Process is Process-Education Too

I grew up in manufacturing— making stuff, delivering on customer expectations, process control, hitting the numbers. Time to go back to my roots for some common-sense introductory process management. For those in the education business, this applies to you too.

How Things Work: Three-minute New Hire Orientation

Each process step adds value to incoming material (inputs) by transforming the product in some way. Process specifications are based on customer needs and requirements. The customer may be the next step in the overall process or the end user. Minor defects may be repaired, but if a product is too far out-of-spec it becomes unusable. Too many unusable units from one step can bring the entire process to a grinding halt. If the production schedule is missed, heads will roll.

Internal or external customers do not appreciate having to cover a supplier’s mistakes by reworking substandard units to make the product fit for use. Repairs are costly and repaired units are not as functional as those made right the first time. If product is too far out of spec it is scrapped, a huge bottom line drain and productivity killer. And resources are diverted to make up for lost units. If a supplier cannot resolve its process issues and consistently meet requirements for both quantity and quality, the customer may have no choice but to find another supplier.

Common reasons for missed requirements are simple to resolve: unclear, poorly communicated or ignored customer specs. Business is pretty simple too: customers reward suppliers who meet needs and punish those who do not. In a market-driven world, if you keep the customer happy you stay in business. Don’t and you’ll have trouble keeping the doors open.

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Process is Process, Customers are Customers…Usually. Education is the sole supplier of human resources to the employer and community markets. Education is an out-of-control process. Don’t hate on me yet, my academic friends. There’s a valid reason and it’s not all your fault for a change!

Education is not market-driven and finding another supplier is not an option when the vendor is the education system. Employers and communities are captive customers, they are co-designers of their prison. They have not been actively involved, have not helped education set goals and develop curriculum based on customer needs and expectations, have not provided performance feedback, have not helped the supplier meet those expectations.

Wait, you say…”what makes you think Education even wants our outsider help? They’ll only snub us if we meddle in their affairs.” Is that a valid assumption? Think about the eight ball Education is behind with the demand to deliver more with fewer resources. Sounds like your world, doesn’t it Mr. Operations Manager? Maybe you should challenge those assumptions and feather your own nest while you’re at it.

Problem Analysis

Current State: the education process transforms raw material called students. The output of the education process enters the workforce and community. Both customers are impacted by an under-developed talent pool and poorly prepared future citizens. Productivity is falling, social issues are rising, grads do not have a purpose or clear path forward. Outputs can be customers too.

Problem Statement:  customers’ needs and expectations have not been clearly communicated to the supplier. Traditional driving metrics are cost per unit, capacity utilization and velocity of product through the system. The new standard is first-time quality: make it right the first time with “rightness” determined by how fully requirements are met. Conflicting goals among performance measures are common in the private sector among the Holy Trinity of cost, capacity, throughput. And then along comes quality. Education faces the same conflicts.

Can you really achieve low cost, rapid production with full asset utilization and high quality at the same time?  Traditional management thinking says there is give and take. But years ago W. Edwards Deming identified variation as Public Enemy Number One. The more a process is in-control, the more consistently high quality the outputs are as the process is more capable of hitting spec dead-on, not just within broad upper and lower spec limits. And Phil Crosby proposed decades ago that “Quality is Free”. Poor quality eats your lunch–rework, scrap, lost production, missed deliveries, poor attitudes.

Marginally out-of-spec outputs can often be reworked. But repair is expensive, it doesn’t add new value, it consumes time, it can never make something as good as an original produced right the first time. The supplier falls behind, and is producing sub-par goods for the customer.

When the process cannot consistently provide in-spec product (students), it’s time to invest in upgrading the process. Universal Truth: the cost of limping along on old, incapable equipment far outweighs the cost of re-tooling an entire production facility. Evolve or die.

Education determines crystal clear academic requirements for students. But there is little input from customers, just after-the-fact complaints. Because customer needs are not being met Education is labeled an unreliable supplier with out of control processes. Impact: the private sector and society have significant problems. Education is in the middle-both impacted by, and part of, the issues.

All Things Considered….

Root Cause: if requirements are not accurate up-front, no amount of downstream fine-tuning can make up for it. And there are no customer requirements in the education process.

Resolution: a customer/supplier partnership to set requirements early in the academic life cycle. Use requirements to develop curriculum, learning objectives and outcomes. Then, set controls in place to ensure those requirements are consistently met throughout the entire education process.

The Spec That Matters Most comes from the customer. Learning objectives must be driven throughout the education cycle by customer needs. Collaboration ensures that needs and expectations are realistic, truly critical to output quality, and clearly communicated.

The Learner Goal That Matters Most is to make sure learners have a vested interest in their education, that they are hopeful for what’s ahead, and they can see that education will help them get to a promising, desirable future.

The Education Process Output That Matters Most is highly engaged young people who are ready to take on the world, regardless of what comes at them.

The US is market-driven, we’re used to it. Process management and customer requirements in a market-driven system are common sense and necessary. We’ve dropped the ball here with education because we’re not very good at Big Picture thinking. Here’s the key:

Until we consider education, society and the private sector as part of one big system we’ll continue down the same path and get the same results.

Those results have been unacceptable.

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