June 24, 2022
Good afternoon, I hope this finds you well. This Coaching Letter is a challenge to everyone currently involved with us in connection with action research/improvement science/continuous improvement (which is a lot of you!) OR anyone interested in getting a better idea of what I’m talking about when I write about action research/improvement science/continuous improvement (which must be everyone else?). It also, and perhaps just importantly, uses a familiar situation to teach the stages of continuous improvement.
The challenge is to take one aspect of your life that you would like to improve, and apply the tools and methods of improvement science to make the improvement over the summer – not only to improve your life, but also to understand the tools and methods, and be able to apply them to other situations that you care about, either personal or professional.
First, I would like to suggest that this is a challenge that is easier when shared (see the research that our resolve is strengthened when we have an accountabilibuddy). So feel free to share this Coaching Letter (and any Coaching Letter) with others whom you can interest in doing something similar and/or are involved in your improvement project.
I’m going to walk you through this using a project that I’ve run before; in this case, the participants were all working towards the same goal: trying to get out the door in the morning a) on time, and b) a less stressful experience for all concerned. I’m sure this is a challenge that many of us are familiar with. And I’m going to crosswalk it to the stages of the Improvement Process Map (slide 2) that we use all the time as a guide for improvement projects and for coaching.
Understand the problem and the system that creates it. Why is it often so difficult and stressful to leave for school or work on time? Our tendency is to say things like, “the problem is my husband needs to get up at 6:15 instead of 6:45”, “my kids are always at each other’s throats”, or “the problem is I have a 30 minute commute”. Embedded in these are many typical ways that we view problems:
- Other people cause the problem, not us (my kids/my spouse/my boss/my colleague);
- Solutions are disguised as problems (getting up earlier is a solution, not the problem);
- Irritants are to blame, even if they are not relevant (the length of my commute may not be the issue);
- We think we know the problem, but it’s likely that we don’t understand it as well as we think we do, nor do we understand it from the point of view of others involved.
So make sure you have a handle on the problem before you start making changes. In particular, if you are not the only person implicated in the problem – not necessarily the cause, but impacted by it, or involved in some other way – you should conduct empathy interviews. There are lots of protocols for doing this, and a good description in Safir & Dugan’s Street Data, but these frequently make the prospect more onerous than it needs to be, so Rydell and I created this role play on YouTube to illustrate how simple, short, and low-stakes it can be – only 3½ minutes.
When people conduct empathy interviews with others who have a different perspective on the problem, they may find out things like:
- The kids are really just annoyed that you yell at them all the time, and are taking it out on each other;
- Your spouse has no idea that you think life would be easier if they got up earlier – they think you should get up earlier;
- Your daughter thinks that her brother hogs the bathroom just to annoy her;
- Your son would be glad to get up earlier, but then he just sits around waiting for breakfast to be ready.
Every time I have run a project like this, people have been surprised by something they learned while trying to understand the problem.
Another useful activity is to create a process map, which is a visual representation of all the steps in executing a routine like getting out of the house. You have lots of options for doing this – with pencil and paper, with post-its, with Lucidchart or Lucidspark, or Jamboard, or this guide from the Improvement Collective. The purpose of this is to make visible the flow of activities, frequently with time-stamps and locations included, which then can give you insights about your problem, usually when there is a discrepancy between what is supposed to be happening and what is actually happening. Process maps might illuminate bottle-necks like: too many people trying to use the bathroom in too short a space of time; people waiting for breakfast or lunchboxes to be ready; very tight margins (one small delay causes a back-up because there is no margin for error). They are great because they simultaneously help you understand the problem better but also suggest areas where a change might lead to an improvement. If you do create one, please take a picture and send it to me!
You could also ask the 5 whys. This , at its simplest, is just asking why? at least 5 times in a row, My own challenge was that I grossly underestimated, perpetually, how much time it took me to get ready in the morning. I thought it was 30 minutes, but it was really more like 50 – because my 30 didn’t include my finding where I’d put my keys, or finding the shirt I was going to wear but wasn’t where I thought it was, or finding where I’d plugged in my laptop charger – you’ll notice there’s a theme here. And while the delays were for many different reasons, there always seemed to be a delay… So here’s the 5 whys applied to me:
- Why is Isobel late getting out of the house? She doesn’t give herself enough time to get ready.
