How to Break Down Barriers: Deming in Schools Case Study (Part 15)
Release Date: 11/07/2023
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Most people agree: teamwork and collaboration generate greater results than isolation and silos. So why do we let barriers get in the way? In this episode, John Dues and host Andrew Stotz talk about barriers to collaboration and how to break them down.
0:00:02.7 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. This is episode 15, and we are continuing our discussion about the shift from management myths to principles for the transformation of school systems. John, take it away.
0:00:34.9 John Dues: Good to be back, Andrew. So we're talking about these 14 Principles for educational system transformation, like you said, I think last episode we talked about Drive Out Fear, so this episode I thought we'd focus on that next Principle, which is Break Down Barriers. So Principle nine, break down barriers. The way I have this framed is "to break down barriers between departments and grade levels and develop strategies for increasing cooperation among groups and individuals, everyone must work as a team to foresee problems in the production and use of high quality learning experiences" in the case of schools. I was looking back through some notes, and I just happened to come across a quote from Out of the Crisis that I thought was a good quote to sort of start off with, in that book, Deming said "Teamwork is risky business. He that works to help other people may not have as much production to show for the annual rating as he would if he worked alone." And I think what this does for me is really illustrate how big a job breaking down barriers is, because everybody's gonna say, yes, I'm for working as a team. Everybody's gonna say I'm for cooperation.
0:01:58.9 JD: But when the rubber meets the road, you know what actually happens? And I think that quote is a good one, too, because it very clearly connects back to Drive Out Fear. Right. 'Cause what are you going to do once you break down the barriers? What's the behavior that you hope to see? And, you know, the behavior that you hope to see is only possible if you also drive out fear, which I think is, you know, showing that there's this connection between all of these Principles, there are these mutually supporting guiding principles.
0:02:36.3 AS: One thing that's just popping in my head is if you didn't incentivize people, let's think of young people, maybe. Would people naturally be, you know, helpful and doing teamwork? We know that, you know, the annual ratings and those types of things can incentivize being, you know, selfish and not, not working across the organization. But I'm just curious, what are your thoughts on that?
0:03:06.8 JD: Yeah, I think... If, if, are you using incentives as a pejorative in this context?
0:03:13.9 AS: Yes.
0:03:16.6 JD: Yeah, I think you have to look at the system that you've set up and the behaviors that result, and then sort of step back and see that whole picture, what is it that... What's the behavior that you're causing by the system you've set up? So I think... That's the major point I think.
0:03:34.0 AS: I'm just thinking about like when someone's young and, you know, they're just living a normal life, they're out with their friends, they're playing in the woods, when I was young, you know, those types of things. Are they naturally helping each other and, you know, naturally want to help or are they naturally selfish?
0:03:53.0 JD: Well, yeah, I think that's a good question. I think that would probably depend a lot on the context. I think, you know, if you're generally talking about young kids, there's probably a sort of a natural inclination to cooperation that's sort of, I think maybe stomped out, extinguished, as you encounter the various systems that are in place in schools, in work settings, those types of things. So, I think, yeah, I mean, I think I would probably lean that way, that there's a natural inclination to cooperation that sort of, is depressed, you know, through the various work and school systems that we've set up. You know, that's a generalization, obviously, but I would probably concur with that. Yeah.
0:04:39.8 AS: You talked about departments and grade levels, and when I think about breaking down barriers, I always think about departments. But maybe you could explain breaking down barriers between grade levels too.
0:04:54.3 JD: Yeah. I mean, I think a grade level team in a school system can be very similar to a department in a business. I mean, obviously I'm working in a school system. And so, there are departments, there's, you know, operations folks, there's HR folks, there are the academic folks and so forth and so on. But there's also these grade level teams where, you know, oftentimes in a school, teachers work most closely with the four or five other teachers on their grade level team. That's a pretty common setup. And so, you know, just like you could sort of optimize the finance department at the expense of the operations department. Same thing, you could do that with the sixth-grade team versus the seventh-grade team versus the eighth-grade team in that same way in the school system. Yep. Yeah.
0:05:47.9 AS: And what's the hardest part about breaking down barriers in school environment? It's, at first, I think that, you know, everybody's overloaded. They're trying to get their stuff done. You know, like, I'm curious what you've experienced there.
0:06:05.0 JD: Well, you know, I mean, I think with any school, I see schools as sort of a complex system, lots of interdependent parts, I think especially so in schools that are located in, you know, high poverty areas, because in addition to the regular stuff of school, you're often sort of also coordinating any number of partners, providers, counselors, you know, healthcare providers even, that are coming from oftentimes outside your system, and, you know, there's all these programs and things that you're trying to coordinate on top of just normal school. So that's sort of an added challenge to coordination in my setting. I think in general, one of the big challenges is that whether you're in a high poverty or low poverty setting, there is a lot of coordination that happens in schools. But teachers are with kids all day. And so, when there is coordination that needs to happen amongst the adult teams, when do you do that? You know, there's only a few options where you can get everybody, you know, together that's, you know, before school, after school or perhaps, you know, you set aside days that are specifically for that where the kids aren't in the building. So I think that's a major challenge in a lot of...
