ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - August 2001


Issue Highlight — Moveable Chairs
- Peter Block discusses a Milwaukee religious dispute and how the protestors' passion and commitment regarding space and structure should transcend into the workplace.

Championing Change
Education and Business Share Ideas to Create a Fresh Perspective

Many schools across the country are implementing quality principles—schools where students are empowered to design their own learning and the teachers facilitate the process. Anytime you see kindergarteners cite their personal and educational goals, students use Pareto charts and affinity diagrams and first-graders conduct brainstorming sessions, something special is going on. And it’s time businesses take notice.

  Not only is there much to be learned, but businesses partnering with schools can be the force fueling change in educational institutions and in turn the workplace of future generations. Equipping our youth with the tools needed to succeed in their long-term future is the end result.

  Look closely and what you will find at the heart of these partnerships is committed leadership at all levels—from the principal to the custodian. Look even closer and you’ll find a champion of change. Tom Houlihan is North Carolina’s champion. His commitment to education and reform has taken him from a teacher in 1972 in Raleigh, N.C., to president of the North Carolina Partnership for Excellence (NCPE). The mission of his current work with the NCPE is to support and coach education systems to meet or exceed their customer requirements, and to align the efforts of all organizations that support schools.

  Houlihan has received numerous awards for his outstanding work in education, community and business/education partnerships. In this interview he shares with us his perspective on the current state of our classrooms and workplaces, his hope for a solidified partnership and the positive effects it can have on both.

  Read on and you will find several more stories about the successes that schools across the country are experiencing when they implement quality principles into their institutions.

NFC: You started in education in 1972 as a teacher, what sparked you initially to begin your quality journey?

Houlihan: I had spent many years in education and was dissatisfied with the level of progress being made. In 1990 I attended a Deming seminar and that’s when I realized what needed to be done to organizationally improve education. I’ve been on that journey ever since.

NFC: You’ve been through quite a bit now since that early adoption; at all levels of school systems and a state-system reform. What are some of the benefits of adopting quality systems that you’ve seen along the way?

Houlihan: The overall benefit is clearly a higher level of performance at all levels of an education organization. That is brought about primarily by becoming more focused and much more aligned. If you look at the philosophy, the idea is that leadership exists at all levels of the organization. To see students as leaders, teachers as leaders and custodians as leaders—in addition to a principal or superintendent—has been a really important point of higher performance.

NFC: Are there stories that come to mind as the most inspiring to you?

Houlihan: One of the most recent is a school by the name of A.B. Combs, in Raleigh, N.C., which is an elementary magnet school focusing on leadership. They have designed the school based on these values. To see kindergarten students who can tell you their personal and academic goals for that quarter and how they’re progressing is truly a revolution in this business. Of course they’re having amazing success and have a waiting list for people who want to go to that school. It really shows that it can make a difference. And we could go on and on, but it all comes down to this: If the leaders of an organization stick to it, they will get results. It’s sticking to the approach in a continuous improvement mode that is absolutely critical for future success.

NFC: What obstacles have you seen to the adoption or sustenance of quality principles? Is “sticking to it” a main problem?

Houlihan: I heard the quote, “If you want to change performance, you have to change the system.” We are in such a quick-fix mentality that many educators, who don’t know any better, want to do quality or do Baldrige, check it off and move on. They don’t really want to commit. They don’t really want to change the system. And this does not work if you’re not committed to really changing the system.

NFC: What are the factors that help support people in changing the system and committing long enough to get the necessary effects?

Houlihan: I think that the biggest component helping to support this approach is the fact that very little, if anything, else works. We’ve tried almost everything out there—every canned program, or whatever it might be—and we have learned that it doesn’t really make a difference long term. This is the approach that clearly will work over time.

NFC: Even in the face of that, it still seems there are districts, administrators or boards that pose obstacles to the adoption of these principles and to sticking with them long enough. Would you agree?

Houlihan: I would totally agree. That’s no more or no less than what you see in business. There are many businesses who went down this road looking for immediate results and when they didn’t get them, they abandoned it. Education and business organizations are similar. When people really stick with it, you see significant change. That’s part of human nature and it also comes from leadership. Those leaders who have long-term vision and are willing to commit can help make this happen, but most of the time we want a quick-fix solution to those issues.

NFC: When educators are looking for a “quick-fix,” do they focus on test scores?

We are caught up in a local, state and national emphasis on testing and that’s something we’re not going to avoid. There is a strong feeling that we need that accountability. Right now testing is the only measurement we’ve developed to tell us whether or not we’re making progress. The irony is that the more these principles are implemented, the higher standardized achievement tests tend to be. I think it’s very interesting. We want to teach the test because that seems like the thing to do, but when we really do teach the child—in different ways while covering a lot of different needs—the test scores improve anyway. But getting people to believe is half the battle.

NFC: I know the impetus to some of the changes several years ago came from the business community. How much of a difference does the support of the business community make?

Houlihan: We could not have made anywhere near the amount of progress we made in North Carolina without the business community because they bring a sense of legitimacy to new approaches. In other words, when you talk about the business community being in partnership with education, it brings a degree of credibility. The community says, “If the business community supports it, then hey, this is OK—let’s get on it.”

NFC: It seems like a few years ago there was a little more resistance. I don’t know if it had to do with the approach business was taking—that it was perhaps too arrogant—or education wasn’t ready. What’s made the difference between education and business being willing to partner and get away from the name and blame?

