This webcast shows Tom Rudmik’s presentation, Thriving in the World of Massive Change, at the 2012 Annual Deming Conference. Tom is CEO of Master’s Academy and College.
This is an interesting presentation that includes a look at an array of current scientific breakthroughs. The early part is reminiscent to talks I heard from Joel Barker a few decades ago – sharing their look at scientific discoveries, the innovations being brought to market and how we must change how to think and build systems with an understanding of where the world is heading toward.
As Walter Gretzky, Wayne’s father, said: “Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”
Like Joel Barker, Tom stresses the importance of making a significant effort to understand the innovation around us and plan for a future using the understanding of where we are heading.*
The existing assembly-line approach to education exists because it’s the only way we knew how to manage large groups of students back in the early 1900s. The world has changed and we need a totally new system of education. No amount of tweaking the industrial age assembly-line system will produce the kind of results that are needed in this 21st century that we live in today.
Most reform attempts, such as “no child left behind,” have focused on treating the symptoms of the system and not the real problem. The problem can only be understood when you have a vision for a brand new system.
For 25 years we have been developing profound learning in thousands of schools and over the years a new model of education has emerged where the vast majority of students can attain academic excellence.
The presentation discusses how to use the vision of the desired-state of the system to drive a transformation to the new system. He doesn’t mention Ackoff’s ideas on idealized design but he seems to be talking about to a transformation based on similar ideas.
Sir Thomas More was not the first person, nor the last, to disagree with King Henry VIII. His last serious conflict, refusing to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as the Queen of England in 1533, was interpreted as a snub against Anne. From this episode, More’s enemies organized efforts to arrest him on charges of treason, ending two years later with his beheading. A tragic ending for the Member of Parliament and author; who, nineteen years earlier, described the fictional island republic of Utopia. Common explanations suggest this landmass in the Atlantic Ocean represented a perfected society, one ultimately unreachable. 500 years later, visions of Utopia live on in our imaginations. But, what can be said of the enduring concept of perfection?
I have often entered a Do It Yourself shop in search of a specific tool or piece of hardware, not knowing where to find it and sought out assistance from a staff member. With their guidance through the aisles, the interaction inevitably ends with the question, “Is this what you are looking for?” and my reply, “Perfect!” In other words, “exactly what I had in mind.” Such an explanation of perfect differs fundamentally from a definition of perfect as an unreachable endpoint. That is, in terms of a product or a service, there will never be a better one. While I acknowledge my use of “perfect” to respond to questions such as “Is this what you are looking for?,” I have serious doubts about the use of perfect in the context of an ultimate achievement, perhaps characterized by “The Pursuit of Perfection,” a phrase often attributed to Toyota’s Lexus division.
As with Utopia, the concept of perfection as a pinnacle of performance is hardly limited to Toyota. British actor Dudley Moore came to fame in the United States in the 1970s with the film 10, a romantic comedy in which he was paired with American actress Bo Derek, the perfect woman, a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10, if not 0 to 10. What matters is this scale, with a parallel to an Olympic judging system of 1 to 10, ends with 10 as the highest possible achievement in beauty as well as athleticism. What are the implications of a measurement scale that terminates abruptly? What can be said of the continuous pursuit of perfection, if perfection represents an endpoint, such as Bo Derek? While exploring a generation before models Gisele Bündchen and Naomi Campbell graced the covers of Vogue magazine, would it be possible for Dudley Moore’s character to find someone more beautiful than a 10? Can an organization practice continuous improvement and simultaneously believe in perfection in this context? Does CI stop at perfection? On several occasions, I have heard the logic “continuous improvement is a journey” and “perfection is a very distant goal,” well in keeping with Thomas More’s Utopia. A distant goal, agreed, but also a point of stoppage that conflicts with my understanding of continuous, quite often defined as “happening or continuing without break or interruption.”
Might it be possible that seemingly Utopian end points, such as the achievement of zero defects, zero waste, and the elimination of non-value efforts, stem from how individuals and organizations currently think about their efforts, without realizing the conflict between a focus on continuous improvement and the existence of perfection, even if a distant goal? To perceive improvement as continuous requires thinking past stops that offer the illusion of barriers to improvement, much as Sir Roger Bannister raced past a four-minute mile and Chuck Yeager flew a fighter plane beyond the sound barrier. Would continuous improvement be a focus of exploration in Utopia?
