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Sep 5, 2023

In this series, John Dues and host Andrew Stotz discuss principles that educational systems leaders can use to guide their transformation work. This episode covers principles 4 and 5: maximize high-quality learning and work continually on the system.


0:00:02.5 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz, and I'll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today I'm continuing my discussion with John Dues, who is part of the new generation of educators striving to apply Dr. Deming's principles to unleash student joy in learning. Today is episode 12, and we're continuing our discussion about the shift from management myths to principles for the transformation of schools' systems. John, take it away.


0:00:34.4 John Dues: Andrew, it's good to be back. Yeah, like you said, we've sort of turned to this set of principles that can be used by educational systems leaders to guide their transformation work. Two episodes ago, we sort of kicked off the principles, gave a little bit of an introduction. We talked about principle one, which is create constancy of purpose. And then the last time we talked, we kind of broke down two principles. Principle two was adopt the new philosophy, and principle three was, cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. So in this episode, I was gonna sort of take on the next two, the fourth and fifth principles. So the fourth principle is, maximize high quality learning. And the fifth principle is, work continually on the system.


0:01:28.6 JD: So I thought we'd sort of kick things off with principle four, that idea around maximize high quality learning. And I think sort of... If I was gonna capture that principle in just a couple sentences, I would say, you wanna maximize high quality learning and minimize total cost of education by improving the relationship with educational institutions from which students come and to which they matriculate. So, we're thinking about a single source of students coming into a system, such as an elementary school student moving into a middle school, and seeing that as an opportunity to build a long term relationship of loyalty and trust. So that's sort of the overarching idea. And I think if you sort of look at this principle through the lens of United Schools Network, where I work in Columbus, Ohio, I think that's sort of a helpful lens. And when you think about our origin story, we started as a single middle school serving a few east side neighborhoods, near downtown Columbus. And I was the founding principal, school director of that particular campus.


0:02:55.3 JD: And at the time, we decided we were gonna open a middle school, 'cause this is the point often in a student's educational career where they fall so far behind, they often then drop out of school altogether just a few years later. So we wanted to get them in middle school. So, before we were this sort of network of schools in the school system, we were this one school that grew from serving just sixth grade over the first few years to sixth through eighth grade, right. And when you looked at these east side neighborhoods where we were located, there were 15 or so elementary schools from the city school system that formed this sort of de facto feeder pattern into our middle school. Most of those schools were performing in the bottom 5% of schools in the state. Which means when those students then matriculated to our middle school, they typically did so in... The typical kid was at least two, but more often three and even four grade levels below where they should be when they enrolled with us in 6th grade.


0:04:18.1 JD: And, while I didn't have this Deming lens at the time, I did sort of approach things from a process standpoint, from a system standpoint. But, as the middle school principal, I'm thinking about sort of all that entails to run a school and a new school at that, so we're doing all the things that come with a startup. There was no way for me to run around and form relationships with the 15 principals leading those elementary schools from which our students were primarily coming from.


0:04:54.0 JD: And so when we had this opportunity to grow from one school into a network that's now four schools, we elected to grow down into elementary schools. The point in doing so was to move towards this sort of single supplier relationship, that Dr. Deming outlined in his point four. And so now, we have two middle school principals, two elementary schools in our network, and they can work together on a whole host of sort of quality characteristics, like vertically planning curriculum across that K to eight pipeline. And, we were middle schools first and then elementary schools, so while we're getting some of our students from our own elementary schools we're also still getting students from other non-USN schools, non-USN elementary schools, but we're sort of increasingly moving toward that single supplier model. And I think that coordination is one of the ways that we can then maximize high quality learning, and the great thing about this is that we then minimize the total cost of education.


0:06:14.6 JD: And I think this is one of the important paradoxes of Dr. Deming's work, in that, as quality goes up, price goes down. Which that's sort of the opposite of what a lot of people think. In the case of schools, what we're talking about in terms of minimizing cost, a lot of that has to do with less remediation of students as they sort of increasingly come from those USN elementary schools and they're not as typically far behind when they arrive to our middle schools as they were previously.


0:06:54.1 AS: And for our international listeners, and also just for a refresher for myself. Is middle school what we... I used to call it junior high, I think I called it. But what is middle school and elementary as far as your grades and ages?


0:07:09.7 JD: Yeah, that's a good question. Middle school is six through eight for us. So sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. And then our elementary schools are kindergarten through fifth grade.


0:07:19.4 AS: Got it.