0:07:22.2 AS: Which I would assume everybody would love a 6:00 AM meeting before school.
0:07:24.8 JD: Yeah. I mean, we try not to do too much of that anymore. But we used to do that, you know, not infrequently for certain things. And one of the things we actually did here at United Schools Network where I work, it's been almost a decade now. We reorganized our school day, so that kids used to come at 7:30 and now we have a lot of those sort of adult type meetings, grade level team meetings, building leadership team meetings. Those happen in that 7:30 to 8:30 hour now. So, we did sort of change our system, shortened our day a little bit in recognition of the fact that we need some time to coordinate all the work that's going on during the school day.
0:08:04.5 AS: What are the school hours now?
0:08:06.7 JD: For kids, 8:40 to 4:00 basically, and then adults come an hour earlier.
0:08:16.4 AS: Right. I don't know if you read that, the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, I think it is.
0:08:24.4 JD: No.
0:08:25.7 AS: It's an excellent book that I mean, I highly recommend it for everybody because it really shows the importance. I didn't really wanna read it because I felt like I don't need, I don't need to know why we sleep. I need to know how to sleep more. But once you literally understand why we sleep, you realize, okay, that's the impetus for starting to sleep more. But they had some research that they talked about how, you know, basically there's morning people and then there's evening people, you know, or let's say morning and not morning. And they talked about different schools and outcomes, and they talked about how the problem that schools could be facing is that by forcing non morning people to get into class at an early time they're hurting the performance of those people, those kids substantially, and they had research showing that. And I have always felt like everybody should be a morning person. Come on! That book changed my mind.
0:09:26.8 JD: Yeah, I've heard this argument made before and it went into our decision-making sort of praxis when we decided to change our day. We sort of have it backwards. We, you know, elementary kids often go to school around 8:30 or 9:00, and high school and middle school kids often go to school in a lot of places at 7:20, 7:30. And they're generally the kids that need to sort of more sleep. But, you know, thinking of systems, it's very hard to change because it's tied to transportation systems. It's tied to athletic systems and practices and stuff like that. And so, it's a very hard thing to sort of reshape those systems for all those reasons, for sure.
0:10:12.0 AS: I'm wondering if you could give advice to the listeners or viewers about, they're facing, let's say, somebody facing a lot of barriers in their school. And they don't really know where to start. Maybe you could give some ideas about ways to start and kind of your own experience and, you know, any guidance that you would give.
0:10:37.8 JD: Yeah. I mean, I think that one good starting point in the process is just to stop and think about the question, you know, what exactly is being produced by a school system. So, I think that's something to get clear on because I think a lot of people would instinctually say students, that's what's being produced. But I think if you stop and think about it, that's not quite right. Rather, I think what the aim of a school system is, is to produce high quality learning, not the students themselves. And knowledge and skills is what's being produced by a school system. And I think when you sort of look at your system in the same way that Deming would, you know, we don't have a graphic here, but for those that have seen it, you know, you sort of have, you know, inputs into your system and then you have all these processes that you sort of undertake, you know, while kids are with you. And then, you know, kids go out and are going to other places. In our case, they're going to high schools or, you know, for K-12 systems, they're going into the military or to higher education, to jobs, those types of things. And so, I think it's, you know, be very clear about what it is that you're producing. You're not producing the students themselves. You're producing these high-quality learning processes. Then how do you bring that to fruition?
0:12:07.9 JD: I mean, I think, in thinking through that aim and how to accomplish it, I think just like we were talking about the departments and the grade levels, school systems are organized functionally, and that's for efficiency, just like businesses, you know? But what we really need to think about is how to operate cross-functionally. So that would be one thing is how to set up cross-functional teams. And you know, this is for that simple reason that we've talked about repeatedly that we don't operate cross-functionally, and we just sort of operate in our silos. We make that silo as good as it can be. Oftentimes that can come at an expense to the system as a whole. So that's one thing I think of. You know, I think of...when you think about improving your system, I think one thing to think about off the top of your, sort of at the outset of any improvement effort is what's the boundary of the system that you're talking about. Are you just talking about your school system, which sort of the school system start and stop sort of at some arbitrary geographic boundaries.
