Tools and Tactics of Organizational Excellence
The work of creating a high-performing school system through continuous improvement
BY JANET K. PILCHER/School Administrator, March 2019

Janet Pilcher
I’ve been fortunate to guide leaders on journeys at some of the finest school districts in the country. Even so, leaders of these organizations want to get better still. They want to produce excellent results.

These leaders, striving for organizationwide success, seek to provide the best services to employees, students and families. Accordingly, in my consulting work, I’ve watched school districts achieve high performance results in the areas of student achievement, employee experience, service excellence and financial efficiency.

What specific actions shift results upward? During her seven-year tenure as superintendent of the Menomonee Falls, Wis., district, Pat Greco introduced an improvement framework we use to guide organizations on evidence-based leadership. (See related article.) It is grounded in nine principles of organizational excellence, which appear in Quint Studer’s 2003 book, Hardwiring Excellence.

1) Commit to excellence.

2) Measure the important things.

3) Build a culture around service.

4) Create leaders to develop people.

5) Focus on employee experience.

6) Build individual accountability.

7) Align behaviors with goals.

8) Communicate at all levels.

9) Reward and recognize success.

Several tools and tactics align to the principles and help organizational leaders improve their practices to build an engaged workplace culture focused on results.

Scorecard and Short-Cycle Review Process (Principles 1 and 2)
Most organizations follow a strategic planning process yet fail to use that plan for continuous review and improvement. How do organizations create and apply an execution process to bring the strategic plan to life?

As represented in most strategic plans, K-12 organizations focus on student success, people, service, safety and finance. With this in mind, we start with executive teams and ask, “How do you define success in these core areas? What core metrics align to the definitions of success?”

The answers to these questions begin to create the 10 to 12 organizational metrics that drive aligned behaviors to achieve results.

Next, executive team members create divisional scorecards that align to the organizational scorecard, and school leaders and department directors do the same to align to the divisional scorecards. This occurs for both the academic and operational units.

Once the results metrics have been established, leaders ask two questions to complete the scorecard process: (1) What are the strategic actions for each core metric (20 percent of the actions that will produce 80 percent of the results)? (2) What key performance indicators or lead metrics can be used to inform progress toward the core metrics?

Now that the tools are in place, the most significant improvement work begins. Coaches facilitate short-cycle strategy reviews with leadership teams that occur four times a year. When reviewing results, progress metrics and strategic actions, leaders code with colors: Green (on target), Yellow (making progress but needs improvements) and Red (off target and needs attention). The purpose of the strategy sessions is for leaders to review progress, accelerate areas working well and determine necessary adjustments to improve.

Operationalizing Organizational Values (Principles 1 and 6)
To achieve our organizational goals, we need our workforce to be highly engaged and focused on the school district’s strategic direction. Our employees are essential to the success of our organization, and success depends on how well teachers and staff perform. Organizational values direct how we create inspired workplaces where people are engaged and serve others in the most amazing way.

Are organizational values posted on the wall or do they walk the halls? Values are typically presented as a word and a definition. For people to live the values, they need to know what they look like in action. Values determine the way we engage with others at work.

The most effective leaders follow a process to operationalize organizational values by creating a set of standards that include the values, standards, definitions of each standard and sample performance indicators. These indicators describe what people are doing when they are living the values. The standards are used to develop, coach and evaluate staff.

A sample that includes a value, a standard, a definition and performance indicators appears below.

Survey Rollout Process (Principles 3 and 5)
As part of the improvement process, we work with our partners to administer surveys and train leaders to roll out results. Surveys are meaningful when we do something with the results.

Leaders engage in conversations with key employees. They review higher-scored items and ask this question: What are we doing that makes this item one of our highest-scored items? They review lower-scored items and ask: What makes this item a lower-scored one and what can be done to improve? The product of the rollout process is an action plan that includes improvement actions formulated from the discussions.

These are the four surveys:

In a system of continuous improvement, teachers in Menomonee Falls, Wis., ensure students see them providing classroom experiences that help them reach their highest potential.

» EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT SURVEY measures the extent to which employees perceive leaders provide a workplace environment that helps them achieve their highest potential.

» STUDENT ENGAGEMENT SURVEY measures the extent to which students perceive teachers provide them with an educational experience that helps them achieve their highest potential.

» PARENT SATISFACTION SURVEY measures the extent to which parents perceive the school provides their children with an educational experience that helps their children achieve their highest potential.

» SUPPORT SERVICES SURVEY measures the extent to which leaders or core stakeholders perceive the district departments are providing excellent services to their units.

30-Day and 90-Day Meetings (Principle 5)
Unfortunately, we’ve experienced teachers and staff leaving school districts within the first 90 days or first year. Leaders who make intentional connections with employees during their first 30 and 90 days of work have opportunities to address their fears and concerns.

Retaining qualified and dedicated teachers and staff is a priority for any district. We suggest leaders ask these questions during 30- and 90-day meetings:

» How do we compare to what we said we would be like?

» Tell me what you like. What’s going well?

» I noticed you came from ____. Are there things you did there that might be helpful to us?

» Is there anything here you are uncomfortable with?

» As your supervisor, how can I be helpful?

Then, they act on the information that is shared.

Leader Rounding (Principle 5)
It is not our responsibility as leaders to motivate others. It is our responsibility to create a work environment where people choose to engage in their work and with others. When we intentionally connect with our employees, we show genuine concern and care for their well-being.

One of the lowest-scored items on the employee engagement survey indicates that employees perceive they have little input into decisions that affect their work. Employees want leaders who listen to their thoughts and ideas. Let them know they are valuable members of the team and provide opportunities for them to contribute.

Leader rounding is one of the most effective tactics leaders can apply to gain input from employees. The purpose is to build relationships with employees by making personal connections on an ongoing basis. The leader rounding questions are:

» What has been working well for you these past few weeks?

» How can I be helpful to you to keep you engaged in your work?

» Who has been especially helpful to you these past few weeks and what did he/she do?

Good follow-up after the conversation, which entails acting on the information gained and recognizing those who have been helpful, is one of the most important responsibilities of leader rounding.

Relentless Pursuit
Organizational improvement requires leaders to apply tools and tactics that support teachers and staff to do their best. High-performing organizations have high-performing employees who engage in a relentless pursuit toward achieving results that matter, with the most important results in a school system focused on student success.

Building an effective workplace culture is part of leadership responsibility. Education leaders must take this duty seriously and strive for excellence by making continuous improvements in every department and every school.

JANET PILCHER is founder and managing director of Studer Education in Pensacola, Fla. Twitter: @janetpilcher