Saturday, 24 November 2012

Bottom-Up Management: What The Hell Have Toyota Quality Circles Ever Done For Us?

My Dad and I have few things in common. He's a naval architect, I've always been about the arts and humanities. He's a hard-nosed stickler for fact and logic, I have a habit of allowing romantic idealism to dictate what I do and say. A glass of good Burgundy allows our temperaments to declare a truce every so often, and in recent years, our shared love for my daughter has led to mutual respect. But when he starts talking about engineering, designing sails through computer modelling simulation programmes, or Japanese Quality Assurance mechanisms, as he did on our walk today, I tend to up the pace in the hope of getting him to focus more on his impending breathlessness than what he wants to talk about.

All of which made today's conversation a bit of a revelation really. I often talk to him about some of the great things going on in my school, and the way it's well led etc, and he tends to be sceptical, to say the least. The public sector doesn't really do efficiency, as far as he's concerned, and most public sector workers are a bunch of defensive, self-serving plonkers who wouldn't make it in the real world.  That's what his eyes say, at any rate. He's always diplomatic enough not to say. But the vehemence with which I try to defend the best practice I've come across only seems to confirm him in his opinions. So today's conversation was a surprise, to say the least, as it started me thinking about cross-over between business practices and those we have in schools.

A bit of background. My parents lived and worked in Japan for ten years before retiring, Dad as a very senior manager in his company out there. He dislikes people who are anything but who they are, and therefore had little time for many ex-pats. He liked the Japanese a lot, and their culture, though he saw their faults as well. In particular, he admired many of the larger Japanese car companies, and the way they ran their business. Today's conversation (yes, I realise it's been three paragraphs, but I am getting round to its substance, honestly!) was about Toyota's "Quality Circles". I'd been talking at length about my school's brilliant initiative of Teaching and Learning Communities (TaLK groups, for no reason other than to bugger up a perfectly good acronym), where we discuss and share best practice with each other without any interference from senior leaders, and how brilliant and revolutionary this was, and what impact it had had on staff, empowering them and yada yada... "Sounds like an inferior version of Toyota's Quality Circles", he says to me in his usual dismissive manner. "They've been doing that for decades. Hence the badge."

Erm, okaaaaaaaaayyyyyy....

Deflated is an understatement. Yet again my enthusiasm for something I care passionately about had been shot down in flames with a minimal number of words. The only reason I even persisted with the conversation was that he'd piqued my interest with the badge comment. "What do you mean?" says I.
And he proceeds to tell me.

Toyota's quality circles (as illustrated right: I know regular readers will think I've abandoned my gimmick of a picture or video half-way through to keep you awake, but I assure you the gimmick is alive and well...) represent the way the company thinks is the most efficient way to ensure quality across every product.

Essentially, the people deemed to know most about the efficiency of the production process and the quality of the final outcome are those on the production line, so they meet with shop-floor managers and senior managers on a weekly basis, tell them what improvements to make to the systems, and the managers make the improvements so the people on the front-line can do their job as effectively as possible. "When I'm fitting x onto y, I have to walk across this other person's path to get the part. Why don't we have a box of x parts right next to me so I don't waste that time?" sort of thing. (I'm not sure many Japanese cars have x parts which are fitted to y bits, but you get the idea). Management's job is to help them out by listening and implementing.

That really got me thinking. How often are staff in schools impeded from doing their jobs by people higher up wanting to introduce this or that initiative, and giving it a higher priority than the "main thing"? Sound familiar? How many teachers do you know who could easily tell management a thing or two about what's wrong with the school? View from the chalkface anyone?

I've been in on a variety of leadership training events recently, all of which have had merit, but all of which have also had the underlying assumption that the leaders are the experts, and that vision and leadership from the top are what will drive a school forward. and while I'm not contesting the need for both of those things, I'm coming to the conclusion that leadership is as much about making the best use of the talents of ALL those in the organisation. And if you have 90 teachers working 85% timetables day in day out, it would be a fool who ignored their expertise, surely. So why aren't we asking them what gets in their way of Outstanding teaching? And then removing those obstacles? And while we're at it, what about asking the students the same thing? What stands in the way of your Outstanding learning?

For me, this path towards senior leadership is getting me to really think about my own educational philosophy more and more, and work out its most and least important elements. I'm miles away from anything coherent (stop me if you spot anything that looks half-decent, for God's sake, as I might well have sped past it!), but slowly but surely pieces of the puzzle are being given to me, often from the strangest sources. Like social networking sites. Or walks in the woods.

So, next leadership resolution from me... I will learn to listen, and I will learn to ask for the opinions of those who are in a better place than me to know what's needed at the coal-face, and what's getting in the way of quality. That sort of humility ought to be one of the tests during the SLT interview process. Maybe my Dad has a point after all, and maybe I can start by not being so arrogant as to think I know better than him just because I work in the public service...