0:07:23.1 JD: There's also this sort of... I think when Deming wrote his point four, his version said, "End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost, move toward a single supplier for any one item on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust." So I sort of translated Deming's framing to one that applies directly to students as they move through that K-12 pipeline. However, there's also this second component to this principle that's more sort of directly analogous to Deming's point, and it's definitely applicable to the business side of running schools. And this is the idea of ceasing dependence on price tag alone when we're selecting curriculum or technology or supplies or any number of goods and services that school systems regularly buy. I think the main ideas here, is to understand that difference between the lowest bidder and the lowest qualified bidder. And I think one of the things that Deming pointed out on this side of things was that basically price has no meaning without a measure of quality being purchased, including that after sale service. So I think that's a key point as well.


0:08:44.7 AS: When did you guys open the elementary schools?


0:08:48.6 JD: Yeah, so it sort of unfolded over time. So the first middle school opened in 2008.


0:08:55.2 AS: Right.


0:08:55.3 JD: Second middle school 2012. And then we moved toward elementaries in 2014 and 2017. But a key thing here is, when we open new schools, we sort of have a slow growth model where we typically open with just a single grade level. So they can sort of put systems and processes in place, hire staff, recruit students, that type of thing. And so it took about five years before those elementary schools were mature enough that they were actually feeding to the middle schools.


0:09:32.1 AS: So let's say 2020, 2019-'20 and then onwards, you're starting to get the students from the elementary schools, was there a significant difference? How would you describe the difference in what you received, from your elementary school versus... In other words, did it deliver on what you had hoped?


0:09:56.8 JD: Yeah, I think we have work to do there. But for the typical student that's coming from our elementary schools, one, they're very familiar with our routines, our procedures, our sort of school culture, the way that the school's run. A lot of those students often have older siblings that are either in our middle school or had been in our middle school and are now alumni. And then academically we see a difference as well, especially for those students that started early in elementary, like in K-1, 'cause we take kids at all grade levels. But for those kids that started K-1 and went all the way through our system and are enrolling now six years later or seven years later in sixth grade with us, the difference is stark. Both from a sort of student traits and responsibilities and sort of student academic side of things.


0:10:52.0 AS: And how does that changing... Ultimately what I think about... Toyota is a good example. And in Thailand here, Toyota has a huge manufacturing base. And part of what's so critical to that manufacturing base is all the supplier relationships that come with that. So they're surrounded by their suppliers and they've built great relationships with those suppliers. In a sense, you just happen to own that supplier in this case, but whether you're owning the supplier or whether a listener or a viewer is saying, "Okay, I need to build a better relationship with the suppliers that I have." The question I have in your case is, how did that change the final result at the end of middle school? 'Cause ultimately what you're trying to do is get your final output of your system to be better over time. I'm just curious, how has that reflected in what comes out?


0:11:48.8 JD: Yeah, I think it has a dramatic impact because so much of education and what a student is ultimately gonna do, is sort of... I don't wanna say determined, maybe a little bit too strong of a word, but maybe not too far off, by that sort of early education foundation. Specifically, did you learn to read proficiently. And when students were coming to us in middle school without that foundation in reading, it makes it really, really hard now that when you get to a point in your schooling career where things have shifted from being sort of learning how to read to, you are reading as a part of the learning process. And we did some intensive interventions before we had elementary schools to try to catch kids up, especially on that reading front. And those are really hard sort of interventions to sort of put in place when a kid is 12 or 13-years-old when they're getting those interventions. Not to say that they can't help, but the older the student is, the farther they've gone in their educational career, the harder that is.


0:13:02.5 AS: And I guess the majority of public educators are dealing with that all the time. People popping into their district and all of a sudden... Coming from many different sources and all of that.


0:13:16.1 JD: Yeah. Yep. And in some places that's more than others. That sort of coming and going tends to be associated with certain conditions in which the school sits and the community in which the school sits, where there's higher poverty rates, there's more movement. So one stat that jumps to mind on this front, in Columbus City schools, which is where our kids would have gone had they not come to us, were geographically within that district's boundaries. In any given year, 30%, nearly one out of three kids changes school buildings during the year, which is just an overwhelming number, an overwhelming amount of transition. That's just within a year, that's not even across multiple years. And so that's why this sort of single supplier [laughter] relationship is so important, because we're trying to push back in an opposite direction.


0:14:23.1 AS: And is there ever a chance that you could have all of your students come from your elementary program? Or is that unrealistic or is that happening or can happen?


0:14:35.5 JD: Well, right now it really can't happen, and that's mostly due to the size of our building. So in our elementary schools, there is basically two homerooms per grade level. So there is two fifth grade classrooms, let's say. But in our middle schools, there is at least typically three homerooms in 6th grade. So no matter what, right now, about a third of the kids would be new in a typical school year.


