In this podcast, I interviewed Jenelle Zito, who is the Director Of Continuous Improvement at Racine Unified School District (RUSD). Prior to joining RUSD about 5 years ago, she implemented process improvement at Gateway Technical College as a Quality Champion, after earning her Lean Six Sigma Green and Black Belt certification.
She shares examples of projects she worked on, along with kaizen events she helped facilitate within each school system. Some of the projects include improving campus mail delivery and improving scheduling and distribution of class schedules.
You can also watch the video of this presentation at https://youtu.be/A7_yvMlzwaA
- Jenelle Zito
- Email: email@example.com
- Racine Unified School District (RUSD)
- Gateway Technical College
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Brion (B): My guest today is Jenelle Zito. She is the Director of Continuous Improvement at Racine Unified School District, where she’s been in that role for the last couple of months. She’s been, total, five years at Racine. She also was at Gateway Technical College, where she earned her Green Belt and her Black Belt certification. She’s going to tell us about how she got into process improvement through education, and some of her work at Gateway, and also with the Racine Unified School District. If you know somebody who’s in education and working on process improvement, this might be a great episode for them to check out. We’ll have show notes and some links to her profile and how you can contact her. Thanks for your time.
Welcome, Janelle. I really appreciate you being here. Could you give us a little bit of your background and your current role?
Jenelle (J): Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me, Brion. I’m really excited to talk with everybody today about all the fun Lean things that we do. My background in Lean Six Sigma started in 2015 where I got my Green Belt in Lean Six Sigma from Gateway Technical College. From there, I said, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t know this was called something. I’ve been doing this my whole life and now I get to actually pursue it formally. Oh, continuous improvement is an actual thing.” From there, I got my MBA in 2020, and then I followed that up right away with my Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, so that’s been my Lean journey.
My current role is the Director of Continuous Improvement and Program Evaluation with Racine Unified School District. We are a school district that sits right in between Milwaukee and Chicago. The size is about 16,000 students, we have about 1500 staff members, and so we are the largest employer in the county of Racine, which again, is right in between Milwaukee and Chicago.
B: Where is Gateway located at?
J: That’s a great question. Gateway Technical College, also I formerly worked there. Still do adjunct work for them as well. Gateway Technical College actually straddles three counties that are in southeastern Wisconsin. It goes over Walworth, Kenosha, and Racine counties. There are actually five locations or campuses that Gateway has, and it supports all three of those counties.
B: How did you get into the first program, your Green Belt? What drew you into that particular course or training?
J: I have to completely credit my mentor, Kamaljit Jackson, or I’m going to refer to her as KC for the rest of the time. KC is the woman who started up utilizing the Lean Six Sigma training at Gateway Technical College for internal staff. What she basically did was she said we offer this wonderful opportunity to our manufacturing partners, and they then learn from our expertise in the courses that we provide through our business and workforce solutions division, and we aren’t capitalizing on this. That seems a little silly. Why not start our own internal program and get our staff trained and then begin doing project work? So I had the absolute honor and privilege of watching her start a Lean structure within Gateway Technical College as a postsecondary institution. By the way, fun fact, oldest technical college in the entire country. It was the first.
Got to watch her really grow that program from infancy, and we ended up with 100% of employees being White Belts trained annually, and then having cohorts of people apply for and get approved to do their Green Belt. And then a much smaller number maintained their Black Belt status there at the organization just because that makes sense in the structure that she was proposing. There were, I believe, a total of four or five Black Belts at the peak.
B: Did she have some background, or she just had seen it and thought it looked interesting? I’m curious about why she decided that was something to pursue or bring in.
J: That’s a great question. Her work really stemmed from she was a part of the Medical College of Wisconsin, did see some things happening there as well, but then really just was inspired by making sure that we took the things that we were training others on and wanted to train internally. I think it sparked her interest. She went directly to the Black Belt route and got that right away in order to then be able to train and mentor Green Belts.
B: Did you end up doing projects at Gateway as part of the training, and then what were some improvements that were being done there? We can start with Gateway first and then transition to Racine, but just curious did you have to go through a project, and what kind of stuff were you guys working on?
