In 1993, Myron Tribus proclaimed: The job of the manager has changed.
People work in a system. The job of a manager is to work on the system, to improve it, continuously, with their help.
Myron Tribus, 1993, “Quality Management in Education”, Journal for Quality and Participation, Jan–Feb, p. 5. Available at http://www.qla.com.au/Papers/5.
What did Tribus mean?
Firstly, we need to understand what he meant by system. Dr Deming defined a system to be:
A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system.
Edwards Deming, 1994, The New Economics: For industry, government and education, MIT, Massachusetts, p. 50.
Because Tribus is referring to managers, we understand him to be speaking of organisations. Organisations are systems comprising interdependent components working together towards some aim. A school is a system. A classroom is a system. A school district or region is a system.
A way of thinking about systems, in this context, is to think about how all the elements work together, as a whole, to get things done. How do school policies, procedures, facilities, committees, teams, classrooms, parents, leaders, teachers and students, for example, all work together to achieve the purpose and vision for the school?
Secondly, we need to understand whom Tribus is referring to in saying the job of the manager has changed.
Management is the ability to organise resources and coordinate the execution of tasks necessary to reach a goal in a timely and cost effective manner.
Kovacs and King, 2015, Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement, QLA, Canberra, p387
Managers therefore are those seeking to reach goals, by working with tasks, resources, systems and processes. Under this definition, it’s hard to identify individuals who are not managers. Everybody in a school is organising resources and coordinating tasks to achieve goals, even students! For this conversation, however, let us limit our discussion to adults. Principals, teachers and support staff are all working with their colleagues and students to achieve the goals of the school and classroom.
Working in and on
Thirdly, Tribus makes the distinction between working in the system and working on the system.
Working in the system is doing the daily work of the system.
For a teacher, this usually means managing the daily routines of learning and teaching in the classroom: planning, programming, instruction, assessment, reporting and so on. For school leaders this includes: meeting with parents, providing support to school staff, attending meetings, managing the budget, responding to emails and phone calls, and so on. This is all the daily work – working in the system.
Working on the system is improvement work.
Working on the system comprises two types of activities: improvement projects and innovation projects. Both involve making changes to the existing system.
Improvement projects focus on making the existing system more efficient and/or effective.
This is achieved by improving how the elements of the system work together, usually by making changes to the processes and methods by which the work is done. Refining the enrolment or reporting process in a school would be examples of improvement projects. Improvement projects build on existing approaches to make the existing system work better.
Innovation projects are about creation of new systems, processes, products and services by the organisation.
In a school context, innovation projects are about new technologies, new programs and system reforms. Replacing parent-teacher interviews with student-led conferences would be an example of an innovation project. Innovation projects are about new approaches that prepare or position the organisation for the future.
Given this, Tribus is telling us that all mangers within an organisation have an obligation to contribute to improvement efforts. But there is a subtle twist in the last three words of his proclamation: with their help.
…with their help
Finally, Tribus is explicit that managers should not unilaterally impose changes upon those working in the system. All managers need to be involved in projects that work on the system, but these projects need to engage those working within the system. After all, it is those doing the daily work of the system that know most about how it is done and could be improved.
Students know best the barriers to their learning; teachers know best what gets in the way of their teaching.
Within a school context, Tribus is saying that all adults need to be engaged working on the system to bring about improvement. They need to be participating in improvement and innovation projects, as project leaders in their own areas or team members with others’ projects. Students also need play an active role, contributing to improving their school and classroom.
Read more about school improvement in Improving Learning: A how-to guide for school improvement.
Watch a video of high school students in South Australia working on the system.
Watch a video of a year 2 class from Victoria working together to improve the classroom system.