0:15:07.2 AS: So capacity matching?


0:15:09.2 JD: Yep, capacity matching. Yep.


0:15:11.6 AS: Okay.


0:15:12.1 JD: That's right. That's right.


0:15:13.2 AS: That's a great explanation of the methodology you're using. There's people who are public school teachers that may be listening to this and going, "Oh come on, I can't do that." Well, yeah, you're gonna have different challenges and limits, but you can start to build those relationships with the schools that are bringing students to you and trying to do the best that you can with that. Because we know that... What Dr. Deming taught was that fixing things at the beginning of the process is the way to do it. Because if you're trying to solve the problem at the middle or the end of the process, it just grows exponentially more complex, difficult, more costly. And that's the reason why a high quality means low cost. Wait, what? Yep.


0:16:01.0 JD: Yeah. And some public schools do this really well, and they, for all intents and purposes, already have this set up. But sometimes I've seen even in places like a smaller school district that maybe just has one elementary and one middle - high school building. I've been to a place where I have heard people say, "I never even thought about leaving our building and going to see what they're doing in the high school." And part of it I get, you're a teacher, you're kind of stuck in your classroom, it has to be facilitated for you to have a sub or whatever, but it's not an overwhelming barrier. And I think it's a very valuable exercise to have some of that cross movement between buildings. And I don't think it's actually that hard to do. And the good thing is, in most school districts there's geographic proximity, so that's not a barrier. But someone has to say, "This is important and we are gonna do this."


0:16:58.1 AS: I think it reminds me of my discussions with Bill Bellows, where we were talking about... Also on the podcast, and trying to talk about the idea of thinking beyond specification and thinking beyond... And asking the question, "How is this product or service being used by the next part of the process?"


0:17:18.4 JD: Yeah. Right.


0:17:19.0 AS: And looking forward, you find that even if you think that you're doing really well, you all of a sudden find that there is a huge amount of opportunity to improve in just that one step forward in the process. All right. Well, does that bring us to work continuously on the system?


0:17:39.0 JD: Yeah, I would just say, the takeaway here for me is developing those partnerships with suppliers. Whether it's on that sort of K-12 pipeline side, or if it's more like Deming's version of point four, where you're actually making purchases for the school system. And I think... A change in thinking for me was that the suppliers are a part of your system. Whether they're internal or external to the governance structure of your school system or your business, the suppliers are actually a part of the system. And thinking about them that way is really important. And I think both those approaches are keys to helping maximize high quality learning and then minimizing that total cost. And when I actually started to think about that, even though we didn't, again, think about it through this Deming lens early on, we have a number of vendors that sort of operate like that. Our IT vendor, our food services vendor, have been with us since day one in 2008 when we started.


0:18:42.0 JD: And you'll see their employees doing things here almost like they work here. They almost feel like an employee. So at least in certain cases, we've been able to develop those types of relationships on sort of more on the Deming business side of things as well, and I think that's just as important.


0:19:00.8 AS: There is an interesting business in the US that is a model for that. And that is... So, to talk about business aspect, a company called Fastenal, that makes fasteners and many different things that companies need. But they changed their business model many years ago to basically, rather than having a warehouse and distribution, and you order from the warehouse and all that, they actually set... They go into your factory, and they take over your whole inventory, and they run your whole inventory department.


0:19:30.6 JD: Interesting.


0:19:30.7 AS: And the benefit for you is that you don't own the inventory anymore. So you could have a million dollars in inventory in your factory, and all of a sudden that all goes onto their books.


0:19:39.4 JD: Wow.


0:19:40.2 AS: And the second benefit is that, you only have the cost of that inventory at the moment that you take it out of their system, and then put it into the operation that you're doing.


0:19:50.8 JD: Interesting.


0:19:51.2 AS: And that is this relationship, this super close relationship of that supplier actually working at your facility. And it's amazing.


0:20:05.0 JD: Yeah. This shift a little bit from antagonistic. "I'm trying to get the lowest price out of my suppliers" to, "Wait a second, I need to get the highest quality at a fair price, and I'm gonna work with you on an ongoing basis to make sure whatever I'm buying from you on an ongoing basis is high quality as it comes into my system." That's a much better way to operate than the sort of the antagonistic feel.


0:20:31.3 JD: Yeah, so I think that's a good transition point from principle four to five. So principle five is, work continually on the system. So as I was gonna sort of sum up this principle in just a couple of sentences, I'd say this one is improve constantly and forever the system of planning, teaching, learning and service to improve every process and activity in the organization, and to improve quality and productivity. It is management's obligation to work continually on the system, whether that's school design, curriculum, incoming supplies and materials, technology, supervision, training, retraining, whatever that thing is.