“The efforts of the various divisions in a company, each given a job, are not additive. Their efforts are interdependent.”
W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics
In a continuation from a previous blog on what to think when things do not add up…, consider the machinist whose task was machining small holes in a metal housing. He and his upstream and downstream peers were challenged by their manager, in competition with their “teammates,” to reduce the cycle time of each of their tasks. The hole machinist cleverly won the award by saving time by not devoting any additional traditional effort for finely removing the sharp edges around the hole, a process known as deburring. While he was still meeting his requirement of deburring the holes, he saved time by providing a minimal effort, barely complying, yet technically still meeting the company’s deburring requirement. But, the time he saved was nullified by a far greater loss in time when his peers were seriously handicapped by his minimally-deburred holes in their downstream efforts. Negative synergy strikes again!
I have also witnessed best efforts with cost cutting in an office environment, when the card-stock paper in dozens of 3-ring binders used for hardware production planning was replaced with a lighter weight paper. When the thinner, less expensive, pages tore, hole reinforcement circles, 6 per page, were regularly installed on hundreds of pages of planning documents.
In her book, Thinking Systems, Donella Meadows offers a reminder of the previously quoted Sufi expression (“You think because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and.”) that the explanation of “and” depends on the nature of the relationship between the items being counted. When they are independent, such as combining apples or cups of water, addition does apply. When they are interdependent, such as combining the two components of aerodynamic drag, pressure drag and friction drag, aerodynamicists know what to think when addition does not work. They begin by realizing that the “total drag” on an object is a non-additive combination of pressure drag and friction drag. Pressure drag can be lowered by reducing the frontal area of an object, as when bicyclists lay their upper bodies close to their bike, instead of sitting upright. Frictional drag can be reduced by making an object smoother, as when surfaces are polished. Such an example is the former use of full-length, polyurethane swim suits in Olympic swimming events.
Beginning in 1905, golfers have benefited from the design of golf balls with reduced total drag. With dimples, they travel farther. How they do it requires the two components of drag to be viewed as interdependent, as a system, for dimples do not result in a smooth surface. Instead, they are known to increase frictional drag. But, the increase in frictional drag is accompanied by a far greater decrease in pressure drag, leading to a net savings in drag. Had they been managed without a sense of a system (as when all departments in an organization focus on ways to lower their own costs – minimal deburring of machined holes, thinner paper for planning documents, and no perforations on stickers – to achieve total savings), one design team would focus on decreasing frictional drag, another on decreasing pressure drag, as if they were separate. As a result, golf balls would be smooth and polished and total drag would not be reduced. Instead, the designers use a “loss leader” strategy, deliberately making one drag component worse to lower the total drag. By increasing frictional drag, the golf balls travel farther.
Supermarkets do the same when they sell some products at a loss, looking to increase total profit when customers buy other products that are sold at a higher profit. Or, during holiday season, providing “free” turkeys for purchases over $75. By decreasing profit in one department, they can increase profit overall. What these situations have in common are examples of The Economics of Teamwork and What to think when addition does not work. They represent the limitless opportunities within organizations to purposefully manage resources, with a focus on exploiting interdependency, not unknowingly falling victim to it.
My son, Ben, was written up at work for calling off so he could evacuate Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma’s landfall. You can read about it in The Washington Post. Seriously.
Irma – a category 5 storm almost as large as the entire peninsula. Ben is a college freshman living on his own for the first time. He has a part-time job as a food delivery driver. He works hard, cares about his job, and appreciates being paid. And he cares about his personal safety almost as much as I do.
As the storm approached, I arranged lodging for Ben in Georgia and out of the reach of the worst part of the storm. He was concerned about getting in trouble at work….But who expects food delivery during a hurricane??? At my urging, he called his manager to tell him he was evacuating.
While Ben was away, his manager sent a group text to the delivery drivers stating that while gas was scarce in the area, not being able to find gas was not a reason to call off. There’s brute force – then there’s this. What did his manager expect? Hot and fresh delivery falls apart when the mode of travel is heel-toe express!
When Ben returned to work a few days later, he received a warm “welcome back” write-up and was informed that future time-off requests would be denied.
