|Greg Gibson reads to 1st graders at Cibolo Valley Elementary School in Cibolo, Texas, where he is superintendent.
About 15 years ago, I became involved with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award program, which recognizes organizations in the business, nonprofit, health care and education sectors for performance excellence.
At the time, I was beginning my second superintendency and was curious about what makes an organization work well. I was particularly interested in learning not just about school systems but also about other successful nonprofit and for-profit organizations that performed at high levels.
Now completing my ninth year as superintendent in a third district, the 16,000-student Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District in south-central Texas outside San Antonio, the Baldrige experience has greatly influenced how I view local school leadership. In essence, it has helped Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD transition from a system of schools into a school system.
We have moved from an initial strategic plan (2010-14) that focused on stretch goals to a refined strategic plan (2014-18) that created clearer alignment to our latest strategic plan (2018-22) that is tightening that alignment through the use of integrated scorecards.
As Baldrige examiners, we are taught to view all organizations as an integrated system — or, alternatively, as one that requires integration. We start by evaluating whether an organization has a focus on improvement by considering four overarching questions and 12 questions specific to critical processes. And if that level of questioning isn’t enough, each subset of questions contains anywhere from 10 to 20 additional questions as we probe the “maturity” of an organization.
I am unable to drill into the deeper questions here, but it’s possible to consider the higher-level questions and illustrate how my learning as a Baldrige examiner translated into leading the school system more efficiently and effectively. Notably, in my district, many of our senior leaders also are trained Baldrige examiners.
I love using the Baldrige framework for several reasons, but primarily because it is based on a focus on improvement. No matter where you start or where you wind up, room for improvement always exists. Every year, even national Baldrige award winners get a comprehensive list of opportunities for improvement with every evaluation.
The four overarching questions driving the framework are:
1) Are our processes consistently effective?
2) Do our organizational actions align to our organizational needs?
3) Are our organizational actions leading to results?
4) Is our organization learning, innovating and improving (and how do we know)?
The 12 questions that anchor the Baldrige framework are:
1) How do senior leaders lead?
2) How well does the board (governance team) do in fulfilling societal responsibilities?
3) How do you develop strategies?
4) How do you implement strategies?
5) How do you obtain information from customers?
6) How do you engage customers by serving their needs and building relationships?
7) How do you measure, analyze and then improve?
8) How do you manage information in a way that creates useful (actionable) assets?
9) How do you build an effective and supportive workforce environment?
10) How do you engage your workforce to achieve a high-performing environment?
11) How do you design, manage and improve processes?
12) How do you ensure effective management of all operations?
As we delved into the questions in a systematic fashion, we identified strengths (and built on those) and identified opportunities for improvement. The ultimate goal was to make the process of cycles of improvement so much a part of the culture that they occur effortlessly and in a sustainable manner.
We rotated between leadership, customers and staff as our focus one year and strategic deployment and information management during the next. This led to four major cycles of improvement in eight years and a substantial increase in sophistication in applying quality principles to our work.
My Key Learnings
Our findings from these four cycles of improvement illustrate how powerful a systematic approach can be to drive long-term, systematic improvement. Of course, we hit some roadblocks, and we made mistakes along the way, but our school district’s improvement and subsequent results were undeniable.
Any group of leaders is prone to establish a culture of group think/talk that leads to a pervasive culture of “We’re doing pretty well” as opposed to a pervasive culture of continued improvement. We are no different. Today, I look at our senior leaders and am proud of how talented they are, but I also realize that most of our “talent” is not natural charisma or innate leadership capabilities. It is our collective commitment to this challenging approach, sustained over time.
The principal things I learned fall into these six categories.
CATEGORY 1: LEADERSHIP
With both our senior leaders and our board of trustees, we initially self-assessed our commitment to mission, vision and values as a key strength. As we delved deeper into the Baldrige framework, we realized our opportunities for improvement centered around creating better systems for communicating with and engaging with our entire
Often in school systems, we become teacher-centric and begin to ignore the other half of the workforce. As we understood, our improvement strategy needed to pay closer attention to our frontline staff — bus drivers, paraprofessionals, custodians, office staff, child nutrition staff — because public perceptions, both good and bad, are driven by interactions with these essential members of our team. We also paid heed to our customers: parents, students and taxpayers.
