Tag Archives: Systems

How are you locking in your improvement gains?

We have worked with many schools over the last 15 years, each one committed and working really hard to continually improve. Yet our experience shows few have established an effective process to capture the many improvements they make. Organisational improvement is quickly lost where there is not a process in place to hold the gains made.

So what is your approach to capture organisational learning?

Ours is system documentation.

System documentation

System documentation is the term we use to describe a structured and disciplined approach to capture organisational knowledge, learning and improvement. It relates to a collection of key documents that reflect the way in which an organisation conducts its business.

Excellent system documentation:

  • provides a central repository of documents critical to the running of the organisation that are readily accessed and understood by everyone
  • has an easy-to-use format and structure that facilitates documentation, stakeholder involvement, and the capturing of organisation innovation and improvement
  • is regularly reviewed for effectiveness and efficiency
  • is easily maintained, updated and distributed
  • has one person assigned to oversee its ongoing review, consistency and improvement.

PDSA Cycle Ver1 28Jul10

System documentation: ‘the chuck under the continuous improvement wheel’

How to…

We have found the following structure for system documentation to be effective and efficient.

Page 22 - System Documentation Structure Ver3 23Jan14

Suggested components of system documentation

Usually in electronic form, the documentation comprises:

  • school directional and planning documents
  • processes (procedures) describing methods, sequencing and responsibilities
  • policies describing what the organisation will do with respect to a particular endeavour and why (policies relate to processes and supporting documents)
  • supporting documents – standard documents pertaining to a specific process or policy, including: templates, letters, forms, presentations, etc.
  • records – documents containing data, facts, information and/or evidence relating to the organisation’s operations
  • document control which facilitates the identification and locating of documents and ensures people have the latest version of the right document.

We believe there are several key steps to getting started with system documentation:

  1. Assign one person to oversee the design, implementation and improvement of the system documentation process.
  2. Agree a structure and index and establish folders.
  3. Place all existing processes, policies and supporting documents into the folders (they will quickly accumulate and can reviewed later on).
  4. Agree a format for processes, policies and supporting documents
  5. Agree and document a document control policy and associated processes (how will documents be uniquely identified?).
  6. Begin by documenting a new process, related policy and supporting document that will immediately add value or reduce risk. Involve key stakeholders to build ownership and understanding.
  7. Encourage people to document processes, policies and supporting documents as they engage with them to build the system over time.

The benefits

There are many benefits to having effective system documentation. These include:

  • Increased accessibility to important documents. (Often in schools, these documents are scattered across different people’s computers, or worse still; are to be found only in the heads of those who left the school last year!)
  • Openness, transparency and accountability
  • Effective communication
  • The basis for inducting, training and mentoring staff and other stakeholders
  • Consistency of approach (agreement as to ‘our best known way’)
  • Providing the foundation necessary for ongoing reflection, review, continual improvement and innovation.

Learn more…

View a video clip on system documentation.

Purchase a System Documentation Guide

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School purpose and vision: how stakeholder perspectives differ

Students, teachers and families usually have different perspectives regarding the purpose and vision for their school.

Over the years, we worked with families, staff and students at dozens of schools, to identify their aspirations and agree the purpose and vision for their school. This builds a shared direction, ownership and commitment to the school. It also provides a point of reference to inform planning and decision-making into the future.

The process usually involves working with each group to identify and prioritise their views on the elements that comprise purpose and desired vision for the school.

Students prioritising the proposed school values
Students at Seaford 6-12 School, South Australia, prioritising the school values

Every school is unique. Consequently, the stated purpose and vision tend to be unique to each school. There are common themes too.

Common themes

A review of data from several Australian schools, with whom we have worked, reveals the following common themes: identified by families, students and staff. (These schools represented a mix of primary and secondary schools across four states and territories.)

  • A place of pride
  • Choice of subjects
  • Clean
  • Curriculum
  • Engaged students
  • Focus on the ‘whole child’
  • Friends
  • Fun
  • Good academic results
  • Great resources
  • Great teachers
  • Passion for learning
  • Pedagogy
  • Positive school spirit
  • Respectful and supportive
  • Safe and happy
  • Students future ready
  • Students learn how to learn
  • Technology

The majority of schools referred to each of these themes. The wording, expression or nuance may have varied from school to school, but in essence these themes were common.

Different Perspectives

Of particular interest is the degree to which each stakeholder group raises these themes. Some themes, such as Safe and happy, Respectful and supportive and Students future ready are referred to by all three stakeholder groups in roughly equal measure. Other items tend to be raised by only one group. Typically only students identify Fun and Friends as being important elements of their schooling. Similarly, only teachers tend to raise Curriculum and Pedagogy. Other themes are raised by two of the three groups. Students and parents want Great teachers, though the teachers tended not to mention this. Staff and parents want Engaged students, while students tend not to identify this.

