During the first half of the last century, Joseph Juran undertook studies at Western Electric to examine production defects and nonconformities. Who was to blame for these defects and nonconformities?
He analysed the causes over a defined period of time. Each of the causes were categorised as “management-controllable” or “worker-controllable”. Worker-controllable defects and nonconformities resulted directly from the actions of the worker. Had the worker been doing his job properly these defects and nonconformities would have been prevented. Anything outside the control of the worker was categorised as management-controllable. This included factors such as inadequate training, poor machine maintenance, sub-standard materials, and equipment deficiencies. In other words, anything that is outside the control of the worker is caused by other factors within the system (or the containing systems), which is the domain of management, not the worker.
Don’t blame people; improve the system
Juran’s research led to the often quoted 85/15 rule:
Wherever there is a problem, 85% of the time it will be the system and not the fault of an individual.
In order to bring about improvement, this finding requires us to turn our attention to the system, rather than focus upon individuals.
In social systems, such as schools and classrooms, behaviour and performance are dominated by the impact of structural factors rather than the actions of individuals working within the system.
Peter Senge observed that:
When placed in the same system, people, however different, tend to produce similar results.
Peter Senge, 1990, The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization, Crown, New York, p. 42.
Working on the system
In most schools, the distribution of student performance from one year to the next remains fairly constant. Students in any chosen year level tend to perform similarly to the students that went before them. Teachers’ mark books from year to year look remarkably similar, only the names are different. This is an excellent example of the system producing the results, not the people.
In order to improve performance, we must understand the nature of the systems in which we operate and focus our efforts on working on the system to improve it.
Exhortations, rewards, blame and punishments do nothing to improve the system.They upset people, interfere with relationships and make things worse.
A colleague of ours, Lynne Macdonald, observed:
In schools, parents blame teachers for their children not learning; teachers blame parents; students blame teachers; teachers blame students; principals blame teachers. Where does it get us? Nowhere. So we have to eliminate this blame game.
Lynne Macdonald, retired principal, Plenty Parklands Primary School, Victoria, QLA Case Study 3 DVD.
Most organisations’ problems derive from the system, not the people. Our best efforts cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system.
Dr Myron Tribus learned about this problem in the mid 1940s. His insights may give you courage.
Here is a story Myron told me several years ago.
Irving Langmuir (1881-1957) was awarded a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1932. During his life he created a long string of diverse inventions in the fields of physics and chemistry.
In 1944 Myron became interested in Langmuir’s work on cloud seeding – precipitating changes in structures within clouds, with the possibility of making rain.
When Myron failed in his attempt to attract the interest of the US military in Langmuir’s work, Langmuir told Myron:
The hardest thing in the world to sell is a new good idea. If it is new, people will not understand it. If it is good, they will feel they must act on it. But, if they are to act on it they will have to learn and they will have to change their ways. And they simply don’t want to do that.
Myron went on to explain:
You present people with a new idea, and their first reaction is ‘this will change things and I am comfortable with what exists’.
I have found this to be true. My life has been spent in bringing new ideas in. In fact, I have been accused of being the kind of person who always seeks something that’s different. I won’t agree with that, but certainly when somebody comes to me with a new idea and I can sense the importance of it then I get behind it. Apparently, that’s a minority view.
In this post, we consider how the concepts of accountability, responsibility and authority are being applied in the name of school improvement. We explain why a strong focus on tightening accountability is unlikely to result in improvement in schools (or any other organisations for that matter).
We defined accountability:
Accountability: the collection of outcomes that an individual is charged to produce and for which the individual can be held to account
The drive to hold educators to account for improving performance has become stronger in recent years. Considerable effort has been expended clarifying the accountabilities and responsibilities of school leaders across many jurisdictions.
Sadly, tightening accountabilities is unlikely to lead to improved performance.
