Who to blame?
Who is to blame when things go astray?
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.
Who cops the blame in your school?
This post is an edited extract from Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.