- Why doesn’t she give herself enough time to get ready? She underestimates the time it will take to get her stuff together for the day.
- Why does she underestimate the time it will take to get her stuff together? There’s always something she can’t find.
- Why is there always something she can’t find? She doesn’t always leave them in the same place.
- Why doesn’t she always leave them in the same place? She doesn’t have a designated place where her work things are kept.
I hope you can see how this gets me to a potential change idea – designating a place where my work things are stored so that I will always know where I can find them.
Create a problem statement. Between empathy interviews and process maps, you have a pretty good idea of what the problem is, and you can generate a problem statement that is more neutral than “my husband needs to get up earlier.” Some examples from previous projects; the problem is:
- We consistently underestimate how much time it’s going to take to get showered and dressed and packed.
- Dad is trying to get breakfast ready and Mom is trying to get lunches packed at the same time and it causes chaos in the kitchen.
- My girlfriend is always looking for something last minute, which means she’s not available to help anyone else, and it stresses everyone out.
- We keep pretending that there’s going to be a shower available when we want it, but we only have one bathroom!
Develop a shared theory of improvement. And by shared, we mean that the people involved in enabling the change have come to a shared understanding of what is being tried and how it is supposed to create an improvement. (Notice that they don’t have to “buy-in”, because you’re not selling them something, and because they don’t necessarily need to agree with the theory; it’s a conjecture, a hypothesis, a hunch, a speculation, a postulate, a proposal).
In the “getting out the door on-time and stress-free” example, this stage typically involved everyone sitting around the dinner table (not the breakfast table, for obvious reasons) and looking at the work done so far (process map, empathy interviews, problem statement) and discussing the implications. Then coming up with a theory of improvement that is, in many ways, the mirror image of the problem:
- If we come up with a better plan for getting lunches ready, then there won’t be a traffic jam in the kitchen, breakfast will be smoother and quicker, and we will get out the door on-time and stress-free.
- If we can coordinate use of the bathroom, then there won’t be as many disagreements, we will all get showered on time, and we will get out the door on-time and stress-free.
- If Mom can get her act together the night before…
Generate ideas for change. There is no one possible change idea. All the people on this mailing list who have seen me coach will recognize that I am fairly relentless on pushing for multiple change ideas. “What are your options?” I ask. And if nothing is immediately forthcoming, I will say, “Well, you could always do nothing, that’s an option.” And frequently that’s enough to get the ball rolling. I am sure there are people reading this who wish they had a dollar for all the times they have heard me ask, “What else could you do? What else?” Keep track of these – write them down – it will be useful to go back to them later.
Decide what to try first. And don’t be vague about it, and make a record of it. Write it down. Create a new process map that incorporates the change idea. Generate a script or a set of instructions. Post it on the fridge or the pantry door. Here are some examples from a variety of household configurations:
- Mike will take a shower the night before, and Dad will fix him breakfast before he takes his shower, so that Maria will be able to use the bathroom unimpeded in the morning, and in return Mike will be able to use his iPad at the kitchen table while he eats breakfast.
- Dad will make tea for Papa-J as part of making breakfast, so that Pap-J can stay upstairs longer and help KT get dressed.
- Jackson and Malia will each have a tub in the pantry where they put the snacks and drinks they like. The night before, they will add what they want from their tubs to their lunch boxes, so that in the morning Grandpa can add their sandwiches and fruit to the lunch boxes that are already on the kitchen counter.
- Mom will pack (and check!) her work bag AND PUT IT IN THE CAR the night before and she will lay out her clothes before she goes to bed.