There is one benefit to be derived from clarifying accountabilities and responsibilities. Doing so makes clear what is agreed to be important and how performance will be measured. This focuses attention, which can be beneficial. This is particularly beneficial when the process of agreeing and accepting accountabilities is open and collaborative. For example, team members can agree to take on specific tasks between meetings; each agrees to be accountable to the team for their actions. This can be affirming and effective.
Where organisations take a more formal approach to assigning accountability, it becomes problematic.
The accountability approach to school improvement is based on many questionable assumptions.
Held to account?
What does it mean to be held to account? It can be a requirement to explain what happened, or didn’t happen. It can also mean criticism, blame and punishment. Whatever the meaning, being judged is implicit in the definition.
Routinely passing judgements upon one another is not a feature of highly trusting or collaborative relationships and can be toxic.
Establishing the specific outcomes for which one will be held to account does focus attention, but this can be at the expense of other areas requiring attention. The approach assumes that all the important outcomes have been identified and codified into accountabilities. This is rarely achieved. The current attempts to hold educators to account for student performance based on standardised testing, for example, is leading some to focus attention on the content to be tested; this can be at the expense of other areas of learning.
It is very difficult to establish an accountability system to address all stakeholders needs.
Numerical goals and targets.
Frequently, accountabilities are expressed as numerical goals or targets, which, it is assumed, can be measured accurately. We discussed in chapter five of our book Improving Learning that numerical goals and targets can lead to distortions of the data and/or the system. Each year the newspapers report cases of teachers and schools ‘cheating’ on high-stakes tests. Unachievable numerical goals may be at the heart of the clean diesel scandal at VW.
As Dr. Deming said, “Fear invites wrong figures.”
Locus of control.
It is assumed that an individual has sufficient control over the activities and results for which they are accountable to ensure the outcomes are met. This is not always the case. A teacher, for example, can have almost no control over the home life of his or her students, which has a very significant impact on the student’s learning.
It hardly seems reasonable to be held accountable for things outside one’s control.
Stable and capable processes?
The processes in which the individuals work are assumed to be stable and capable. In other words, it is assumed that the processes are predictable and producing desirable results, making achievement of the accountabilities possible. As we highlighted in chapter two of Improving Learning:
Many processes in school education are not capable.
The approach is based in the assumption that individuals require extrinsic motivation. Motivation has been discussed at length in an earlier series of posts.
Extrinsic motivation factors focus attention on obtaining the rewards and avoiding the punishments; not on the intrinsic value of the tasks themselves.
While there is, in theory, scope for negotiation of accountabilities, in practice many are established historically and imposed – top-down. It is the people doing the daily work of the system that best know what needs improving. In particular, they know the barriers to improvement, which can frequently only be addressed by individuals more senior to them.
Top-down imposition of accountabilities may address management’s priorities, but are likely to neglect root causes of waste, frustration and poor performance.
Each individual, being held to account for specific outcomes, is based on an assumption of independent relationships within the organisation: each party acts with autonomy towards their own goals.
Relationships in organisations are far more interdependent than autonomous.
Optimisation of the whole.
A system of accountabilities across an organisation may seek to optimise the performance of the organisation as a whole; there is an assumption that optimising each part of the system will optimise the whole. As we discussed in chapter three of Improving Learning the opposite is true.
By optimising the parts, the whole will be sub-optimised.
On balance, it would appear that focussing on systems to tighten accountabilities holds little promise for delivering improvement. Not only is it difficult to develop and sustain accountability systems within organisations, doing so is based on questionable assumptions. Furthermore, to date, it has demonstrated little systemic improvement.
If accountability is not a viable route to improved performance, what should be done instead?
The answer is as simple as it is complex:
Equip everybody so they can work with others to improve the systems of learning for which they are responsible.
In this post, we seek to clarify the concepts of accountability, responsibility and authority. These terms have specific meanings; the concepts are frequently confused. Lack of clarity can result in micro-management.
In the next post, we will explore challenges related to making school leaders accountable for school performance.
Let’s begin with a definition.
Accountability: the collection of outcomes that an individual is charged to produce and for which the individual can be held to account
Most individuals in organisations are charged with achieving certain outcomes, their accountabilities.