J: Yes, there were many projects at Gateway as a Green Belt, as also a participant in kaizen or rapid improvement events. I’d start with just discussing what triggered the Black Belt project that KC led for the other Black Belts that were working on their project completion was our mail system. As I explained before, Gateway has many campuses or locations, and we had a third-party vendor delivering our mail. It got to the point where it would be between 10 and 15 days for delivery of mail between campus locations. Exactly, your face says it all. So we took a look at things, and it also got to the point where I would be going from the Kenosha campus to the Racine campus and I would actually make a point to say, “Hey, does anyone need me to bring their mail?” so that you could speed up the process. It’s comical now when you look back at it, but really it’s those types of things that really trigger the need for somebody to take a look at these things holistically, so they did.
We had all kinds of fun experiments with that. We sent out I believe it was around 2000 pieces of mail. When you got the mail, you would fill out a form to say things like when did you receive this mail. And then we got different responses like I was on vacation, so that might have contributed to a few days of not getting the mail. But otherwise, we were able to really track and narrow down that 10- to 15-day span. We surveyed people and said what’s a reasonable time to receive mail, and they said about one to three days, and so we said, yeah, we definitely have some work to do in improving that.
They did ride-alongs with the drivers from the third-party company, saw some different things there, and ultimately proposed a solution to have two part-time mail employees hired internally. And it did, in fact, fix the problem, which is excellent, and worked out really well for the organization. I believe they still follow the same methods now. There were other things too, like communication and things like that and making sure that people knew where to go for the centralized mailing in their department or area. So there were a lot of pieces to it, of course, but definitely got some great results in the reduction of cycle time, if you will, on the mail delivery.
B: I think there was a couple of things you highlighted there that are really key. I think one is that tracking of the data or collecting that data, using just sheets or some kind of a sheet that follows along with the items. I think that’s a really simple way to gather some baseline information of how things are performing. I’ve used that in a factory before. You’re having people just record when did you receive this, and when did you finish it, and when did it leave your area. It’s not too complicated, but really powerful to then go back and look at that information and be like why did this sit for five days here or three hours? when people have that barrier of not having good data, I think those kind of simple sheets like that are really great. Even if you get a weeks’ worth of data, that’s a good snapshot of what’s going on.
J: Yeah, it was a great sample size. With over 2000 pieces of mail being tracked, that was really nice. Now, we didn’t get responses for every single one, but for the responses we did get from that sample size, it was more than enough. The other thing was going to gemba, as they say, and doing that ride along with drivers was key.
B: That was exactly it, is going and seeing firsthand what did the people have to do and the experience they go through and the mail goes through. If you’re acting like you’re the piece of mail and you’re going through this process, what does the process look like for you. I think that’s really another key thing you guys did was being able to go firsthand and see what’s going on.
J: It revealed a lot of challenges, like the fact that they would make other pitstops for other deliveries because they had other customers as well, which is totally understandable, but we could prioritize our own selves by hiring internally. Other things too when you don’t have an internal person doing the work were things like they would not have access to certain buildings, certain doors. You could say, in certain secure places, even the access to the parking lot, some companies have that as well. But those also were discovered, if you will, during that ride-along testing.
B: Cool. That sounds like a great project, and I’ve seen a couple of mail rooms and it looked like there’s always opportunity for improvement there.
J: I think of 5S when I think of the mail rooms. That was the first project that was ever officially taken on by Gateway in terms of developing the Lean program, but the first real kaizen I was a participant in, and KC also led that project, which took a look at the veteran’s benefits and how we in the Student Services Department, in the Financial Aid Office specifically, awarded veterans benefits. Of course, this project was prioritized and triggered because of audit findings. You’ll oftentimes see that when a national organization like the VA is coming in and doing audits, and then you have some severe findings, that that will trigger, of course, senior leaders, usually, to say we need to take an in-depth look at this and try to figure out how we can make it better.
We had multiple people, so there were seven people doing the work of VA processing, processing VA paperwork. What that means at a post-secondary institution is that if students who come in and utilize their VA or veteran’s benefits in order to attend college, so it helps pay for their schooling. You may have heard of things like Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Montgomery GI Bill. Those terms are all what are referred to for the veteran’s benefits as it relates to attending college or university.
So we took a look at why we were having findings and what could be done. We ended up, in 2014, having 36 severe or major findings. I said 2015, right? I can’t remember. I think that was in 2015. And then by 2016, I believe the fall of 2016 after we had implemented the changes from the kaizen, we were down to only 1 severe finding. Of course, the goal would be none, but from 36 down to 1 is a huge reduction in our out-of-compliance processes. Standard operating procedures were a huge component of that project. Developing and writing those standard operating procedures, I was a main person who did that as a result of being a participant in the kaizen event, and I can tell you it definitely revolutionized the department because we finally had a standardized way for all seven people to do the work and make sure that everyone was doing the same things and the student didn’t get different answer if they went to, like I had referenced before, the Kenosha campus versus the Racine campus or something like that. Those pieces were really crucial.