0:13:35.4 JD: So, are you talking about improving the educational system in a city or in a single school building or a single school district? So, I was thinking of a couple of examples. You know, one sort of within a system and then would be between systems. But within a system, often there's a, you know, you have general education, students in general education, and then you have students that are spending some amount of their time in special education within that same school system. So, I think, you know, if you're talking about defining your system as that, that school system, you know, I think no matter what, it's you know, what's the aim of that system? Because we're required to have these special education services within our school systems, all of us. And, I think what often happens is actually two parallel systems get created. And, you know, there's specialized staff, there's a language that goes with special education. There's a whole list of compliance items and laws.
0:14:46.9 JD: And, you know, if you make one or the other really good, general education or special education, are you actually making the system as a whole worse? I don't know the answer to that question, but there's a whole lot of questions to answer. You know, do the special education students get the same curriculum? Do they get the same testing system? Are they operating under the same academic standards? I don't have the answers, you know, and that can vary by situation. All I'm saying is, wow we've created two separate education systems, and what happens when we try to improve one corner of the system like special education, does that actually make the whole system? Are we serving the kids well that are getting those services? I think there's a whole lot of questions happen... So I think just looking at that, how those systems talk to each other is another sort of step you can take.
0:15:41.4 AS: Yeah. And I guess the other thing, going back to what you've talked about before, about the aim of the system, and you've talked just briefly here about it right now, but the idea is that if you can, maybe one of the first steps besides setting up a cross-functional team is to say, why don't we talk about what's the aim? Because if we can get to that point of what's the aim of what we're doing, chances are that will be the first kind of guiding light as to why we should break out of our silos or break down the barriers.
0:16:17.6 JD: Yeah, what's the purpose? I mean, is the purpose of special education a temporary set of supports that then leads the child back into more and more general education services? Or is that not, not the purpose? I mean, I think clarifying that in your system is really important. Another example. You know, this would be more like, sort of thinking of a larger system, not just your school system, but in a lot of places we have a traditional public school system, like in a city, like a big urban system. And then we have a public charter school system, which is a lot of times not its own district, but a series of small networks or maybe even single, single buildings. And again, I step back and say, well, what's the aim? Is it to make the system of education better in that particular city, in my case, you know, in Columbus? Or are we just trying to optimize our little corner? Are we thinking about these different pockets? We've often you know, speaking from experience, we've often been an afterthought when it comes to transportation systems or funding or facilities. And a lot of times, I don't think it's nefarious. It's just like literally there is not a representative around the table when decisions are made. And these systems were set up not, you know, originally weren't taking public charter schools into account. So there literally is no one thinking about how the needs might be a bit different in that particular type of system.
0:18:02.8 JD: And then, of course, because there's limited resources, there can be a lot of sort of, you know, people at each other. And that, that was a revelation of sorts or a mindset shift of sorts for me not to think of, you know, other school systems as competition, but really in looking at the Deming approach, it's win-win. Like if we have any chance of creating, you know, a successful system of education, especially in areas where things aren't working so well, like in a lot of core, core cities. I mean, the only way that we're going to do that is through cooperation, working together, having a shared aim. Those types of things. So, I think breaking down those barriers, whether they're internal, your own system, in a lot of cases there's a lot of barriers in place. Or it's between systems. I think that's, you know, at least as important, maybe more important, I don't know. And so that's the best...
0:19:01.1 AS: Your mic was fading out there. So, what was the last thing you said?
0:19:05.4 JD: Yeah, I said, breaking down those barriers between the systems is just as important as breaking down the barriers within your own system. Probably more important in a lot of ways. And I think that's the, you know, part of the power that I see in the Deming philosophy is this framing of win-win. You know, I used to think of other school systems as competition. Now I think of, well, how can we work together to create this system of, you know, of education that works for kids? Yeah, those are a couple, you know, thoughts.
0:19:41.4 AS: I'll tell a story to wrap up and then ask you to do a final summary. But you just, just my mind went back to like, when I was younger and how I was in some special education classes or, you know, I was just in trouble. But my story, my story is that by the time I was 17, I was addicted to drugs and alcohol. And I went into a treatment center in Minnesota called Fairview Deaconess Hospital. And then four days after I got out, I started getting high again. And then I went to Baton Rouge General Hospital. My parents bought me a one-way ticket to, on a bus, on a Greyhound bus to go there from Cleveland. I left from Akron bus station, and, and somehow I got clean at that time. That was September 15th, 1982. And I've been clean since then. So 41 years now. And I went to a long term treatment center that was in Solon, Ohio at the time. It's moved now, but outside of Cleveland called New Directions and I was there for seven months. But, so I had a real challenge with addiction in high school and prior to high school.