The figure below illustrates these different perspectives. Each item is represented by a bubble, the size of which indicates the frequency with which the item is raised; the bigger the bubble the more commonly it is mentioned. The closer the bubble is to one of the three corners (Students, Staff or Parents), the stronger that stakeholder expression of that item. For example, that only students mention Fun is indicated by it being tight in the Students’ corner. Alternatively, Respectful and supportive sits in the centre of the triangle, indicating it was identified by students, staff and parents in equal proportion.

Key messages

We believe these finding illustrate two important points.

Firstly, they highlight the importance of taking the time to find out the perspectives of each stakeholder group, directly from that stakeholder group. Attempts to second-guess the perspective of another group are very likely to completely miss entire themes held dear to that group. Involving each stakeholder group in the development of a shared direction or System Map is a great way to start.

Secondly, there are many points of commonality among these stakeholders, which provide the basis for agreement. Each group mentioned most themes, at least to some degree. This commonality provides a starting point for generating and documenting a shared perspective that is agreeable to all stakeholder groups. Furthermore, once the unique perspectives of individual groups are identified these can be discussed and are frequently incorporated into the new shared perspective.


What are the common views among your stakeholders? What are the differences? How do you know? How do you manage the difference?

What the school improvement gurus are not yet talking about

Over the past 15 years the conversations about school improvement have been changing.

Key observations about school improvement, which were not discussed at the turn of the millennium, are now clearly on the agenda.

However, there are still critical elements that are not yet part of this dialogue. This post reflects upon these important conversations.

What is being talked about

Items now on the agenda include:

  • The systemic nature of school systems. There is growing awareness of the interconnectedness that exists among the component parts of these complex social systems. These components need to work together if the system is to be optimised towards its aim.
  • Students’ learning as the aim, rather than teachers’ teaching. This may seem a pedantic distinction, yet it profoundly changes the emphasis in dialogue, and thereby the focus of improvement efforts: from educational policy right through to the classroom.
  • Our systems of school education are not meeting the needs of significant proportion of students. Not only is the system failing our more disadvantaged students, dissatisfaction is widespread and evident in the perceptions of students, teachers and families. Furthermore, in Australia at least, the performance of the education system has largely flat-lined over the past decade, in spite of significantly increased resources. There are pockets of excellence and dramatic improvement, but across the system improvement progress is glacial.
  • The use of data to inform improvement. With the development of national testing in Australia, and elsewhere, there is now systemic learning data that stimulates and informs conversations and debate. Like it or not, these data are here to stay, and they continue to inform the debate about school improvement.

The organisational improvement theory, derived primarily from the work of Dr. W Edwards Deming, leads directly to each of these observations. They have been part of our conversations with friends, clients and colleagues for over a decade. We are encouraged that the significance of these issues and opportunities is now recognised.

What is yet to be talked about

Improvement theory also points to other key opportunities that are not yet common in dialogue about school improvement.

Student contribution to school improvement

Students have an enormous contribution to make to school improvement.
Students have a lot to contribute

It is only students who truly know what helps and hinders their learning.

Unless their insight is accessed, acknowledged and acted upon, attempts to improve learning are likely to be misguided. Furthermore, if all students are to benefit, this action needs to be taken regularly at the local level, in each and every classroom. Simple tools, such as the Parking Lot and Force-field Analysis, provide mechanisms that enable this from pre-school to senior high school levels.

Students can contribute significantly to improving the operation of the school.

Some schools emphasise ‘student voice’ through mechanisms such as Student Representative Councils and Student Leaders. These process, while important, are in no way sufficient. A much greater opportunity lies in having students skilled and experienced in leading and participating in improvement project teams. These teams can apply the Plan-Do-Study-Act learning cycle to directly address opportunities to improve the school. Not only does this approach build the capability of students to personally contribute to improvement (a capability that can be of great benefit to them in their future), it also builds student ownership of the school and classroom while relieving the burden on school leaders, administrators and teachers.

Too much what, not enough how

Knowing what to improve is insufficient. We must also know how to improve it.


There is far too much discussion of what excellence in schools looks like, at the expense of how schools might achieve it.

Knowing what to improve is not sufficient. We must also know how to improve it. Copying others’ examples of good practice rarely delivers sustainable improvement. Schools can learn from others’ good practice, but each school must develop and test its own theory for improvement. The Plan-Do-Study-Act improvement cycle and the associated Quality Learning tools provide the ‘how to’ for developing and testing a theory for improvement.

These two observations, which remain to be discovered by leaders of the school improvement movement, hold the most significant promise for delivering demonstrable and continual school improvement.

Note: Our thanks to Hallett Cove R-12 School, South Australia, for the images, which were taken during QLA facilitated Student Improvement Team workshops in 2014.


We would love to hear your views on this topic. What do you see missing from the dialogue about school improvement?