It evolved even from 2016 down to reorganizing the department and making it so that only one or two people were actually going to be doing those processing pieces. That reduces variation even more then because you don’t have seven different people doing it, you only have one or two. I know they did move in that direction as well, and then they just redistributed what the duties were for the other folks. They had to pick up, basically, what the other people were doing, so there wasn’t a reduction in force or anything like that. It was just a redistribution of duties.
B: I was wondering because sometimes that does work out nicely that the quality gets better with some standardization, and that it streamlines the process too and frees up resources. Hopefully, that’s a good sign that just redeployed people and didn’t say here’s an opportunity to cut costs and lay people off.
J: It was more like these two are processing veteran’s benefits all the time now, so who’s going to answer all their phone calls and meet with all their students? it was just that redistribution work, which, thankfully, made the experience for our veterans so much better. What better service could we give to our servicemen and women than making sure that they get their VA benefits processed in a timely manner and accurately? that was really our ultimate end goal.
B: Because it’s not just finding from the VA, it’s actually a maybe customer experience problem for the students coming in, the veterans coming into school, that they’re waiting on something to get paid or they have to call a couple of times. I think that sounds like it’s more than just the findings is really the benefits from that.
J: I probably should’ve mentioned the severe finding also meant that it was impacting the student in some way. Because of that, it makes it more severe that money would either need to be returned or reissued or given back or something like that, so definitely wanted to make that experience a lot better for our service members.
B: And the VA doesn’t have to spend as much time looking over your processes maybe in the future because they see that it’s working better, it’s more smoother, they can go focus on other things.
J: Or, at the very least, we don’t have to make their auditors work as hard.
B: Or they don’t have to spend as much time there or is come as often or take up your team’s time too. I think there’s all these other additional benefits that can come with it when you really step back and look at the big picture. It’s pretty powerful.
J: Exactly. And then my Green Belt project there at Gateway Technical College was taking a look at our student information systems training. We surveyed staff, asked them what they would really like to see out of a training for our SIS, or our student information system. There wasn’t any holistic training before the project, so again, standard operating procedures became a big outcome or finding that we had from working on that project. We also implemented a universal repository or a database for being able to store those trainings and making sure that everyone had access to it that needed it, and making sure that it was really convenient and easy for people to find.
Gateway has about 600 staff that are full-time. About 100 to 150 usually, it varies a little bit, are in Student Services, and most of those Student Services members then deal with our student information system on a regular, daily basis, are in it all the time. So was really important that we have numbers like that of people trained well on the system and making sure that they have access to standard operating procedures, just things to make their lives easier in terms of what does this acronym mean? I have to go to what screen? It’s called STAT? What is it called STAT and what does that mean and what can I find there? Without knowing, without being trained by somebody, which we found that that was obviously how most people learned is that they had hours and hours of training informally from somebody that they worked with directly, somebody who does their position as well, so would have to spend time training that person. But there was no videos, there were no standard operating procedures they could read through. Ultimately, we saw a soft cost savings. It totaled about $200,000 when we quantified people’s salaries and time annually for the training that would need to happen for any new staff members or onboarding.
B: Did you end up using any kaizen events during that, or did you just chip away at that one over a series of weeks and months?
J: We chipped away at that. It took about a year for that project. We met with department heads. There are over 36 department heads in different areas across the organization. Just asked them what do you do in the student information system, and do you have documentation for that? we saw that the data showed that they might have 10 different things that they do in the SIS, but they’ve only documented 1 or they have none, which is often the case, no documentation for it.
So then it was working individually with those department leads to make sure that they were beginning that process and working with their employees on starting a standard operating procedure repository. We gave them a template, we orchestrated a system for the storage, the editing, a schedule by which they could follow for compliance in order to continuously improve and revise their standard operating procedures, and then a place for also that to be shared with the rest of the organization as long as it didn’t involve any kind of private information. Like Payroll couldn’t tell us all their processes or have that stored in a visible place, but many of the things were things that many people need to access and do anyway, so we had to work through those minor issues. But for the most part, we had a lot of storage that then helped many, many more people.
B: Did each group have to come up with their own activity to put all this together, or was there a team that went around and helped them put together the documentation or videos?