By all accounts, the situation was infuriating. I wanted to direct my wrath at the manager, but my Deming brain knows the source of the behavior likely comes from something much more powerful – the corporate belief system.
Let’s assume this manager is passionate about helping people get food – that is a powerful vision. As laudable as that might be, his vision might become misguided when put in the context of looming natural disaster. One could argue that the manager’s highest priority be his responsibility to the staff and their safety. At that point, it would be up to each employee to decide whether to evacuate or stay. Naturally some would stay and work, guided by intrinsic motivation; others would listen to their mothers and get out of harm’s way.
So I wondered…why would the manager feel okay about risking the safety of his employees to make a few extra bucks?
I’ll likely never know the answer, but I suspect something in the corporate system drives this behavior – a carrot, such as a bonus plan; or a stick, such as a a penalty for closing early?
Writing up employees under such circumstances demonstrates how beliefs can extend to a ridiculous extreme. Command-and-control tactics strip integrity and dignity out of work – workers are left with drudgery. The manager’s attempt to “punctuate” corporate’s threat with the “no gas is no excuse” line illustrates the the misguided management belief that people can be told what to do – and they will get it done – because they know management expects results no matter what. When the tank is empty and the gas station is closed – brute force won’t make the car’s engine run.
A day or two after Irma left town, The Washington Post ran a story about Ben’s employer, the infamous memo, and the manager’s poor attempt to keep the doors open. It’s difficult to know what the company will learn from this experience. We, however, can use it to deliver a message about how to do things differently.
This webcast shows Bette Moen’s presentation, Fixing Education: A Model That Works, at the 2012 Annual Deming Conference. Bette is the founder and director of Cedar Crest Academy.
Cedar Crest pays close personal attention to each student and adjusts the system to their needs and strengths. The system is adapted to maximize the education system results. How such a concept would be applied in a different system would be different. The level of individualization is not possible with the structure of many schools. But other schools could learn from the ideas and transform themselves to be more focused on providing students what they need instead of trying to figure out how to bend students to the requirements imposed by the school’s rigid structure.
Could your organization improve the performance of the organization by paying more attention to each person and adapting the system to maximize the performance based on the individual’s strengths? I know many organizations I have experience with are much more focused on bending individual’s to fit the rigid organization structure and could benefit from creating systems more able to take advantage of the abilities of their people.
It is wonderful to see the focus placed on creating systems to make learning happen – as described in this presentation. That same focus on creating systems that let kids learn is repeated over and over in the presentations by those applying Deming’s ideas to education. Each presentation shows how important it is to change the thinking from we have a very set system and need to fit students into it to a model of what type of system can we create in order to nurture student learning.
“The efforts of the various divisions in a company, each given a job, are not additive. Their efforts are interdependent.” W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics
In the summer of 2005, I attended a conference which featured Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, as the opening keynote speaker. Welch offered an assessment on the overall savings from continuous improvement projects across GE: “If I added up all the financial savings of the projects at GE it would have added up to the gross national product of the USA.” In other words, the savings from the hundreds, if not thousands, of application projects across GE, when added together, were colossal, and Jack Welch knew it. Yes, they could be added, but the sum appeared to be noticeably inflated. Something was missing in the calculations, perhaps interdependencies and resulting unintended consequences were overlooked. What’s one to do when addition does not work? In keeping with the opening quotation from Dr. Deming, we can turn to Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist for inspiration with her reference to the Sufi statement, “You think because you understand one you must understand two, because one and one makes two. But you must also understand and.”
As a prelude to an explanation of “and”, consider a favorite quotation from Tom Johnson in his book, Profit Beyond Measure, aptly sub-titled, “Extraordinary Results Through Attention to Work and People;” “How the world we perceive works depends on how we think. The world we perceive is a world we bring forth through our thinking.”
Regarding how we perceive the world, the impact of the difference between working together (the total is more than the sum of the parts), working apart (the total is less than the sum of the parts), and working separately (addition applies) can be examined mathematically by rephrasing the Sufi statement as a question; “What does 1 plus 1 equal?” For example, does 1 cup of water plus 1 cup of water equal 2 cups of water? Ditto for 1 apple plus another adding up to 2 apples? Yet, does the same apply to 2 co-workers each saving an hour in their tasks? Combined, would the organization save 2 hours? Or, would 2 workers each saving $100 save their organization $200 overall. Given the reality of systems, such an additive saving is nearly impossible.
