Learning Across Industries

By: William A. Liggett, Ph.D. Issue: Education & Workforce Development Section: Jewel Of Collaboration

The Benefits for K-12 Public Education

Learning Across Industries

Southwest Airlines was plagued by late departures due to slow aircraft turnaround at the gate. The company wanted to improve, so it asked, “What industry does a similar task better than anyone else?” The “light bulbs” flashed on as they thought of formula-one racing -- pit crews servicing cars in seconds. So, Southwest studied how Indianapolis 500 pit crews choreographed their actions, applied this learning to their gate crews, cut their times by half, and became the leader in their industry for on-time departures.1

Such dramatic examples of learning across industries are rare, but opportunities abound for the seeking.

Teamwork and Education

Trends in organizational innovation tend to sweep through industries in the United States. We search for solutions by looking outside our organizations for “best practices” by others in the industry. For example, a current best practice is to form teams of educators who meet regularly and collaborate on ways to improve their students’ learning. These teams function as professional learning communities or PLC’s.2

Most nationwide educational innovations in the recent past share a common process of discovery and development. Each was first described in conferences, journals, books, blogs, or newsletters, where their promises of improved student achievement were extolled. Sooner or later, educators embraced the new ideas and worked to implement them in their schools.

What is likely to be missed in this within-industry process is the history of trial-and-error learning, successes, and failures of similar innovations in other industries. This is because each industry has its own communication channels, and, more importantly, leaders in each industry do not often see the relevance of innovations in industries outside their own. School administrators frequently hear teachers protesting that, “We don’t manufacture ‘widgets’ in our schools.” This is a way of saying that their jobs do not resemble those on a manufacturing assembly line. True, but do teachers realize that some of the original “PLC’s” were formed in the 1930’s by researchers at a Westinghouse manufacturing plant where assembly line workers collected and reviewed data, diagnosed problems, and improved their processes – the same activities that educators are learning to do now in order to improve student achievement?3

Do they understand how potent the team approach to work has become in other industries and, therefore, its huge potential for education?

The “Medical Model” and Other Recent Innovations

Another recent innovation sweeping the country is the restructuring of public education through what is called “Response to Intervention” (RTI). RTI has been characterized as the “medical model” applied to public education, and entails frequent assessments and targeted interventions that are deployed in schools to ensure that all students receive the help they need.4

A similar system of clinical testing, a hierarchy of tiered interventions, and evidence-based practice, has been used to treat patients since specialties emerged in medicine in the 1930’s.

The team approach to work, although studied in the 1930’s, was ignored by American business and manufacturing industries in the U.S. until the 1980’s, when the Japanese demonstrated potency of teams for improving quality and productivity. This cross-continent learning was followed by cross-industry learning when multidisciplinary, patient-focused teams swept through health care in the 1990’s. Educator PLC teams are just now taking hold in the first decade of the twenty-first century in public education. These teams share the same underlying philosophy of continuous improvement of processes and outcomes by engaging groups of staff members who work directly with the product, patient, or student to find ways of making significant improvements quickly.

The parallel innovations across industries in Table One underscore the point that, although our missions may be different, our underlying problems and solutions tend to be remarkably alike. If this assertion is true, would it not behoove educators to seek solutions to their challenges in other industries, as well as their own?

In spite of the potential benefits there are voices of caution, as well, in the field of education. Hess indicates that he fears that, “...both ‘data-based decision making’ and ‘research-based practice’ can stand in for careful thought, serve as dressed up rationales for the same old fads, or be used to justify incoherent proposals.”5

It is critical that educators do not simply adopt terms from other disciplines without deep understanding and fidelity of application of the new concepts. For example, the term “research-based” could convey everything from studies with random testing and control groups to anecdotal reports in professional journals.

Rigorously tested educational interventions are relatively few in number and still require monitoring to verify that they work in each new setting. Dynarski asserts that most educators, “...are not trained to evaluate data and research or translate findings into on-the-ground practices or approaches that can improve student learning.”6

This lack of training and experience can leave educators at the mercy of the sales pitches of gurus and vendors of packaged programs who claim to provide research-based solutions to their instructional challenges. Physicians face similar risks of blindly accepting the pitches of pharmaceutical salesmen.

Steps to Ensure Fidelity to Intervention Design

What can educators do to embrace innovations from other industries while avoiding superficial changes having limited impact on student learning? One answer is for educators to gain a deep understanding of the innovations through face-to-face collaboration with practitioners in other industries who have first-hand experience with the new practices. In public education this could look like inviting health care practitioners and business executives to sit on key school district committees to advise administrators on their approaches. Another answer is that schools can engage in the collection of data to monitor and adjust the implementation of innovations.