Test changes, learn, and build evidence. The most important thing to realize here is that there’s no reason to think that what you do on your first try will actually solve the problem. Often – in our personal lives and in school – we try one thing that someone thinks is going to solve the problem, and when it doesn’t work, things just go back to the way they were before. We are lazy about keeping track of whether a change is an improvement. We are also lazy about keeping data about what actually matters – we tend to go by very surface level features, like how we felt about it. If the prompt is “How did it go?” the answer cannot be, “I didn’t like it”, “Not well”, or “We’ll see”. As the DuFours put it so well:
In too many schools and districts, decisions are based upon preferences and perceptions rather than evidence of effectiveness. The question that has driven initiatives has been “Do we like it?” rather than “Does it help more students learn at higher levels?
(See also this fantastic resource of PLC quotations from Bill Ferriter.)
To help you with this, I took this Run Chart template from my friend and colleague David, which you can use to record any numerical value (number of minutes late, chores completed, scores on a rubric) – just make a copy. And if you wouldn’t mind sharing it with me, here is my Google account.
Also, establishing a new routine is hard. See this Twitter thread by Peps Mccrea– the basic idea is that there is an adjustment period that makes the new routine look worse than the old one, before the advantages of the new routine become apparent. Michael Fullan calls this the implementation dip; it’s also called Kanter’s Law: Everything looks like failure in the middle. I have twins, so I have some experience with creating and sustaining routines, and the basic rule was: you can create or change any routine in three days. And the corollary is that you shouldn’t make any predictions about the success of the routine inside those three days, because it will look like a failure before you know whether it really is one. Also, tip of the hat here to single parents, who generally operate with much slimmer margins on everything, and are the true pros when it comes to routines.
I also really love this passage from Mike Rother’s book, Toyota Kata (in fact I love the whole book; some of the ideas offer a real provocation to our assumptions about how to go about improving – more on that another time):
Very few things work the first time, or even the second time. I used to struggle with this question. We would go to the factory floor to try something and several people would fold their arms and say, “Well, let’s see if this works.” Of course within a short time the test failed. They were right, I was wrong, and the experiment would be over. At the first signs of problems, difficulties, or a failed step, it was announced that, “Well, that doesn’t work,” and often, “Let’s go back to the way we did it before because we know that works.” Eventually it dawned on me how to deal with this question. Now, when arms fold up and people say, “Let’s see if this will work,” I say, “I can save you the time. We already know it probably won’t work. Despite our best efforts to plan this, we know that within a short time there will be ‘charred and glowing’ pieces lying around. We just don’t know in advance when, where, or why it will fail.” At this point the arms usually start unfolding a bit, and I follow with, “What we should be asking ourselves is not will it work, but, let’s see what we need to do to make this work.”
So, it turns out to be a small but important tweak to stop thinking in terms of “let’s try this and see if it works” to “let’s try this and see what we learn from it.” It probably won’t work, but that’s not the point. My colleague Rydell has a t shirt with a quotation from Nelson Mandela: I never fail, I either win or I learn. And THAT is the point.
Spread and scale. This is the “last” part of the model, but since this is all about continuous improvement, it’s not really last, and it certainly isn’t final. The idea is that you broaden adoption of successful innovations, but you don’t stop trying to improve them.
And also… A large part of this work is developing dispositions around improvement, and a stance about the work. What do I mean by stance? In the movie version of Moneyball, Billy Beane says to his head scout, “You think you know but you don’t. You don’t.” And that’s what we’re asking people to do: let go of their assumptions that they know what the problem is, that they know what the solution is, and that they know what will work. You think you know, but you don’t. So the stance we want people to take, not just when they are asked to, but all the time in the face of every situation, is: I don’t know as much as I think I do, so I need to behave accordingly: ask good questions, listen more, try things out without any expectations other than I will learn something useful. And if you want to know more about the associated dispositions, I refer you to this article by Manuelito Biag & David Sherer.
As for me, I still grossly underestimate how much time it’s going to take me to get out the door in the morning. So I have a couple of steps built in to compensate for this. I do pack the car the night before; and I establish a time to leave that’s 20 minutes earlier than I would if I could trust myself to get out on time, which I tell myself is to account for traffic, but really it’s to account for my own personal version of the planning fallacy.
Good luck! Keep me posted. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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