J: That’s a great question. The Green Belt team was just myself and one other person, and we did go around and help as much as we possibly could. Because we were working on our Green Belt internally with the organization, we were allowed to devote hours of our regular work time, our salaried work time to our Green Belt project. So yes, we did help. We did train people on video recording software. At that time, it was still new. We didn’t have Zoom or it wasn’t as popular, I would say, in 2015, 2016 when we were rolling this out.
The screen capture and the training on that was definitely something new for a lot of people. Being able to screencast and show what they’re clicking on and when they’re clicking on it, those were definitely newer concepts for the majority of the workforce, so we definitely needed training to be provided to people. That’s really only, most of the time, if they wanted to go that extra mile. I find it so much easier because then you don’t have to write up everything. You could just click, click, click and show somebody how you did it, but a lot of people also really heavily relied on having that paper documentation, which is important as well. But video documentation, I think, is something that we all need to explore a lot more.
B: What was your role at that time that you were able to do some of these projects or work? was this just like a little bit of your time was allocated out from your other role, or were you in improvement work at the time?
J: I was a Student Finance Specialist, so that’s why I was really heavily involved with that first kaizen. What KC had developed was a contract system, so we as Green Belts, signed a contract, and then our direct Supervisor also signed that contract just to note that we would be spending some of our regular, like I said, salaried hours in an effort to complete our Green Belt project. There was a percentage or a number of hours we weren’t supposed to go over in the week and things like that, but they were very flexible with us in terms of I need 10 hours this week, but next week, it’s going to be easier because I have all these meetings scheduled. So they were very good and understanding about that because it was laid out in a system and a structure. I’m very, very fortunate to have been there during that time when they were really recruiting those Green Belts and working on projects systematically.
B: Do you remember how many hours they allocated? like five a week or something?
J: Yeah, it was very close to that. I would say that, most of the time, it actually did line up, but like I said, I’d have to flex it. Sometimes I would work 10 hours in one week, but then I would only need 1 or 2 the next week and it would all even out and work out. I think some people found it challenging, with their volume and their workload, to do that in addition, but I think, once again, the benefits of that, that’s what Lean is all about.
Doing a rapid improvement project, oftentimes, the things that we would hear are, “I can’t be away from my work for three or four days, or heaven forbid, five days.” It’s always a challenge. It’s always something that seems like one more thing is on top of thing else, but literally every kaizen I’ve ever participated in or led or heard about, people rave after the fact and said we should have done this years ago. Now I understand. Now I get why we do this or why we wanted to all get in a room and take a look at this. It was handled so easily because we had the IT Support there, we had the Finance team there. We had whoever we needed in order to be able to get this done and get the results that we want.
B: How did you end up working at the unified school district there?
J: Her name’s going to come up again. KC started doing some consulting work with Racine Unified School District through Gateway again. When she was hired on there full-time, I decided to follow her and ended up starting out in the Academic Office of Racine Unified School District as a Project Manager. I found out, very quickly, that a Project Manager meant something very different in industry than it did in education, and that it was a position in which people threw everything that they didn’t know what to do with into one role. So I did all of the things and learned a lot, during my time as a Project Manager, about the organization, and I think that was crucial and key in order for me to be in the role that I’m in now.
I do have an education background. I was a teacher also. My Bachelor’s is in secondary education with an emphasis in English, which is a fancy way of saying I went to school to be a high school English teacher. I did do that for a while in Sheboygan, Wisconsin as well as in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but then moved away from teaching. A lot of things happened in Wisconsin. They’re actually talking about them now. Act 10, which essentially made it so that they’d no longer recognize unions here in the state, so the teachers’ unions took a big hit at that time. We also had the 2008, 2009, 2010 financial unrest, which meant that a lot of teachers weren’t retiring. It was kind of an icky time to be a brand-new teacher in the education world in Wisconsin, so I moved away from teaching in the secondary or K-12 arena, and then I relied or fell back on my work-study job that I had when I was in college in the Financial Aid Office and decided to work for postsecondary and do financial aid, and that’s how I ended up at Gateway.
Going back into the K-12 arena was something I never thought I would do, but once I got my hands on this Lean Six Sigma and process improvement stuff, if you will, I knew I was never going to turn back from that and I thought, gosh, K-12 education could really use some of this or all of this, and they could use it now, so whatever I can do to do that. So that’s why I left and that’s why I followed KC over to RUSD. She got a wonderful opportunity while she was here at RUSD, so she left for another nonprofit organization called WWBIC in Milwaukee, and she is now the VP there and very, very excited for her in that role.
