the management mentor

8th January 2016 at 00:00
Incrementally advanced

Leaders can often occupy themselves with grand visions, driven by a feeling that impact can only be shown through fast, dramatic change. But a management concept developed in Japan provides a compelling counter-argument to that philosophy.

Continuous improvement (the term in Japan is kaizen) emerged around the middle of the last century. The car manufacturer Toyota is one of its modern-day advocates. It involves a never-ending pursuit of advancement, typically through small incremental steps that together bring long-term cumulative gains.

Steered via a permanent and long-term commitment towards becoming “better at what we do”, kaizen has brought much success to those who adopt it. Could schools benefit from trading impact targets with 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.

This ensures that an emphasis on short-run success, a fear of failure, a tendency towards conformity and a lack of curiosity are avoided.

In their place is a culture 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. Continuous improvement philosophy encourages openness to adaptation, a mindset of “ongoing betterment”, and a willingness to put in effort. The urge to wallow in past gains is resisted.

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. However, care must be taken in implementing the approach at the operational level.

Firstly, no school exactly replicates another, so we should not try to do so. Continuous improvement needs a school-specific focus, and one that is adaptable as context shifts.

Second, care should be taken in how improvement is defined. There is a tendency in today’s schools for labels such as “progress” to be reserved for outcomes to do with costs, pass-rates, and higher rankings. Such outcomes do not necessarily capture school-wide performance, or reflect the achievement of all stakeholders’ interests. It is important for continuous improvement to promote a spread of benefits for pupils, parents, teachers and local communities, and that such benefits are aimed at being long-term.

If schools adopt the kaizen approach, then other improvement measures will hopefully become more prominent, such as infrastructure, the usage of extra-curricular activities (as opposed to their provision), income generation and pupils’ wellbeing and potential for improvement should come to the fore.

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