CATEGORY 2: STRATEGY
As we began our journey, we realized we were good at developing strategy and at creating an environment of alignment to our common mission, vision and goals. As we delved deeper, we recognized our opportunity for improvement was grounded in strategy implementation (as opposed to strategy development).
As we became more sophisticated in our learning, we aligned short-term action plans with longer-term plans. We monitor this work in our “integrated scorecards,” which allow for autonomous campus, department and team goal setting so long as the goals clearly align to our four overarching priorities:
Graduates who are college- and/or, career- and/or military-ready;
High-performing and engaged workforce;
Highly satisfied students, parents and community; and
Efficient district and campus operations.
Every group, from custodians and bus drivers to high school departments, elementary grade-level teams (to name a few), maintains scorecards that outline quarterly goals and establish strategic actions aligning to the four priorities.
CATEGORY 3: CUSTOMERS
We quickly realized an aversion to using the word “customer.” This may be justified because so many models promise to “fix public education by running it like a business.” As we dug deeper, we realized the current charter/private school movement is attempting to capitalize on our traditional, bureaucratic way of thinking. In today’s world, we had to think of students, parents and taxpayers as customers deserving an environment where we focus on serving needs and building relationships.
This was some of our most challenging work initially. One early mistake was to roll out a “customer focus” initiative before we rolled out a “workforce focus” approach. We discovered we cannot ask our staff to treat students, parents and taxpayers as valued (external) customers unless we first treat our workforce as valued (internal) customers. We corrected this oversight, and our district’s customer satisfaction and staff engagement results soared.
CATEGORY 4: KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT
Like most organizations, we quickly experienced having way too much data and not enough actionable information. This led to a constant state of “paralysis by analysis.”
What we learned through these cycles of improvement is that we must get clearer about our key measures. When we consider any area of improvement, we always look for one to three key measures for lagging (annual) data and one to three key measures for leading (weekly, monthly, quarterly) data. We had to learn to be reflective and narrow our focus.
CATEGORY 5: WORKFORCE FOCUS
As noted, we learned quickly we would fail at creating a customer-focused environment for parents and students unless we were willing (and had the skills) to treat staff like (internal) customers. That discovery means staff satisfaction
and staff engagement
are two different animals.
Satisfaction, to some extent, can be influenced by salary, benefits and perks. Engagement, which we define as “the extent that all staff is emotionally and intellectually committed to accomplishment of our mission, vision and priorities,” is a much higher bar to reach. We have become much more systematic with staff rounding, focus groups, advisory groups and other listening/learning tools.
This work has manifested itself in a 6 percent annual staff turnover rate (the Texas average is around 15 percent). The district was designated as a Top Workplace in San Antonio by the San Antonio Express News
and an Energage employee engagement survey five years in a row.
CATEGORY 6: OPERATIONS
When we started our journey, we thought (naively) that operations applied only to the noninstructional part of our workforce. We were wrong. Both the academic and nonacademic sides benefit strongly from developing key work processes and key support processes and eliminating gaps and overlaps in key work. As we became more systematic, we assessed the performance of each central-office department in five distinct attributes:
Can you reach a live person or use an electronic tool to reach someone?
Did you receive the right product/service or was a variation communicated?
Was it a nice experience? Did you receive service with a smile?
Do day-to-day operations run efficiently and effectively?
Was the response or solution delivered when promised?
We refer to this protocol as our district services survey (a Studer Education term). All district-level directors are scored each semester on key work processes with scoring (on a five-point scale) with regards to the five attributes above. After our survey results are distributed, each director uses a results rollout protocol to celebrate top responses and collapse opportunities for improvement into a plan of action with execution following. The cycle of improvement continues with a new assessment each six months.
Every organization on earth has room for improvement. One of the biggest challenges is to embrace this fact and adopt a continuous improvement mindset. Our journey has been marked by momentary highs and lows. However, when we step back and look at where we are today compared to eight years ago, the gains are staggering.
I cannot emphasize enough that this is a long-term approach, particularly because the public school arena is so susceptible to quick fixes and “cure-all” programs. This work is different. We take a long-term approach with deep integration of an improvement mindset. Initially, our goal was to move from external accountability to internal accountability. My observation now is that we are moving from internal accountability to ubiquitous responsibility.
Every day, I am amazed at the number of cycles of improvement occurring throughout the school district. The coolest part for me is that no one is waiting for me to “give the go-ahead” to improve. It just happens.
is superintendent for Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District in Schertz, Texas. Twitter: @greggibson1