The classic issue is whether or not the items being combined are interdependent or independent; that is, separate. In the case of water and apples, when accumulated, they are not dependent on each other. They do not work together, as teammates, to create a third apple nor a third cup of water, nor operate in such a way that water would be lost (other than by evaporation) or part of an apple would be lost. But, in an organization, our actions are always connected to others. We constantly receive from others and deliver to others. By comparison, can you imagine a co-worker who received nothing (data, reports, parts, etc.) from others (other than salary) and delivered nothing to others? That is, the worker was truly an island in the organization, isolated from the others?
When we shift our focus to work and people, we simultaneously shift our thinking from independent cups of water and apples to people and their interdependent tasks. If the two items being considered are people working together, the results can be more than the sum of the parts; more productive than two people working independently. This is termed positive synergy. On the flip side, we could also see negative synergy resulting; 1 + 1 being less than 2.
Opportunities for discovering a lack of additivity apply to both the economics of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Year after year, I have been ably served at blood collection centers by highly skilled phlebotomists, as well as many volunteers who contribute their time and passion to these life-saving agencies. One volunteer who stands out is Mary, a senior citizen who provided the refreshments after our donations, always with a warm smile, all the while providing us with a small sticker to add to our personal planners. Mary’s role included adding a date to each sticker to remind us of our next visit. With all the strength she could gather, she cut the 1-inch wide stickers, one at a time, from a large roll. As she tired, she needed both hands to force the handles of the sheers together. Once, I commented on the Herculean effort she expended to cut each sticker from the roll, much more effort to separate the stickers than I recalled from previous visits. Her matter-of-fact reply revealed an appreciation for her system. Quite simply, she offered, “Yes, somewhere someone is saving money by no longer buying a roll of stickers with [easy-to-tear] perforations.” “What do they care about my effort?”, she said, “I’m only a volunteer.”
Mary is not alone in experiencing an unintended (negative synergy) consequence of task-oriented organizations, where processes are divided into apparently separate, independent, tasks, examined for how best to reduce costs for each task, then reassembled into a “new and improved” process. I do not know the thinking behind the decision by the blood donation center to purchase rolls of unperforated stickers. However, I have witnessed other situations where a determined attempt to achieve overall savings by piecing together local savings, resulted in overall losses. These cases serve as a reminder of the ease with which a seductive path of “adding up the savings” can be followed. They also serve as a reminder of the possible outcome of this path by being aware of systems.
Through his seminars, lectures, videos, and books, Dr. Deming shared a vision of systems well-managed. In his last book, The New Economics, he reminded us that “a system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system……The greater the interdependence between components, the greater will be the need for communication and cooperation between them.”
We all benefit from standardization every day. We can plug our devices into a wall outlet and power them. We can get a replacement battery and have it work as expected. We can type on the keyboard without thinking because the keys are the same on each keyboard. We can connect to a new wifi network with our phone or laptop. We can buy a replacement pipe for our sink and install it.
With a systems view it is understood that there is a need to consider the entire system when designing solutions. Standardization allows us to create certainty about specific aspects of how items will interact. That certainty (of course variation still has an impact even with standardization so “certainty” may be oversimplifying it a bit) then allows us to be creative and not have to redesign every single part of a system every time we wish to improve some part of that system.
Standardization allows us to creatively improve within the context of the system and with an understanding that certain key factors will conform to those standards.
One of the objections I hear to adopting standardization is that doing so takes away our ability to be creative. This is not the case. Dr. Deming’s quote does a good job of explaining this. Standardization allows us to create systems that are reliable and effective. Within that system there should be a great deal of flexibility to apply creative ideas.
Deming’s criterion of knowledge is whether it helps us to predict and not whether we discover truth, because there is no such thing in the domain of empirical knowledge. In the empirical world, statements are only probable rather than true and absolute. If we can predict, then we have knowledge. We could have a beautifully constructed theory that has little or no relevance to the real problems that people face. Euclidean geometry, Plato’s forms, the normal curve, and other examples of abstract reasoning are true in their own world of mind, regardless of whether they apply to the empirical world. A theory that is internally consistent (i.e., true in its own world) has construct validity but may not have predictive validity. We learn about the ability of a theory to help us in predicting by structuring our predictions to be testable by empirical investigation. A theory is evaluated by future experience, whether in science, in management, or in everyday living. Theories can be revised as learning occurs, and as evidence accrues, we increase or decrease our degree of belief in their ability to help us predict.