It is tempting for busy educators to make assumptions that “research-based” means that the innovations are certified to be effective, like a drug, and all they have to do is administer it. It is even more critical in education to ensure that the intervention is being carried out true to its design, and that the unique circumstances of the school are tracked and accommodated during the course of the intervention. Education tends to be rich in interventions, but poor in data about the intervention process. Recently, companies have begun to develop tools to help schools meet this need for monitoring the implementation of major innovations, such as PLC’s and RTI.7

Educators can also learn from other industries what it means to be data-driven by what are called process “metrics.” For example, Hess makes the point that, “School and district leaders have embraced student achievement data but have paid scant attention to collecting or using data that are more relevant to improving the performance of schools and school systems.”8

Hess is referring to the kinds of metrics that health care, business, and manufacturing organizations use to manage their overall organizational performance with tools such as “balanced scorecards.” These include critical support processes such as staff hiring, payroll, food service, information technology, and maintenance. Cross-industry sharing and collaboration about metrics and other ways of ensuring continuous quality improvement have become structured through the Baldrige National Quality Award Program9 and its many state affiliates10 that now encourage organizations to follow best practices relevant to business, health care, education, non-profits, and government entities.

Examples of Opportunities for Cross-industry Collaboration

Physicians and teachers are both semi-independent professional practitioners. Health care and education face similar challenges of getting their practitioners to change their behavior to conform to findings from evidence and research. A successful pilot study demonstrated that primary care providers can change their behaviors to provide proactive preventive care of diabetic patients, rather than using the traditional approach of waiting to treat more serious complications.11

This was accomplished, in part, by providing monetary rewards to physicians based on evidence of fewer complications requiring more expensive treatments. Perhaps educators should investigate a similar financial reward system as an incentive to induce greater behavior change in classroom teachers. Collaboration with health care might suggest approaches that educators have not yet considered. Other collaborative opportunities for educators might include:

Learning from successful training done in manufacturing, service, and the military.

Learning from successful businesses to create metrics and balanced scorecards.

Learning from more agile industries to interpret and apply research studies.

Learning from local employers to identify authentic twenty-first century skills, including interpersonal ones.

Learning to manage education with the lean, results-oriented focus of for-profit businesses.

Learning from sports teams and performing arts organizations to provide teachers with needed feedback while simultaneously enhancing their motivation.

We need solutions to common, generic problems while avoiding thoughtless, superficial attempts at change. Educators have been thrashing for years, while help may exist in industries “down the street” for solutions to their particularly intransigent challenges. The key is to engage in thoughtful collaboration and work methodically to design, pilot, and gradually deploy meaningful innovations, while constantly monitoring and adjusting them. Our students deserve the best our country has to offer, from whatever source.

William A. (Bill) Liggett, Ph.D. is currently the president of an education consulting company, Leader’s Edge Network LLC, specializing in online surveys to evaluate innovations in public education and other industries. His background reflects interest, training, and experience in a range of industries including secondary education science, applied social psychology, community mental health, behavioral science (16 years with IBM), health care strategic planning, and program evaluation and research (large public school district). You can reach Dr. Liggett by email at: waliggett@leadersedgenet.com or at the company Website: www.leadersedgenet.com.

1 Gary Naples (2000). Beyond the Numbers. (p. 17) London: Society of Automotive Engineers. 2 Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work™: New Insights for Improving Schools, Bloomington, IN: Solution-Tree. 3 History of team building. Retrieved December 5, 2008. The Team Building Directory Web site: http://www.innovativeteambuilding.co.uk/pages/history.htm. 4 Robert Howell, Sandra Patton, Margaret Deiotte (2008). Understanding Response to Intervention: A Practical Guide to Systemic Implementation. Bloomington, IN: Solution-Tree. 5 Frederick M. Hess (December 2008/January 2009). The new stupid. Educational Leadership, 66(4), 12. 6 Mark Dynarski (December 2008/January 2009). Researchers and educators: allies in learning. Educational Leadership, 66(4), 48. 7 See, for example, Leader’s Edge Network, LLC, which provides online instruments to help schools and districts monitor their implementations of innovations such as PLC’s and RTI. Web site: www.leadersedgenet.com 8 Hess, 15. 9 Baldrige National Quality Award Program. National Institute for Science and Technology, Web site: http://www.quality.nist.gov/index.html. Five public school districts have received the education award since that category was established in 2000. 10 See, for example, Colorado Performance Excellence, Web site: http://www.coloradoexcellence.org. Mesa County Valley School District 51, Grand Junction, CO, and four of its schools, have received quality awards. 11 Martin Sipkoff (2006). Rocky Mountain’s success with chronic care model: Paying for medical group practice redesign can significantly enhance the quality of care for chronically ill patients, and perhaps lower long-term costs. Managed Care Magazine. Retrieved December 11, 2008. Web site: http://www.managedcaremag.com.