17 Aug 2010

The Continual Improvement Cycle (Quality Management for Schools Part #2)

So at long last, Part 2 in my Quality Management for Schools series...   I want to describe in more detail exactly how a quality management system can generate continual improvement.  Probably the most fundamental principle of the ISO9001 is that "continual improvement of the organisation's overall performance should be a permanent objective of the organisation".  

Sounds great, but how do you do that?  Okay, let’s take a little detour…

Task 1:  I want you to think of your school recruitment procedure for either teachers or admin staff.  Think of all the steps involved – drafting an advert, interviewing, checking references, inductions, training – and make a list.  Go on, write it down.  If it helps, draw up a little flow chart so you don’t miss any steps.  Honestly, it will be worth it later. 

Okay, now I need to introduce the Plan-Do-Check-Cycle formulated by quality guru W. Edwards Deming.  It can be applied to any process in your organisation and is the simplest, most straightforward approach to orient any process or procedure towards continual improvement.  Basically, any continually improving process follows 4 stages as shown below.

In other words, you have to plan what you're going to do; then you have to do it; then you have to check you actually did what you set out to; and if not, you need to take action to make sure next time you do.  If there are negative results, you need to plan how to minimize them next time.  If there are positive results, you need to discern exactly where they came from and try and achieve them again next time, but better. 

Repeating this cycle again and again – pausing to reflect on each outcome, assessing the reasons for success or failure, and actually acting on that assessment – will lead to the continual improvement of the process and its outcomes.  It’s a simple feedback loop, but requires focus and discipline.  You may well expect such and such an outcome but actually get a completely different one, sometimes better, sometimes worse.  In the hustle and bustle of a busy school, too often these reflections can be overlooked, oversimplified, undervalued, or simply forgotten. 

No matter how complex the organization, its activities can be described as smaller interlinking processes and procedures.  Whether it is course design, handling enquiries, inspecting accommodation, recording student data, getting student feedback, whatever, there is scope for implementing Deming’s plan-do-check-act cycle.  And when applied to each individual process in the organization, it adds up to a global, company-wide schema of improvement.

     Task 2:  Now go back to your list from Task 1 and reflect a little on each of those steps.  What kind of task is it?  What is it trying to achieve?  For whose benefit?  Categorise each step as either planning, doing, checking, or acting activities.  Now plot these steps on a PDCA chart as shown below:




I am guessing you probably found you have more ‘doing’ activities than ‘planning’, ‘checking’ or ‘acting’.  The aim is to have a suitable balance between the stages that leads to improvement.  I did this task during my presentation at EnglishUK’s ELT Management Conference 2010 and the only member of the audience that had a well balanced chart with activities covering all 4 categories worked at an ISO9001 certified company – quod erat demonstrandum!

The chances are, you probably do check things and act upon feedback, but perhaps not formally.  You no doubt talk to new staff members to make sure they are okay, help them out, support them.  But perhaps you don’t record these actions.  And that’s a shame.  It would be good to evidence exactly why what you do is so good, or exactly why what you did was so bad and exactly how you’re going to do it better next time.  

If you get feedback from your job applicants, you could improve the content of your job advert next time.  If you test your new staff member on what they remember of the induction after a week, you can improve its content and delivery next time.  If you get feedback from your new staff member and their co-workers a couple of weeks into the job, you can improve the training or re-write the handbook.  If you get more accurate student forecasts, you can better plan when and how many teachers to recruit and for how long to hire them.  And if you evidence what action you took and why, everyone else in the company who has to do a similar task can learn from your experience.  And so the improvement continues... 

Of course, it depends how each process fits together with others.  Perhaps there are management or planning meetings where the results from the checking activities in the recruitment procedure are actually digested and decisions made on how to recruit staff differently next time, but the principle is the same.  There's nothing stopping you applying some PDCA to whatever procedures you are in charge of - even if it is only ordering the stationery.  Suppliers still need to be selected, staff needs have to be determined, the right stationery at the right price has to be identified, deliveries need checked against orders, the users need to be asked if the products are actually fit for purpose, and if not, alternatives need to be found, etc.

And the last thing to remember is that it takes time.  It takes a lot of reflection, a lot of attention, a lot of focus.  But the results should be worth it.

Next in the series:
  • Implementing the ISO9001 in a language school
  • Beginners guide to auditing

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