Humans have the ability to apply knowledge to anticipate the future, not just to react to the present. To be able to say one knows means that one is able to predict, with some degree of certainty, the consequences of one’s own actions or that of others. Knowledge makes it possible to go beyond specific data and observations and make predictions that apply over a greater spread of time and place. Knowledge grows through systematic revision and extension of theory based on how things turn out. If a theory is shown to be inadequate, if it’s limited in its ability to help us predict, it should be revised or replaced. If a theory is taken to be truth, it can’t change, so there is no learning.
Any rational plan is a prediction of future performance and outcomes. Deming was amused by the cartoon “Diary of a Cat,” which he saw in the New Yorker magazine. Each day is the same as the day before. Wake up and there is the food; finish eating and there is the ball of yarn. Play with the yarn. There is no need for theory if you don’t have to plan for tomorrow. Without theory, humans can’t interpret experience, can’t make meaningful changes. We need knowledge. Knowledge has temporal spread. Knowledge comes from theory.
When a theory predicts without fail for a range of phenomena, it is said to be a law. Deming used the example of gravity. He was very sure that anywhere he dropped a pencil it would fall downward. He demonstrated. The result was always the same, he said. However, the laws of nature don’t exist out there—outside our mind; they exist in our minds. The descriptions and names we give to things are creations of the human mind, not the things to which they refer. “Gravity” is a word that represents a complex physical phenomenon that is not well understood, except perhaps by Einstein.
Walter Shewhart described three essential components of knowledge: (1) the data of experience in which the process of knowing begins, (2) the prediction of data that one would expect to get in the future, and (3) the degree of belief in the prediction based on evidence. This corresponds to the statement by C. I. Lewis that knowledge begins in the original data or observation and ends in the predicted data or observation. If the prediction is verified, the degree of belief in the theory is strengthened. Shewhart wrote that this is not as abstract as it appears. It applies to everyday experience, such as predicting the weather.
At Aileron, we fervently believe privately held business fuels free enterprise and raises the quality of life for us all. As businesses move beyond the start-up phase, a systematic approach to your business is critical to sustainable and strategic growth. We call this approach Professional Management, and have developed a system to implement it influenced by Dr. W. Edwards Deming and other great thought leaders. Dr. Deming’s timeless teachings have been, and will continue to be, a driving influence because we see his philosophies work.
“The boundary of the system to be described…may be drawn around a single company or, around an industry, or as in Japan in 1950, the whole country. The bigger be the coverage, the bigger be the possible benefits, plus the more difficult to manage. The aim must include plans for the future.”
W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics
In the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11, I was invited to deliver a presentation on an integration of ideas from W. Edwards Deming, Genichi Taguchi, and others, to 70 graduate students, all pursuing a masters degree in business administration. With my presentation scheduled for 1pm, I asked my university hosts to invite attendees of the presentation to meet with me over lunch. About a dozen accepted my invitation. After introductions, one of the students, John, commented that my lecture was preceded by a presentation the week before and that “it was only fair to mention” that the preceding presentation “would be a tough act to follow.” Such a description quickly drew my attention, both for what was presented and for how to follow a presentation that was described as “deeply moving,” so much so that a classmate fainted.
Upon inquiring, I learned that the previous presenter worked for a biomedical devices company, one that both designed and manufactured pacemakers. As to the tough act to follow, I learned that the presenter shared a video which included interviews with customers of their pacemakers. The interviews were conducted before and after surgery and the contrast stirred significant emotion from class mates. As to the tough act to follow, my mind raced to consider what videos I might have with me. Even if I had one, in all likelihood it would be a video of a simulated assembly operation of a rocket engine. Not quite a significant emotional event that would stir fainting.
Nonetheless, I listened carefully to the explanation of the excitement about the preceding presenter, all the while sorting through ideas on how to properly follow such a memorable session. What followed was an explanation of how this biomedical devices company kept track of who makes each pacemaker, a practice that appeared to resonate with many of my lunch guests, including John. As to why such a list was compiled, I learned that this list was used, on occasion, when a pacemaker customer visited the company and asked to meet the “team” for their own life-saving device.