The role that I’m in now is very similar to the role that she held here at Racine Unified. It’s not the exact same, but it’s very similar. It’s kind of my dream job. I’m a really lucky person. People ask, “What do you do?” and I sometimes have a hard time articulating, but I think really what I do is work to change the hearts and minds of people as it relates to how we can change and do things differently. There’s a lot of people work that needs to be done when you talk about change because people don’t like to be told what they need to do. They like to feel as though they’re on the journey with you in that change. Nobody, I don’t think, relishes something being cascaded down onto them. What this kind of work does is allow for you to bring people with you, bring people to the table, and make certain that people have a voice and that it’s not lip service to them having a voice, that it’s actually them being able to effect change, participate in that change, or drive it even.
B: What are some of the challenges that the school district’s working on right now? Is it around student experience? Is it around teacher satisfaction? I’m trying to, in my head, just think about what some of the issues might be.
J: These are great questions. COVID learning loss is what you’ll hear a lot from those in the education industry right now, but I will say that Racine Unified also has developed a strategic plan recently that is forecasting into the next five years, and early literacy is one of the big foci. It’s our big rock, if you will, if you like to use that metaphor. We have five district goals, early literacy being one of them. We want to really target our littlest littles in the 4K, kindergarten, first, and second grade to make sure that we are starting them off with success as early readers, as confident readers. The way that we are working to do that now is we have actually developed, in partnership with our community partner, Higher Expectations, a homegrown data dashboard, which is kind of unheard of in education. We usually rely on other things, Qualtrics or Power BI and things like that, but we have developed our own dashboard for early literacy data that we have implemented this year.
The goal is really to get our students, especially you think our second graders have had very little school experience in the past couple of years. They had a whole year of virtual schooling, they had months where we didn’t know what we were going to do. We sent packets home, but the world shut down so they’ve had a lot of disruption in their education so far. So we’re trying to bring some consistency to it and part of that is having our teachers really focus on certain standards and certain assessments in order to measure all of our students in the same way, to be able to really see how are we doing? what’s the pulse on this monthly? let’s not wait for some standardized test that’s going to happen in April. We want to know now how our students are doing and how we can help them with things like intervention or referrals to special education if necessary.
B: What about data? how prevalent is it in K-12?
J: Very. I just said this recently to some friends and partners. We are data-rich and information-poor, yes, but I like to say impact-poor. We have a lot of data and we don’t gather it, we don’t look at it, we don’t analyze it, we don’t systematize it, and that allows for a huge gap in impact. Taking that data and doing something with it are actually two different skill sets, so unless you have both, you’re not going to see results from, ultimately, what you hope to do with the data.
B: That’s good. I think that’s a little further along, that at least you don’t have to get over that initial hurdle of trying to get some data. But doing something with it, I think that is definitely a key thing. I run across that too is we collect this all. It’s going into a database and it’s like let’s look at it. What are we doing with it?
J: For sure, and I’ll add that there are some data gaps as well. Recently, I can give the example that we looked at one of the indicators for our graduation rate success. We said what do they need to graduate? they need to complete credits. Do we look at the tracking of credit completion starting when they’re freshman? And then there’s crickets. So there are some systems and some data pieces that we still need to implement in a lot of cases, but for the most, part we have a lot of data. We know behavior incidents, we know the attendance rates.
By the way, attendance rates have also been a huge challenge for education since COVID as well. You’ve got competing priorities with I need to be out for so many days. That was our last year challenge. We told them 10 days. You need to quarantine or be out for 10 days, we shortened that to 5 eventually, but still, those are going to be absences where our students are not in school learning and it’s really impacting. They say anything after 10 days has a huge impact on a student’s achievement and scores, so that’s part of the reason why the state says you’re truant after 10 days of absences as well.
But we know the attendance data. It’s being tracked all the time, but what are we doing with that? how are we changing our approach in order to make sure that students are in school? sometimes it’s just that PR campaign. They think it’s just kindergarten. They don’t need to come, and we’re like, no, you’re teaching school. You’re teaching how to school in kindergarten. That’s your very early experiences with what it means to go to school, which is what is going to translate to what it means to be in a job or in the workforce eventually. So if you want to train your student that you can miss, it’s fine, that might linger on for a lot longer than you want it to. So it’s that PR campaign that says parents, we need your students here so that they can learn, so that they can read, so that they can be in collaboration with their peers and work on those social-emotional indicators as well as their academic indicators.
