Upstream Thinking . . . Where to find a point of leverage?

“Upstream change often means fumbling our way forward, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and under what conditions.”

~  Dan Heath

W. Edward Deming, the father of the quality improvement process, is often quoted as saying, “Each system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.”  In the case of schools, many of the systems and programs that have been implemented have not resulted in improved outcomes for all students because they were not examined repeatedly over time while changing the process along the way. If systems thinking in education is utilized effectively, feedback is a way of bringing attention to the gaps between desired and actual results. Systems are used as a way of leveraging strengths to improve over time. Systems thinking allows you to learn from failures and focus on overall improvement. How might you utilize systems as a way of engaging in continuous improvement over time?  

The Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process, or MICIP for short, defines a system as “a series of interdependent and aligned processes and people working together toward a common goal to bring desired results.”  What connections might you make amongst MICIP’s definition of a system, the continuous improvement process, and upstream thinking about uniting the right people, getting closer to the problem, and identifying the points of leverage?  

You guessed it . . . improvement cycles!  The purpose of an improvement cycle (input, process, output, feedback ~ IPOF model) is to implement practices to improve student outcomes.  Based on data, you first begin with your district/school focus or goal and determine what input will be needed to accomplish that goal.  Your input can be an implementation plan/strategy/guide, a vision . . . in other words, the input directs the thinking within an improvement cycle. The process describes the actions, denoted by role, that must be taken for the input to be effective. The process also addresses the interconnection between different components of the system. Output is what you get after you apply the input-aligned actions identified within the process.   And, the feedback compares the actual results to the desired results. If those two are not the same, you have not achieved your goal and you need to change the input, process, or both.

To foster change in practice in your district, using improvement cycles:

  • helps build routines for people in the district and in buildings,
  • develops some “early wins” for a district by focusing on practices that are relatively strong (and have most of the components in place already) and just in need of improvement,
  • establishes a practice for developing and refining ideas, so that it becomes a protocol for “piloting” new ideas,
  • changes the dialog from “failing” to “finding opportunities to improve”, and
  • gives everyone a tool they can use on their own in any aspect of their own work.

The Leader’s and Teacher’s Corner sections will support you with deeper thinking around how to get closer to the problem, find points of leverage, and dispel the notion that prevention must save money.