Given the spirit of “Where to draw the boundary?” from the opening quote, used by W. Edwards Deming in Chapter 3 of his book, The New Economics, I asked the students to consider who would be included on the pacemaker “team” they had referenced. I asked if I would be regarded as a “member of the team” if I had been the person that placed the order for the raw materials used to form the body of the pacemaker. The reply, in the opinion of John, was “No, you wouldn’t be on the team.” “What if,” I followed, “I was the person who wrote the check that paid for these raw materials, would I be included?” The reply from John was a second “No, you would not be included.” When asked why not, John’s matter-of- fact reply was “You have to draw the line someplace.”
At this point of inquiry, I unrolled a poster I had carried with me from Los Angeles, one made famous in southern California after 9/11. The poster’s text “United We Stand” surrounded a picture of a waving US flag. I asked John if he was aware of the reference. His response signaled that he was an advocate of the expression. I took the opportunity to refer to Dr. Deming and his ideas of systems that are forever open and endless, not closed, with lines drawn to demarcate boundaries. To think with unity and act with unity, I asked how he could confidently draw a line in a way that separated “we” into two distinct categories, those who contributed and those who had not. How could such a solid boundary be drawn without offending anyone left out, such as the buyer of raw materials and the co-worker who arranged for payment? And, associated with the feeling of being left out, could there be an economic loss as well? What if those who ordered the raw materials protested with malicious compliance?
Could it be that dividing work into value-added and non-value-added draws lines between those who do the two “kinds” of work? What effects does such a classification have on those who do work labeled as non-value-added? Is it really clear which category the work belongs in? Can we continue to abdicate leadership and rely on a customer to define what adds value? It would appear that making that decision correctly would require understanding correctly all of the interdependencies in the system – a tall order for a mortal.
According to Dr. Deming, management of an organization or a work group requires management of the parts and management of the relationships among the parts of the organization. When the parts are people, the drawing of lines may have unforeseen and damaging consequences. The damage can extend to the organization as a whole and its ability to survive and prosper. Serious thought needs to be given to the value-add of drawing lines. That is, if unity is deemed essential for teamwork. As I reminded the business students in 2001, “if teamwork is not essential, continue to draw lines and don’t lose sleep in the process.” Sadly, the consequences of drawing lines will be invisible to many. If teamwork is vital, systems will be understood to be open, with the most important numbers both “unknown and unknowable,” to paraphrase a quote from Lloyd Nelson that Dr. Deming used to challenge his audiences. Included in the unknown and unknowable are the vagaries of relationships that can be subtle and difficult to see and understand. As I was often reminded by Sheldon (“Shel”) Rovin, former Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and a frequent co-author with Russell Ackoff (his so-called “tor-mentor), teamwork requires accepting the uncertainty of what Shel referred to as “boundary-less systems.”
I am the proud owner/friend of a one year old 75 pound golden retriever named Landry, affectionately named after the former and well-respected coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, Tom Landry (my wife is an avid Cowboy fan!). On a recent walk, I unexpectedly gained an insight from Landry about myself connected to the principles and practices of leadership.
Let me preface my new learning by sharing that while I have always known it, given my 22 years in school leadership positions, it continues to become clearer and clearer to me that quality leadership is perhaps the highest leverage “strategy” in any organization that must be in place for improvement to occur. An effective leader is needed to help develop, articulate, and operationalize the vision of any organizational system and to help the “parts” to work together, in a coordinated fashion, in order to achieve the aim. Continual improvement, or quality, according to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, “begins in the boardroom.” In other words, continual improvement initially lies in the hands of leaders and without steadfast commitment from leaders, organizational improvement and learning are not likely to occur. With regard to education, it should never be overlooked that in addition to a district’s “formal” leaders, the teacher is the leader of the classroom system.
