See the System

BobsledAs a Winter Olympics fan, I am amazed watching bobsledders get ready for a run. They shut their eyes and visualize the track, every corner and every stretch, and anticipate when they will need to turn left or right, their bodies moving just as if they are on the actual run.

While most of us will never have the opportunity to be in a bobsled and experience a ride on the track, we can learn from their preparation and training.  Are you ready for your ‘run’ whatever and whenever it may be?  Can you visualize morning assembly, the lunchroom, and classroom transitions?  Are you ready for the corners and stretches of the board meeting, accreditation team visit, or donor event?  Are you prepared for the turns of open house, graduation, or inviting a prospective teacher in for an interview?  Do you know what you need to do each moment of a successful run?

These are all examples of systems in our schools, and schools in improvement mode take the time to intentionally and purposefully ‘see the system.’  Consider that every system is, as described in the book Learning to Improve, an interdependent group of tools and materials, persons and responsibilities which join together to accomplish the work.  Even a slight variance on that interdependence can significantly impact the best run or the most disastrous run.

While systems in our schools may be second nature for leaders that have been doing this for a number of years, seeing the system institutionalizes that knowledge so other stakeholders may better understand and become more invested in the system.  Seeing the system clarifies who is responsible for and accountable to decisions and tasks.  More so, when completed individually and shared as a team or completed collectively, this exercise can reveal how people may understand the system differently.  It can expose gaps, misconceptions and overlaps and help identify which part of the system needs to be improved.

Fishbone campThere are tools to support this process. Fishbone diagrams allow for the visual representation of how all the parts – people, resources, facilities, environment, events, operating norms – flow together to achieve maximum impact. The fishbone template to the right diagrams a system that will yield a successful camp. (This type of exercise can also be a great way to engage students and elevate their investment in a school year, annual program or new initiative.) While this may be a simple example, it helps illustrate how such a tool can be applied to a more complex system such as how literacy education is delivered at your school.  Similarly, a Systems Map shows the connection and flow of tasks and decisions that comprise any given system.

This is a mantra of improvement science: every system is perfectly designed to get exactly the results that it is designed to get.  In other words, don’t blame the system for doing what it is designed to do.  Is there a system that never seems to produce the desired results?  In order to improve, ask all involved to see the system, pinpoint the breakdown, attack the limitations, and introduce change ideas to redesign the system.

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