Bad Systems in the News: Detroit Public Schools


I've fallen behind in my blogging the past few days, but I'll be back on track. I saw a number of news stories that did catch my eye, non-manufacturing stories about systems (or lack thereof) and blame. What do the Transportation Safety Administration, the National Basketball Association, Detroit Public Schools and Northwest Airlines have in common? Poor systems… read on.

Detroit Public Schools:
Lets start with Detroit, since the situation is spelled out pretty clearly by the new superintendent. Since I grew up outside of Detroit, I still scan the papers online sometimes and ran into this article in the Detroit Free Press, which starts with:

Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Connie Calloway said Friday in a candid conversation with the Free Press that she inherited a system in which there are no administrative procedures in place for seemingly basic functions and rules are not respected.

We often take for granted, in manufacturing, that a business has processes. These processes often are full of waste (are “not Lean”) but there is a process. It seems, while a generalization, that people in industries outside of manufacturing really aren't taught to be “process thinkers” (yet alone “value stream thinkers”).

Calloway is really having to shake up the school district, so rumors spread when a new leader comes in:

The new superintendent, who started on July 1, said that contrary to rumor, she is not a “my way or the highway” type of leader, but one who expects stakeholders to follow standards and procedures.

I think the same could be said for a “Lean leader.” Lean leadership isn't a dictatorship, but you do have to set expectations that people follow “standardized work.” Again, the school isn't trying to “be Lean,” I'm just looking for parallels here. A “Lean leader” would go a step further than just following standards — they would also expect people to make suggestions for improving said standard.

An editorial in the paper spells out more, including Calloway quoted as saying:

The system, she says, seems “unaccustomed to process” of any kind.

She also uses the word “apalling.” As a leader, you have to be careful in telling people how bad things are. It might all be true, but people might not necessarily trust an outsider. People often have pride in how they've done things, even if it's all wrong. Think of the challenge of an Alan Mulally coming into Ford, trying to talk about how bad things are and how Toyota is doing so much better. He runs the risk of being tuned out or demonized by those with an interest in maintaining the status quo. This happened in the DPS before:

Think of Deborah McGriff, hired in the early 1990s to shepherd the school system through the early days of reform. She was blunt, too, about how awful she found things to be here, and she refused to back away from tough assessments or unpopular prescriptions.

She lasted less than two years, though, because those who don't want to hear the truth were allowed to cast her as the enemy. Nearly 20 years later, no one can credibly argue that things are better than they were when she left.

I saw similar attempts when I was at GM and we had a new plant manager with a NUMMI background come in to fix things. I wrote about it here in this post about Mulally. The union tried to make him the enemy, that he was criticizing the workers, when that wasn't the case, at all. Spin and politics can get in the way of change in any environment, unfortunately. Hence, the challenge of leadership!

An example of the broken processes:

A few examples: Calloway notes that Detroiters have argued for years over the way the school system doles out contracts. Rather than focus on the accusations, she has asked the district's procurement office to outline its standard operating procedures, so she can check to see that the proper safeguards are in place. She said she'll do the same with every department.

Again, this reminds me of “Lean leadership” — not pointing the fingers of blame but, instead, focusing on defining processes. Without a process defined, how can you tell if people are following the process or not?

I really wish Calloway a lot of luck with her journey. Maybe Mulally and other Lean leaders in Detroit can help out. First off, by setting a good example, but secondly, getting involved and helping bring “Management 101” practices (yet alone Lean) to the school district.

Coming Next: Bad Systems in the News: the NBA

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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