B: Any other improvement projects you’ve been working on so far, or what are some key areas that the district is going to be focused on going forward for improvement?
J: One kaizen that I have done so far here at Racine Unified was around high school scheduling. We had some really great results with that. High school scheduling used to happen very, very, very close to the beginning of the academic year. Most schedules were getting finalized in August, maybe July if you had an experienced scheduler, but it was not in really enough time to be able to have a very proactive way of being able to deal with things like schedule changes or room changes or teacher changes, staff changes.
So we got real proactive and after the kaizen, we learned that we need to make sure that schedules are to students’ or in students’ hands, meaning that they are finalized much earlier in the process. This year, we had a date of May 1 as our goal date. We missed it by just a little bit, but students did have schedules in hand by June 1, which was still before the end of the school year, which moved up that timeline two or three months, in most cases, and now have allowed us to be able to not be so hectic these first few weeks of school in terms of making all the scheduling changes that we needed to because we’ve had all summer now to be able to troubleshoot and make sure that the schedules are more proactively ready for students when they actually step foot through the door in fall.
B: How are you able to do a kaizen event? was it at off-hours, or how were you able to pull the teachers, if that was part of the effort?
J: That’s a great question. We did it during the summer because it has been a challenge to find substitutes during the school year as well. Another educational challenge in our industry that I’m sure anyone listening in the industry right now is also nodding their head and going, “Yep, yep.” So we did do the summer and we paid any employee who was not a 52-week or a 50-week employee who essentially wasn’t already being paid to be there. We did pay them a stipend for that participation for that time. We had teacher participation, counselor participation, which counselors are usually also not in school at that time. Some are, but most aren’t. So yes, they were paid for that time. We pulled a cross-functional team, which of course, is so important when you’re doing a kaizen event, being really intentional about who you’re pulling in and why they’re there and making sure that that’s clear once you get the event going.
Another output of that event was a beautiful new high school course guide, which I’m really excited for. It really is one of, since we had to pull many examples, one of the leading course guides in the state, if not the region, for being able to show a trajectory of coursework for our academy pathways. Racine is unique as far as being the largest school district in the state of Wisconsin with academy high schools, and we’re very proud of that work. We were just recognized as a model institution for our academies, so I’m happy that we did this because we also got a chance to showcase how those pathways would look on a four-year plan for our students. Any student considering doing the engineering pathway now gets to see this is the course I’m going to take in my freshman year, and what I’m going to do in my sophomore year, junior year, and senior year, which seems like it should be self-explanatory and have already been a thing, but we actually had not created those until we had this kaizen event and got everyone together and said we need to map this out for ourselves, but also for students. That was another really great output that we saw from this event.
B: I think that just goes to reiterate that these are difficult to put together. You’re talking about trying to coordinate it in summer, bring people in during their holidays and their break, maybe even coming up with funds to support that, and then tying people up for multiple days at a time. But once you can get over that hurdle, then they see that was a lot of work, that was a lot of inconvenience perhaps and maybe additional cost, but look at the results we got and how much further along and how quickly we can get through some of these problems that would’ve taken months or years or never gotten done. To your point, I think once they’ve gone through that experience, they realize that was totally worth it even though I was hesitant and resistant at first.
J: That was definitely one of the lessons learned. It’s usually always the lessons learned that we do after a rapid improvement or a kaizen event. I capture the ideas coming in and people say all the things that you just said, Brion. They say, “Oh my gosh, this is such a huge time commitment. I don’t know how I’m going to get the rest of my work done,” but when you get everyone in a room, there’s some weird magic that happens. I can’t take credit for it, certainly, because I’ve seen it happen in other rooms, rooms that I’m not in. It’s some kind of magical formula that given the right environment, people end up really opening doors up that they never thought they would.
We noticed, with the high school scheduling, that it was bottlenecking at a place that he didn’t need to bottleneck at. We were holding the whole process hostage on this other arbitrary process that actually didn’t matter in terms of when we were starting to schedule or when we opened it up to students. It would not have happened if we didn’t have everybody in the room at that time. The other pieces is that people in the room are also representative, and I try to tell that to people as much as I can, that I wish we could have all 1500 of our employees here with us, but I can’t. So when you’re here, I want you to talk to your colleagues. If you go home after day one and you say, “I wonder what everyone else thinks about that,” please poll your teams, poll your friends because you’re representing a voice right now that is larger than, technically, just your own and we want to know what this looks like from the teacher experience or from the counselor experience or from the principal experience. It’s very important to reinforce and also give people that permission to say hey. You want to think about this from a big, holistic perspective too.