0:21:13.0 JD: And if you think back to when we talked about principle one, principle one and principle five are very similar, and that they both talk about improvement of the system and processes over the long-term. The distinction would be that, principle one is talking about constancy of purpose, the aim of the organization, and this in turn facilitates this principle, principle five, continual improvement of systems and processes. Sort of a key idea that you mentioned I think even in this talk is that, we have to keep in front of mind that quality must be built in at that planning and design stage of work. And I think that a lot of times in the education sector, we see teachers blamed for a lot of things that they have very little control over often.


0:22:10.1 JD: And I think one example as I was thinking of examples was when a school system selects a curriculum, they often select a curriculum for the entire system, but we don't often consider the downstream effects on teacher lessons and in turn student learning. How many teachers have had the opportunity to select their district's curriculum? That's a number probably close to zero. But there are sort of many I think components of the education system that are analogous. And I think the same is true in other sectors as well, and I think that's why Deming really harped on this idea that it's management's obligation to continually improve the system, because they're making many of these decisions that then have these downstream effects on the frontline workers, be it teachers in a school or nurses in a hospital or line workers in a production facility. And this... Oh, sorry, go ahead.


0:23:27.7 AS: I was just gonna say that I was recently teaching an ethics class at a university in Cambodia called CamED, run by a guy named Casey Barnett. And he is an American guy who started it on his own, funded it on his own, and for decades now has built this university, and he's built it around his principles and he sources his students his way. He has great relationships with... He's teaching accounting, finance, business, which is the practical things needed in a developing economy or economy that's really growing like Cambodia. But it's just that what I saw was the constancy of purpose when I went through the whole university, and then I got to know more of the students and they've attended some of my valuation masterclass course and stuff online. And then I'm just like, "Ah, that constancy of purpose, and the constancy of management gives the ability to continually improve." And that without that, with constant turnover in leadership, it's so hard.


0:24:40.3 JD: Yeah, and management is hard, leadership is hard. I think schools are facing some challenging times right now, because... And this is true in any sector, but if you're a leader or you're in management, you have to deal with these day-to-day issues of the organization, then also sort of keep your organization moving towards continual improvement. You have to put out these fires, like Dr. Deming would often say, putting out fires does nothing to actually improve your system. I think sort of the way he would frame it is that, you know detection and removal of a special cause does not improve a process at best. Fighting fires, i.e., detecting special causes, just... It's important, 'cause it does return that process back to its previous state, but that state is not where you want it to be necessarily.


0:25:48.8 AS: Smoldering.


0:25:49.9 JD: Smoldering, yeah. And where I heard this, it was sort of stated in a great book on Deming's work called The Deming Dimension by Henry Neve, who I'm sure a lot of listeners know. He said, "This means that systems leaders must strive to make unstable processes stable, and to make stable but incapable processes capable, and to make capable processes ever more capable." So you sort of start to break that down, you can start to see why being in management, why being a leader is not an easy task.


0:26:27.4 AS: One of the questions I...


0:26:30.2 JD: Oh yeah, sorry, go ahead.


0:26:31.4 AS: Go ahead. Go ahead.


0:26:32.0 JD: No, I was just gonna say this idea of never ending improvement, depending on what your mindset is around that type of thing is, it can be daunting, even for the most stalwart of sort of continual improvers.


0:26:46.0 AS: Yeah. And that may determine where you position yourself within an organization, because if you're at the top, it's your responsibility to be focused on that and building the system, which can be a bit overwhelming for some people, and they say, "Look, I'm okay being in this spot, and I'll try to improve what I'm doing in the classroom, but I may not be able to be involved in how we're improving all the systems." I wanted to end this discussion on principle five with a little bit of hope and vision of what is potential. I think about my little case. I have my valuation masterclass bootcamp online. And I'm going into the eleventh one. Right now, we're in the 10th one. And I'm just doing it every 8 to 10 weeks and it's a six week program.


0:27:34.2 AS: I want repetition, I want to practice, I want to see how I can improve. And I've seen enormous improvements by just looking at the problems, solving them, going to the next level. And in bootcamp number 10, basically, the students are valuing the same companies over the last couple of bootcamps. A company called Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and then in Toyota. And so they're in groups, and they're valuing those two companies. And I was really hesitant to show them the progress of the prior students, 'cause I didn't want them to copy from there. But I've now incorporated that in the bootcamp, halfway through to say, "Alright, here's the bar. This is the minimum. This is what the last group did using all the tools that we gave them. Now, your job is to take this to the next level." And yesterday, a student posted something on LinkedIn, and that was an absolutely comprehensive takeaways of the stuff that he's been learning and applying. And it's like, it worked. It inspired them to say, we gotta go to the next level. And I just want to hear from you about when you work continually on the system, what are some of the transformations and other things that you've seen, and what's some hope for the people who are struggling in a system that needs help?


