Improving project by project
Joseph Juran, a highly influential American quality specialist, defined the term “breakthrough” (which was very popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s) as “an improvement to unprecedented levels of performance”. He pointed out:
All breakthrough is achieved project by project, and in no other way.
Joseph Juran, 1988, Juran’s Quality Control Handbook, fourth edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, p. 22.
To achieve significant improvements in capability and performance, in line with the priorities in a school plan, improvement projects are needed.
Improvement plans need to be broken down into finite, definable projects that can be managed over the life of a plan.
A project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to meet specific goals and objectives with a defined beginning and end.
Projects and processes
Projects contrast strongly with daily routines. Daily routines involve the ongoing enactment of an organisation’s processes.
Projects are temporary endeavours to improve an organisation’s processes, to create new products, services or processes, or to build infrastructure.
In short, working in the system is accomplished by process; working on the system is accomplished by project.
Project teams, not committees
This presents a challenge for schools, which are accustomed to establishing committees rather than project teams.
Committees are a common feature of schools. They usually carry responsibilities associated with management and improvement in specific areas of school endeavour but are problematic in that they have an ongoing role and can easily be distracted from improvement efforts.
Project teams are formed for specific, defined timeframes and purposes. Guided by a precise purpose and structured processes, such as the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, project teams usually realise greater success. They stay focused and can maintain the energy necessary to see through the improvement, due to a tight, defined timeframe and an effective progress reporting approach.
Our study of schools, in Australia at least, reveals that schools in general, have neither well-developed project management methodologies, nor the management structures and disciplines to execute their improvement plans in this manner. This is a significant capability gap. Until these structures and disciplines are more strongly established, school improvement efforts are likely to continue providing disappointing results. This is not a criticism of schools or those that work within them, rather it is an observation of a systemic failure, which needs to be addressed by senior administrators and policy makers.
An Improvement Project Brief can be used to agree and document the arrangements for each project team.
Collectively, the annual set of improvement projects can be documented and monitored through the annual improvement plan.