Houlihan: Actually, a lot of that still goes on. In some states it’s clear that the business community is not on board; they are in the blame game. Most times, that tends to be more of a political issue than an economic one. Personally, I don’t understand that, but that’s the way it is. In those states where there is true partnership development, which is one of the core values of this whole thing, you see remarkable progress. To me, it is so obvious what needs to happen. The problem is, the obvious isn’t always what we do.

NFC: What would be your advice to get business and education together into true partnership free from blame?

Houlihan: There needs to be a champion in the education community and a champion in the business community who will take the lead and organize the partnership development around this issue. You can have a lot of people who are supportive, but unless there is a real champion who has a firm belief in this approach, it’s going to be like everything else. When you get business leaders who believe in this methodology, they’re so fervent about it that there’s no question—it’s going to work. We need the same thing in education. That is the absolute first step. If you can’t find champions, it will be difficult to sustain over time.

NFC: How would you compare quality in education to quality in business? In the early days it used to be, “Well, this is a business of customers, suppliers and products. Education doesn’t work like that.” Once the principles are understood, are there differences?

I think the similarities are absolutely striking. The major difference I see is two fold: Education doesn’t produce a material product and education is a government entity. Mandatory open-meetings and convoluted decision making processes required of boards of education are very different than business. Both education and business deal with rules, roles and relationships. How those three R’s go together to form a viable organization is really driven by how these quality principles are put in place. It’s about people. It’s about how they work, live, plan and perform together and how they get along with one another that determines their level of productivity.

NFC: What do you think business can learn from educators?

I think business can learn that there are lots of things educators know and do, but training, constant professional development and skill development needs are the same for us as they are for them. We just don’t spend the money on it the way they do in business. In most education organizations, we have the most highly educated workforce of basically every business or industry around, but we have the most poorly trained. I hear so many business people tell us they just cannot believe how little we spend on professional development and how there is no way they could ever get their employees to adapt to change if they had the kind of support that we do in education. I don’t think I’ve ever had a businessperson involved who has not walked away from that involvement with a better understanding and more support for education. They can’t believe how we do what we do with our limited resources.

NFC: How has the Baldrige Award impacted the quality movement and quality in education?

Houlihan: I think the Baldrige Award is a nice aspect of all of this, but it is not the primary, or even necessarily the secondary, motivator for most places. The award is a nice byproduct of what you do and if there are specific examples where the school system’s leadership went into this because they wanted to win an award, they flamed out very quickly by and large. It’s great for rewards and recognition, but I would not say it is, and I do not think it should be, a primary motivator for getting into this.

NFC: What about the idea of the Criteria as a system of self-assessment?

I think the performance Criteria are superb in that regard. It is a great way of really looking at and analyzing systems. The Baldrige Criteria are very appropriate and very important—but not for the award in and of itself.

What do you see ahead for the quality movement?

Houlihan: I think we have not yet seen the pinnacle of the testing movement hit the country. I think it’s going to continue to grow and it’s going to be a major factor in school reform in this country. The federal legislation is going to require testing in grades 3-8 in every state in the country. There are likely going to be ups and downs with this approach in the foreseeable future. We’re in an economically difficult time. The business community is cutting back. There’s not quite the availability of personnel and resources to help. We have to stay the course on this if long-term improvement is what we’re after. The value of the approach is so great that it will stand on its own merits. Long-term I believe this approach is going to continue to grow and grow. The more people learn about this, the more they realize what you have to do to improve schools and improve education.

NFC: So many people are focused on short-term results. When we’re in an economic downturn, are people going to keep looking for the fastest silver bullet they can get?

Houlihan: Definitely—the fastest and the cheapest. I think that’s something we may simply have to go through as a nation as we work to improve our systems long-term. It’s partly political, partly educational and partly a response to a lack of accountability in the past. The bottom line is we almost have to go through this, then figure out where we want to go in the future.

NFC: Would you say this is the challenge ahead of us? The short-term vs. long-term?

Houlihan: Yes. It’s the same challenge that business faces everyday. The short-term profit line quarterly report vs. where the company is going long-term. We’ve seen what’s happened to some businesses where the total focus was on short-term—a lot of them are not in existence any more. We can learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t work through business and industry.

NFC: So, what’s your greatest hope?

Houlihan: My greatest hope is that we as a country begin to understand education is about more than just a test score and more than just an economic benefit. Schools need to help push democracy, they must have a much more holistic approach. That’s my goal. If you have that kind of vision, then you realize the quality approach really is the way to help us improve our systems and reach those kinds of issues.

NFC: Do you see momentum gaining around that belief?

There are a growing number of people who understand that our schools have to be more than just places where test scores rule the roost. I don’t know if people have figured out exactly what that means but there is a growing awareness that it’s got to be more than just that. I contend that we can raise test scores 100 percent and still have employers who are not satisfied with the type of people graduating from high school. If you look at what employers want as an example—adaptability, creativity, teamwork—those are not easily tested and we’re not spending a whole lot of time on them. That’s going to become critically important down the road.

Do you see the business community being the driver behind that kind of changing view?

I hope so. I hope the business community will at least weigh-in on all that. They talk about these kinds of things, but I’m not sure that even they know exactly what that means sometimes. It’s going to have to be a partnership approach if we’re going to ever, ever meet those kinds of customer needs and wants.

August 2001 News for a Change Homepage

 In This Issue...
Championing Change
Training The Trainee
Teaming For Tomorrow
Quality From The Ground Up
The Road To Quality

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

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