The outcomes for which an individual is held to account are usually determined through a process of negotiation. The head of a government agency negotiates with their respective government Minister. A chief executive negotiates with their Board. A principal negotiates with the district superintendent, or equivalent.
Outcomes are monitored and reported
Once agreed, progress towards the agreed outcomes is monitored and reported. The most senior people in organisations are held to account for the outcomes achieved by their organisation. This does not mean they are expected to achieve these outcomes on their own; they must work with others in the organisation to achieve their accountabilities.
Cannot be delegated
In a corporate context, a chief executive can negotiate with the chief financial officer, for example, the range of outcomes for which the chief financial officer agrees to be held to account. This is likely to include an accountability that the financial accounts are kept in accordance with relevant laws and accounting standards. The chief executive officer is not absolved from her accountability to ensure that the organisation complies with all relevant laws. The most senior executives remain accountable for the organisation’s performance. This is true even when failure to meet agreed outcomes is the result of someone further down the organisation failing to meet their accountabilities.
In a school context, principals are frequently held to account for student learning outcomes. This accountability is negotiated with their line manager and cannot be delegated. The principal must work with teaching staff to achieve this accountability.
In practice, the negotiation of accountabilities is frequently lost to the history of an organisation. The accountabilities associated with particular roles in the organisation were negotiated long ago and are now accepted as part of that job description. Under these circumstances, there is no fresh negotiation with a new incumbent for a position, rather, the accountabilities are accepted with the job.
Can be accepted
Achievement of outcomes, and thus achievement of accountabilities, is contingent upon the quality of the organisation’s systems and process, as was described in detail in chapter three of our book Improving Learning. The senior executive of the organisation is thus accountable for the performance of all the organisation’s key systems and processes. To manage this accountability in a practical manner, she negotiates for others to accept accountability for specific organisational processes. For example, a principal may negotiate with a deputy for the deputy to accept accountability for the student discipline and welfare processes. Similarly, the school leaders negotiate with classroom teachers the outcomes for which the teachers will be held accountable.
Accountability defines who is to be held to account for the achievement of outcomes.
Accountabilities are achieved through meeting responsibilities.
Responsibility: the work activities and outputs an individual is charged to complete.
The outcomes for which an organisation strives are achieved through enacting processes. Individuals within the organisation complete their work activities, which, in turn, link together as the organisation’s processes. These processes may be documented as deployment flowcharts that make explicit the responsibilities of those charged with enacting the process steps.
Can be delegated
Responsibilities can be delegated. The principal may, for example, ask the deputy principal to run a staff meeting. A teacher may ask an aide to prepare learning materials. The office manager may delegate responsibility for stationery supplies to an assistant.
When a responsibility is delegated, the accountability for the outcome is not.
Distinct from accountability
At senior levels of an organisation, accountabilities and responsibilities may be significantly different. Senior executives remain accountable for many things upon which they take no action on a day-to-day basis. A school principal remains accountable for the safety and wellbeing of all students in the school, yet has little day-to-day responsibility for sickbay, for example.
At more junior levels, the division between accountabilities and responsibilities becomes less distinct. A classroom teacher is typically responsible for the learning and teaching programs of her classes; the teacher is also accountable for the outcomes of those programs.
Responsibility defines who will undertake specific processes and actions.
Documenting Accountability and Responsibility
A Process Accountability Matrix may be used to document agreements regarding accountabilities and responsibilities. Key processes are listed in the rows of the matrix and roles identified in the columns. Within each cell of the matrix, the role may be listed as:
Accountable for outcomes of the process.
Responsible for performing actions within the process.
Consulted or informed during execution of the process.
A Process Accountability Matrix can be used to ensure there are no gaps or overlaps in accountability, i.e. each process has one and only one role Accountable for the process. The matrix can also identify roles that have little or too much responsibility and accountability.
Any discussion of accountability and responsibility is incomplete if it does not also discuss authority.