About three weeks ago I was on a walk with Landry and my wife. As we neared the end of our walk we emerged from a wooded pathway and onto the sidewalk of a fairly busy street in our neighborhood. As cars, moving in the same direction we were walking, drove past us Landry lunged towards the street in an effort to chase them. Attempting to chase after cars is not a new phenomenon for Landry and neither was the force I needed to apply to keep him from separating my shoulder. Since he first joined us on walks, Landry has demonstrated a strong inclination to chase…rabbits, squirrels, deer, cars…you name it. If it moves, he chases it! While I love his spirit and energy, I must admit I can at times get tired of constantly anticipating when the next chase will ensue, for not only does it grow irritating, but the health of my arm is at stake! In hopes of better understanding and possibly minimizing his chasing without impeding his youthful energy, I began conducting some research (aka “Googling”) to learn more.
“Predatory chase reflex,” also known as “prey drive” is the “instinctive inclination of a carnivore to find, pursue and capture prey” (Source: Wikipedia). Levels of this “prey drive” or “predatory chase reflex” vary from breed to breed and from dog to dog. Landry, as it turns out, is teeming with this drive, much more so than our previous goldens. In short, “chasing” is part of his nature, perhaps even his biology, even though the vast majority of the time (well, actually all the time) he comes up empty-handed (or empty “pawed”), so to speak. Despite his lack of success, he persists (I wonder if this means he possesses a growth mindset!).
As Landry attempted to chase cars during that walk, I was struck with a new insight. During my experiences as a school leader, I have exhibited the very same “chase reflex” as Landry. In my most sincere and well-intentioned desire and efforts to improve learning for the students at the schools and district I led, I chased multiple initiatives. The problem was, much akin to Landry, I chased one initiative for a little while and then another, and then another. As I reflect back, the vast majority of these chases did not result in any significant, lasting improvements in the organizations I led. They were exciting and fun for a while, but when I didn’t see immediate results, off I went in another direction. Had Yoda been mentoring me he likely would have commented (cue the Yoda voice), “The chase reflex is strong in this one.”
I do not believe I am the only leader who suffered or suffers from the “Landry Principle,” as I now refer to it. It describes the tendency of leaders, with the very best of intentions, to chase “shiny baubles;” the “soup de jour” of programs/initiatives advertised to guarantee improved student learning results. However, we know all too well where these initiatives lead and the impact they have on our budgets, and more importantly, our people. For people, there is a cascading psychological effect. As a result of chasing one new idea and then another and another, initiative fatigue sets in – like the fatigue that my arm and shoulder feel as a result of Landry’s constant chasing and pulling – ultimately leading to cynicism (sometimes I dread my walks with Landry because of the constant chasing). In order to protect themselves, people adopt the “this too shall pass” mentality – an emotional wall, so to speak – for it serves as a method for people to protect themselves psychologically and keep some sense of predictability and control in their work; two factors Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky cites as the foremost contributors to stress. As far as the budget is concerned, I cringe when I think of the money that may have been wasted with each “new fad,” that was pursued as we fell prey to the Landry Principle.
Chasing new ideas as educators is indeed understandable and perhaps even rational, for amidst the external demands and the many challenges and subsequent frustrations that exist in educating children, sometimes it just feels like we should be doing something…anything. Alas, longitudinal results over time (as demonstrated through the use of control charts) typically show little, if any improvements as a result of these “quick fix” schemes.
Truth be told, during my final school leadership position, five years as superintendent of the Urbandale Community School District, I gained control of my “chase reflex” as a result of my interaction with Dr. Deming’s work and my desire to fundamentally improve the system I led. I am happy to say that armed with new learning, new knowledge, and new methods we began the transformation of our system, achieving for two consecutive years (my last two) the highest levels of student achievement in 17 years, as measured by the percentage of students reaching levels of proficiency and above. The district, I am pleased to say, continues on with this work, improving all aspects of its performance.
Finally, I asked our veterinarian about Landry’s “chase reflex” and how long I might expect it to last. He indicated that while it may settle down a bit once he is through his “puppy phase” (2-3 years), it will likely always be a part of him. I can live with the chase reflex in my dog, for despite my complaining it’s actually one of the many things I like about him. However, as I reflect on the Landry Principle and how it might manifest itself in the work of leaders, it becomes a less lovable attribute and one with significant systemic ramifications, relative to the performance and psychological health of schools and other organizations. I wonder which of Dr. Deming’s “14 Points for Management” are being violated as a result of the Landry Principle, and what remedies might exist as a counter. While I have my own thoughts about it, I want to invite readers to consider the question and offer their own thoughts.