0:28:57.5 JD: Yeah, that's a really good frame. I don't know if it'll get to that level, but I think, you know, as I've sort of built my sort of Deming knowledge base and spread that here internally where I work, I think I would go back to those two tools that I talked about repeatedly. The run chart or process behavior chart, and the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle. And why I'm saying that is because right now, internally, we are running one, two, three, four, at least four PDSAs concurrently right now with different teams. And people are starting to see the power of this, especially in areas where performance was struggling a bit. We put PDSAs in action just to take small steps to try to improve our system. And what's happening, whether we're running that PDSA, some of these are running for a week at a time. Some of them are running for up to three weeks at a time, depending on which area you're talking about.


0:30:02.0 JD: But what's happening is we get to that Act to decide what we're gonna do next. For example, we had to make a purchasing decision where we have, talent is a struggle right now in education. We had a platform that we were trialing for 10 days, the free version. And then we have to decide, are we gonna pay for this? And with the PDSA, you get to that Act, you looked at what happened over the weeks, you did the measures of the things that you thought were important, and that decision just jumps off the page. And so these things that people used to go back and forth about, do we do this, do we not? How do we know if this is effective?


0:30:44.4 JD: Now we have this structure that makes this decision, just like I said, leap off the page in terms of its obviousness, and the direction that we're gonna go. What are we gonna do? Are we gonna buy this thing? Are we gonna spend the money? Are we gonna put resources towards this? Both in terms of the money it costs to purchase in this case, plus the human resources that it's gonna take to manage this platform? And in this case, the answer was yes. And that's all because of the power of this way of thinking. It wasn't about holding people accountable, it was about designing a good PDSA, running it, gathering the data that was important to us, and then evaluating that together and then making the decision. And so I think once people try that a few times, they'll both sort of see how clear the decision making process can come.


0:31:36.2 JD: It doesn't mean all the decisions are gonna be easy, but it clarifies decisions. It gets you working together, and planning something that's important to you as an organization and as a team, you get to see how people think things are gonna end up 'cause they predict as a part of that Plan section. And then once people get comfortable with that tool, they start owning it, they start running their own PDSAs, and they come to you and they say, "Oh my gosh, look at this, look what happened, look what I discovered. I didn't know this was gonna happen. I'm gonna keep doing this. Can I go do this over here?" "Yeah, let's set up a plan for that." And so people start to get excited, because they build this momentum with this tool. And then you pair that with a way of thinking that Deming's philosophy gives you, and your organization just starts to operate in a completely new way. And it's this sort of combination of the tools which are important, but most importantly, this way of thinking that goes with the tools.


0:32:39.2 AS: Well, let me wrap up our discussion. We're talking about principles for transformation of school systems. And today, we talked about principle four and principle five, and that is principle four, maximize high quality learning, minimize total costs. And we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of working with your suppliers, the inputs into your system. And the deeper you can build those relationships and connections with them, the better opportunities you have to improve the quality of what you're doing, and to reduce the cost of what you're doing. And principle number five, the second thing we talked about was the idea of work continually on the system. You are operating within a system, we can see there's suppliers, there's also customers that you're supplying. Ultimately, what we're talking about is planning, teaching, learning, service, those types of things are all defined as the system of what you're doing.


0:33:43.3 AS: And I think that you made the point that ultimately, that's management's job, and it has to be done by management because it has a lot of downstream effects, as Deming has taught us that ultimately the output, the majority of the output of any system is really based on what the system's capabilities are. And so your job in management is to try to improve those system capability. And maybe a teacher may find that a bit overwhelming, but that's okay, that can be brought down to a small scale maybe in a classroom. Is there anything else you'd add to that?


0:34:16.4 JD: Yeah, I think just overarching is that we're replacing those management myths with these sound guiding principles. And that, we're kind of going through 'em, either one or two at a time, these episodes, but they are sort of a mutually supporting network of principles. And so, while we may learn these piecemeal, we wanna put 'em all together, 'cause it's really that's where the power comes from is when all of these principles are working together rather than in isolation.


0:34:45.5 AS: Well, John, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. For listeners, remember to go to to continue your journey. You can find John's book Win-Win, Dr. W Edwards Deming, the System of Profound Knowledge and the Science of Improving Schools on This is your host, Andrew Stotz, and I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming. "People are entitled to joy in work."