she smiled and asked what it was and I said “If this worked so well as to get a 30% decrease in violence why not reduce the passing period to 3 minuets. She just looked at me and said “thank you for the suggestion.

    This is the mind set for solving problems in education a thoughtful and rational approach faces.

    • Ray Thank you for the very thoughtful response. As you know first hand these problems with management are epidemic. It is our shared paradigm of how the world works and what being human means that is cause much of our difficulties. People can’t place the thoughts they hold (and unquestionably believe) aside to see that the reality they are creating is inhuman and unsustainable–we will self-destruct, eventually.


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