Authority: the delegated right to make decisions
It is important to be clear who is accountable for outcomes and who is responsible for actions. It is equally important to ensure that appropriate authority is delegated; who is authorised to make decisions?
Governments define the structures by which decisions will be made and disputes settled. These delegations are detailed in legislation and regulations. Law enforcement agencies, such as the police, are established to enforce the determinations. Courts are also established to adjudicate disputes.
Governments also delegate specific rights to manage and regulate public institutions, including schools. These rights can be delegated to government agencies, and they can also be delegated to non-government agencies such as religious authorities. These agencies and authorities, in turn, delegate specific rights to officials, including school leaders. Through this process of delegation, school leaders have rights to make defined determinations for the school. The specific rights delegated to school leaders vary by jurisdiction. In some cases, school leaders have the right to hire and fire; some have the authority to manage the whole-of-school budget. In other cases, the school principal has significantly less authority.
Authority can be delegated.
Supports responsibility and accountability
Responsibility must be accompanied by authority to make decisions and take action. The school principal can authorise the bursar or business manager to keep financial records and to pay accounts, which is consistent with the bursar’s responsibilities. The office manager may have the responsibility and authority to enrol students. Teachers have the authority and responsibility to report on students’ progress.
Similarly, the negotiation and acceptance of accountability needs to be accompanied by the agreement to delegate the necessary authority to meet those accountabilities. For example, if a deputy principal accepts the accountability of ensuring that school programs comply with the requirements of a national curriculum, they will also need the authority to establish school policies and procedures to ensure this accountability is met.
Where authority is not aligned with accountabilities and responsibilities there will be frustration and wasted effort.
Where there is a failure to clearly delegate authority, organisations can become paralysed. If an officer is unsure if they have the authority to make a decision, they will push the decision ‘up the line’. This results in delays and frustration. It also frequently results in more senior leaders’ time being taken up with decisions that could and should have been made at more appropriate levels in the organisation.
Micro-management is a failure to effectively delegate authority.
As is the case with accountabilities and responsibilities, the establishment of delegated authorities is also frequently lost to the history of the organisation, and simply accepted as inherent in the job description.
Authority defines who has the right to make decisions.
The work of every organisation is accomplished through processes.
Process: a sequence of actions that are enacted to achieve a purpose.
A process consists of actions that are completed in sequence. The sequence of actions comprising a process can be documented, as illustrated in Figure 1.
The actions are activities or tasks: things that are done by people, computers and machines.
Getting up in the morning and going to school is a process. It includes actions such as waking up, having breakfast, taking a shower, getting dressed, packing a school bag, and walking to school. These actions are completed in sequence.
A process is, then, a way of doing something: a method.
Key Characteristics of Processes
Processes are means by which the work of an organisation is accomplished. Nothing is achieved without taking action. A sequence of actions is enacted in order to meet some purpose.
Consciously designed… or not
Processes may by consciously designed, defined and documented, or they may be informal and made as needed. Either way, a sequence of actions comprises the process.
Regularly repeated… or not
Most processes in everyday life tend to be repeated on a regular basis.
Processes are usually repeated, in sequence, time after time.
Schools routinely report to parents in a formal manner twice per year, for example. Home learning (homework) process cycles around most days after school. The morning process, such as illustrated in Figure 2, occurs every school day.
A few processes may occur only once. A special centenary celebration of a school’s birthday will come around only once. Even so, the preparation, implementation and evaluation of the celebration still comprise a process: it has a sequence of actions that are enacted for a purpose.
Processes are central to improvement
Processes create outputs and deliver outcomes.
If we wish to improve an outcome, we must turn our attention to improving the processes that produced the outcome.
It is important to work on the process that produced the fault, not on him that delivered it.
Edwards Deming, 1994, The New Economics: For industry, government and education, MIT, Massachusetts, p. 39.
This leads to a change of questioning when things don’t go as desired. Instead of asking “whose fault is this?” we can ask “how did our systems and processes allow this to happen?”
If things aren’t going well, fix the process not the blame.