Leaders can often occupy themselves with grand visions and the targeting of giant leaps, driven by a feeling that impact can only be shown through fast, dramatic change. A management concept developed in Japan provides a compelling counter argument to that philosophy.
Continuous improvement (in Japan the term used is ‘kaizen’) emerged around the middle of the last century and Toyota is one of its key modern-day ambassadors. It essentially involves a never-ending pursuit of advancement, typically through small and incremental steps, but which together bring significant cumulative gains in the long-run.
Steered via a permanent and long-term commitment towards becoming ‘better at what we do’, it has brought much success to those that adopt it.
Could schools benefit from trading dominant and usually discontinuous targets with multiple, smaller, incremental and continuous gains?
Continuous improvement requires a fluid and balanced management approach, skilled leadership and a workforce that embraces malleability and open ended goal-setting, as opposed to a fixation on spectacular end-achievements.
This ensures avoidance of an emphasis on short-run success, a fear of failure, a tendency towards conformity to norms, and a lack of curiosity.
In their place is a desire for co-learning, where all members of an organisation strive to share ideas and best practice. There is also a motivation to reflect on failure as much as success, while other important aspects of the continuous improvement philosophy include: being open to adaptation, a mind-set of ‘ongoing betterment’, unfailing willingness to put in the effort, and little urge to wallow in past gains.
It’s an appealing concept, and workable even in the world of education where short-term perspectives seem to be what the league tables reward. But, care is required with regards its design and implementation at the operational level.
First, though rather stating the obvious, no particular school exactly replicates another. So, it would be naïve to expect an operational template that can be easily transported from one school to the next. In practice, continuous improvement will need a school-specific focus, and one that is adaptable as that context shifts.
Second, care needs to be taken in how improvement is defined and towards whom incremental benefits are principally targeted. There is a tendency in today’s schools (and also among education policy-makers) for labels such as ‘improvement’, ‘success’ and ‘progress’ to be reserved for outcomes like cost efficiency, cost reduction, pass-rates, and higher rankings.
However, such outcomes do not always necessarily capture school-wide performance, or appropriately reflect the (non-) achievement of all stakeholders’ interests. Thus, it is important for continuous improvement to promote a spread of benefits as broad as possible (including pupils, parents, teachers and local communities), and that such benefits were aimed at being long-term and sustainable.
If schools do adopt the approach, then other improvement measures will hopefully become more prominent than maybe they are at the present time, such as: new schools’ infrastructure and facilities, the usage of extra-curricula activities (as opposed to their provision), new income generation, a pupil’s happiness and wellbeing, and a pupil’s potential for improvement.
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