0:20:50.7 AS: But why this is interesting about coming back to my special education was that back when I was in third grade or so, I just knew I was in a lot of trouble, and I was just not an easy kid to handle, like a lot of kids, I had a lot of energy. My mom came to live with me seven years ago and she brought, you know, we brought some of her personal effects and stuff. And she had a little, a notebook that she gave me that was the notebook she kept of all my medical journals of my whole life where she wrote down things. And what I found in that notebook a couple of years ago was that the doctors started giving me Ritalin at the age of seven. And I had forgotten completely about that. But I don't know whether it was three years, five years, whatever. But I was on Ritalin from a young age and it was, you know, because okay, I was, you know, not cooperating probably and all that. And so I needed special help or whatever. But I started wondering, I wonder what role that had in my later addiction. And then I look at my, my skills in education, which became much, much better as I went through university. And then I went on to do my Master's and I went on to do my PhD and I went on to teach and I realized that I'm actually, you know, reasonably smart and I am a good learner and a good teacher. But I look back at that time and, you know, it just I don't know, I just wanted to tell that story because I don't think I've ever, you know, put the pieces of that together, but...
0:22:19.3 JD: Yeah, that's interesting. There's a lot of directions you can take that, for first, you know, congratulations on 40 plus years of sobriety. I'm sure that wasn't easy. I think, one, you think could there have been more coordination between the schools and the treatment centers and, you know, other maybe your own primary care physician and stuff like that? And maybe that would have made it an easier road, I don't know, for you. And then you think of the school system and what are the expectations for a seven-year-old? How is that system set up? You know, how much time are you spending sitting and things like that. And, you know, I'm not a doctor, so I can't say. Did you need Ritalin? But I do know is it's you know, it seems like I mean, it's obviously a often prescribed drug for students with ADHD, but it's also a powerful psycho-stimulant, you know, that that can have major side effects. I did my senior thesis on Ritalin in undergrad, so I have a little bit of experience interviewing kids that are taking it and stuff like that. And it can have powerful effects for sure. So yeah, I mean, I think of a lot of things like that. How could you have been better served early on, maybe at seven or eight that wouldn't have led to?
0:23:46.8 AS: And what do you do with a kid that's tormenting everybody and the teachers and you know, like it's just such a hard thing. And I probably needed to run, you know, around for, you know, an hour and a half before I got into class, maybe exhaust me. I have no idea. But for those people out there that are facing addiction or, you know, have dealt with something like that or know about that, we have Deming's 14 points, but we also have a 12-step program that you can find online that can help.
0:24:13.0 JD: Yeah, Hard questions. Hard questions. For sure.
0:24:16.4 AS: Exactly.
0:24:16.6 JD: Yeah. Well, I was just gonna say to your point about you need to run, like I went to a K-8 school where teachers would send kids out by themselves and tell them to go run a lap around the school as a sort of a management tool.
0:24:30.8 AS: It's great one.
0:24:31.5 JD: You can't do that everywhere. But, you know, you certainly sometimes sit here and think, that would be better than Ritalin, I think.
0:24:37.7 AS: Well, how many times do the listeners or the viewers realize they just get up and take a walk and then new things come into their mind? So... All right, let's wrap this up. How would you... Let's just give your final points on breaking down barriers.
0:24:50.3 JD: Yeah, I think there's some concrete steps. I think we talked about some of them. So, you know, defining the boundaries of your system, you know, where are you working? Where are your efforts when it comes to breaking down barriers, where are you gonna focus? I think when you determine that focus, you know, building that shared vision and aim is a good first step to make sure everybody's grounded in that aim. You know, one we didn't really talk about, though, I think especially for an internal, you know, effort, I think building this internal customer concept, I think that's probably more common in the business world, but less common in schools.
0:25:57.3 JD: I say that often here is, you know, who are your internal customers? I say that to people on my team, you know, and sort of taking that mindset that you are in service to a certain group. And I often say if someone's coming to you and asking for this, this and this, it may mean that you didn't sort of communicate out ahead of whatever that thing is. So that's another sort of mindset thing I think you can take. And then we talked about these cross-functional teams to build understanding and reduce adversarial relationships, I think because when you're sort of siloed and you don't see or you don't often talk with another group that, you can start to assume things about that group. And one concrete thing I did across sort of the department that I manage, the departments, we literally have a weekly meeting on Thursday called See the System Meetings, and it's operations, HR, student enrollment, health and wellness, all are in one spot, and we're sort of saying, where do we need to problem solve? Where are things showing up that are, sort of need cross-functional attention? And those types of things. I think that's been fairly successful just to get those people in a room on a regular basis.
0:26:40.6 AS: That's a great one. And I think for everyone out there, you know, See the System is a great idea, or another idea is meaning to work on the system, not in the system. You know, those are some great ways to start the process of breaking down barriers. Well, John, on behalf of everyone at The Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for this discussion. For listeners, remember to go to deming.org 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 Amazon.com. 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."