B: I think that’s a really important point to make is that they are representing their department or their team or other people in their roles. That it’s not just I think this, but no, you’re a voice for all the principals or all the teachers, so you have to go back and get some of that feedback and say, “This is what we were talking about. This is what we were discussing. Does this sound right? is that the direction we want to go?” you’re almost starting to build some of the change management into that as well by saying, “I’m seeking your input so that when we come back and say this is what we’re going to go do, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard it, and we try to give you a voice to this process a little bit even though you couldn’t necessarily be there in the event.”
J: Yeah, and would say that we also did survey data as well to try to get that input proactively on the front-end, but sometimes there’s things that are changing rapidly during a rapid improvement event, and so it’s things that we didn’t get a chance to ask on the survey because they didn’t come up yet so we didn’t anticipate that. So having a mechanism for which to get that timely feedback is really important. Luckily, we did experience that really, really clearly when we met and did a kaizen in February of this year on the calendar. We had teachers’ union members specifically pick to be a part of the event so that they could take back, from what we were doing during the four days, to their membership and really talk about it and make sure that we were moving forward in the right direction.
For that project for the calendar, when it was proposed to the board, it received unanimous board approval and that’s with sweeping changes being made such as changes to start and end times, which they couldn’t pass through the board for years prior. Changes like our entire professional learning system, or professional development some might recognize it as, was upended and we went to more of a voice and choice model. Things like having our teachers with dedicated time during the year that they could choose whether or not they work in their classroom, whether or not they grade, or whether they participate in those professional learning events. Those are all huge changes that we made, but all by looking together at the calendar and having so many different voices at the table but ready for providing that feedback from different stakeholder groups such as teachers.
We hope to also bring students into this. More and more, I continue to press that, yes, our customers are our teachers, yes, our customers are our parents, families, and community, but how often do we gauge the voice of our students? that is going to be my next big push as I continue this work is how often are we asking for student feedback? I try to plant those seeds as much as I can and as often as I can. I’m developing a continuous improvement advisory council which will meet quarterly, and our goal will be to vet projects and project ideas that come in, and we will have student membership on the advisory council, as well as parents, as well as teachers, and many other staff members from different departments, but making sure that all are represented on the team. Because what people feel needs to be changed, we need to make sure that we’re asking the right people about that as well. I’m sure our students have a whole slew of ideas about how we could do things differently and better, but that’s an untapped resource that we haven’t even begun to explore yet. So I’m hopeful that we will, in the next year, have a whole litany of things that we need to just do or schedule as kaizens or have as institutional projects or reviews.
B: That made me think too about how do we get Lean and Six Sigma training into the K-12 system. Because I feel like these are not business skills; these are life skills. These are applicable everywhere. No matter what they end up doing, they’ll find uses for process improvement everywhere they go. Do you see opportunity there to embed it into existing courses or have a separate course or some way to get at least some basic problem-solving skills at the K-12 level?
J: Brion, you hit the nail on the head again. PDSA or PDCA is a system that we are currently using for classroom continuous improvement. What we are working to build now, our teachers need an understanding of it and training on it first as our first layer, but then we are going to cascade that layer down to our students. Right now, we have started the planning for working with our SEL, or social-emotional learning, team because they are always focusing on things like grit and perseverance and self-regulation, and working with them to say how can we infuse continuous improvement into that. Our PDCA cycle could be something that the students could learn from as well. Something like cleaning their rooms. I’m a parent too, so I’m like gosh, that is just such a struggle. How can we maybe take a problem like that, a life problem, and build a curriculum around it for our students to be able to get that information during SEL time and in collaboration with the SEL work that they already do?
One other opportunity is, through our academy high schools, we have manufacturing pathways. An easy win for me is I’m now trying to partner with Gateway Technical College, which we already do partner with for so many of our courses and transcripted credit offerings, to offer 5S certification for our manufacturing pathway. It could, obviously, work with other pathways as well that are identified. I actually have a meeting on that tomorrow, so fingers crossed that that all goes through and that we transition this learning to our students as well.
B: I find that helpful just even with professionals going back to their own personal lines and saying why don’t we practice at home? let’s apply some of these methods to your personal life and how you make dinner and how you do chores.
J: Do you run out of toilet paper a lot? How can we Lean this?
B: Or why do you have so much toilet paper?
J: All of those things.
B: So I think that’s great to see the opportunities there and give them that skill. I’d love to see it as a class someday, that they get a Yellow Belt or something like that in high school to get their learning started on this continuous improvement path.
J: Give me a few years, Brion. I’ll get it done.
B: You let me know exactly when that happens because I think that would be really cool.
J: Me too.
B: Anything else you wanted to share? You gave us a lot of great information and it’s pretty exciting what’s going on there. Another thing might be just what would you tell somebody who’s working in education, working on the administrative side perhaps, how can they try to get started with putting in a program like this? they may not have KC there to lead the way, but what can they do to move it in the right direction?
J: That’s such a great question and I was thinking about it because I knew it was on the agenda. I think my lessons learned so far, especially in K-12 education, really just education though in general, I see it at the postsecondary level as well, calling it something different is sometimes scary for people in and of itself. They think it’s that Lean stuff. Only they do it over there. Making others feel as though it is their job to improve and change is hard, and that’s why I said I feel like, most days, I’m just trying to do a lot of people work and changing people’s hearts and minds. In order to do that, I ask a lot of questions. I always say some days I feel more like a detective than I do a Director of Continuous Improvement. The questions that are asked are usually ones that don’t offer a yes or no answer, and thought-provoking is always helpful.
To have someone be able to sit in a room and feel good about being able to question why things are the way that they are, it’s weird that it’s a skill because not everybody goes into meetings and thinks I’m going to ask why we do this. It is a special vision that someone has to have about I understand that now, but why? and asking other things like have we considered… That’s one of my favorites too “…” “have we considered…” because there are other ways maybe to do something, but that we haven’t either explored or thought about before, which in an industry like education where you’ve seen desks in rows for years and years and years and we want to teach how we were taught, it goes against the grain of sometimes what you do every day and to think about we have to do things differently. I’m not going to teach my students how I was taught in school. I’m going to teach them how they learn best, which we can refer to lots of current events and current things that will support that. But being able to make that actually happen takes a lot of patience, a lot of time, and a lot of questioning. So I try to give grace, but still pushing and making sure, even if it’s a little push, that we do that push not because we want to disrupt necessarily, but it’s because we want to be better and we know we can be better, and not letting good be the enemy of great, all those things.
Although I’m all about disruption too, but you can disrupt to a point of where people don’t want to do it and they rebel against it. I’ve definitely seen that in my time in education where you have the flavor of the week. This will be gone in a year. That was just her. She just wanted to do that. It’s that one person. It was just KC. Instead of branding it as my thing, this is not my thing, this is our thing. How we do that is making sure that people can see, at their level, wherever they’re at, meet them where they are at and say, “I noticed you’ve been mowing the lawn like this, and I see that that looks great. Have you ever considered…” and then meet our custodians where they’re at. You have your teachers, “Have you considered arranging the desks in…” whatever that looks like. It’s how can we infuse continuous improvement ideas without really calling it that, without making it seem like some other thing and not just something that they should do as a part of what they do every day.
B: Very cool.
J: That was a really long answer.
B: No, that’s really good. I think that’s what every organization needs is not something that can point to and I guess resist or justify it away as something that not related to them, and I think the more subtle and seamless it is, that it can be integrated into what they’re already doing. I think when I have discussions one-on-one with people, it’s like it doesn’t take long to get on the same page and say, “Yeah, we want things to be better,” and I think everyone wants things to be better. Some people get frustrated and they’ve just given up because they don’t see a pathway and they just say, “I’m just going to do my thing and I’ve given up on that,” or, “I’ve tried in the past and I got stuck and I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s frustrating.”
J: Yeah, or, “I didn’t like that.”
B: Yeah, or it that got forced onto me or I didn’t get a voice in that process and now I’ve got to live with it. I think to get to a point where we can pull people in directly with the challenges they’re dealing with and the frustration they have and try to help them fix that without making it a big program, I think that’s really cool.
J: That’s the goal.
B: Anything else you wanted to share?
J: No, other than to say thank you so much to you, Brion. I really appreciate it, and thank you to KC. I’m going to send this to her and I know she’s listening, but she was the first person who really looked at me and said, “You’re really good at this and I think that you should continue doing this,” and just giving me so many different opportunities through the work that she did, so I’m grateful for her. If you don’t have a mentor, go find one because they’re really great.
B: Yeah, she sounds pretty great. Thank you so much for your time, and if you have some new updates in the future, we’ll stay in touch and I’ll bring you back.
J: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Brion.
B: Okay. Thanks for your time. Bye.