This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute
In this episode of our special Deming in Education series, David and Andrew talk about the difference between “continuous” and “continual” improvement – and how that applies in classrooms.
0:00:02.5 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz, and I’ll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today, I am continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy education, and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today’s topic is: Should we be continually improving or continuously improving? David, take it away.
0:00:30.6 David Langford: Thanks Andrew. So some people say it’s semantics and it doesn’t make that much difference to how you think about it. And I think in the last podcast, we were talking about how people have trouble with the idea about continual improvement anyway. But the first person I ever heard really talking about the difference between continual improvement and continuous was Dr. Deming. And not only did he talk about it in his Deming way, he was pretty emphatic about it. And it took me a long time, I’d say 10 years or more, to start to really get it and understand the difference and what that means. But basically the difference is if you have some function of what it is you’re trying to do, some program, some process, a manufacturing thing, a classroom or whatever that might be, and you’re doing that process over time, continuous improvement means that you’re just continuously changing things over and over and over and adapting and moving forward and changing forward. It sounds like a really good idea until you think about it.
0:02:01.5 DL: I don’t think it’s actually possible to do it unless you’re in some kind of a mechanical machine world or maybe artificial intelligence kind of a world where changes are just constantly being made, adaptations and changes moving through. When you’re working in systems like education, which is primarily a human system field, and yes, we have computers and technology and things coming into the education system now, but it’s still primarily a human system, and my experience is that humans, whether thats students, teachers, parents, whoever, cannot adapt to continuously changing everything. Such like change upon change, upon change, upon change, upon change or sometimes you hear your teachers say, “What’s the flavor of the month?” They don’t really understand why they’re changing anything, they just know that somebody up above is just changing it, then they’re just going on with it.
0:03:08.6 DL: Whereas when you have a continual improvement kind of environment, Deming taught us about, you let the system run basically, because you have to understand the data, what is the system producing, and once you understand that data, understand the variation in the system, then you can do a PDSA process and Plan-Do-Study-Act and come up with a small trial method to figure out what could I change to get a significant difference in the system, and then start applying that in a larger and larger scale level. On human systems, those things take time, because it’s the psychology of the people in the system, and you have to persuade people that what to do and etcetera, sometimes it can take… And especially in education, it could take years to make a transformation system like that, so people have to learn to, okay, we’ve gotten to a certain point.
0:04:17.5 DL: We’re getting a certain level of quality. And you can measure that, anything you wanna measure that with. You can measure that in attendance records, you could measure that in test scores, you could measure that in happiness of students, you could measure that in happiness of parents or doesn’t matter whatever you want. But once you get that baseline data and you start to understand it, and then you have to say to yourself, “Well, am I happy with what’s happening now?” I always joke with the teachers, if you’re happy and you know it, then clap your hands. You have to get to a state of equilibrium basically. You’ve changed, and so now you’re not happy with the level of quality and you want to see a higher level of quality.
0:05:14.1 AS: So let me try to clarify for the listeners and for myself, the first thing that you’re talking about is if you use the word continuously, it implies that you’re continuously or constantly changing things. And that’s not the objective. The objective is actually to stabilize things to some extent.
0:05:34.4 DL: Change for the sake of change. We’re just changing stuff.
0:05:38.6 AS: I wanna see a continuous… Continuously changing systems here. No, that’s not what we’re after. And then when you mentioned about continually, then you talked about let the system run, the objective is to understand what’s the output of the system by letting it run and letting it define itself as to what it’s producing and then making a decision, do we take it to the next level, do we take it to or do we leave it at this point and say, “Okay, that’s good enough for what we need for the ultimate aim of the system.”
0:06:14.3 DL: I find it really interesting in some cases sad and disheartening that you have state systems, especially like in education and state legislators, and they just come up with new rules and regulations, and they have no idea about what the current capacity of the current system is or what the problem is. I’ll give you an example. I was working in a district one time and they had an average of 94% attendance rate, I think at the high school, and all of a sudden, the superintendent came out with an edict said that they should be no less than 96%.
0:07:00.0 DL: Well, if you understand systems from a Deming perspective, you actually do want students to stay home at certain times, right? You don’t want them coming to school when they’re sick, and if you make the parameters so difficult that your life is gonna be terrible if you stay home, now you’re gonna have kids come and they’re sick, and now you’re infecting hundreds and hundreds of kids, and now you got hundreds of kids not coming to school ’cause they’re sick, because you are over-emphasizing this. On the other hand, in a continual improvement kind of environment, if you decide that, okay, we can do better, we wanna improve our attendance rate, well, then you have to start studying the quality of what you do, what’s causing people not to show up or not to come when they can.
0:08:00.8 DL: Or if sickness is the number one problem, what can we do about it? I once worked with a school in Brazil, and they went to work on their attendance rate, found out that a lot of it had to do a sickness and everything else, so they changed their whole system, they put in more wash stations throughout the entire school. They set up all kinds of times for kids to come in and they wash their hands, and every time they came in from recess or interacting, they had a process where they went through the wash hands, they had signs up with flow charts that said, “This is how you wash your hands.” There’s actually a process to that or through that. Well, their sickness rate just went down to practically nothing because they put in processes and methods and stabilize the system at a much higher level, and so then most of the kids being absent due to sickness, were the new students that were coming in, and so it would take them some time to get figured out, “Oh, this is what we do around here, and this is why we do it, and everything.” Change the system, you get a different result. Instead of what we’ve been taught to do is leave the system alone and then manage the dysfunction that it produces.
0:09:24.2 AS: And I think that Dr. Deming realized that you have limited resources.
0:09:30.3 DL: Yes.
0:09:30.9 AS: And so you’ve got to prioritize, and once you’ve gotten something to a point… And he also realized there’s no perfection and there’s no reason to go towards perfection, if that’s not serving the ultimate customer. I was also thinking about… I was thinking about a way for me to think about this, so I wanna propose this and see what you think, David. So if it’s continuously improving, when you say continuously, it means you’re kind of demanding constant change, so you could think of the person that the boss saying, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” And when it comes to continually improving, you’re trying to let the system run, make the decision if you’re gonna go to the next level of quality, and therefore the person at the top is saying, “Don’t just do something stand there.”
0:10:21.4 DL: Yeah.
0:10:23.5 AS: Perfect.
0:10:24.3 DL: Think, study the system, start to understand what’s going on, what are you actually trying to do, and do you really understand. We’re talking about attendance, but do you really understand why students don’t wanna come to school, and then are you actually working on those things or you just, “We are gonna punish them if they don’t come to school. That’s what we’ll do.” And so two tardies equals an absence and four absences equals this and 12 absences, you lose credit, and so schools put in the layers upon layers upon layers of these punishments and the crazy thing is, it doesn’t work, never has worked. If it worked, we wouldn’t have any students missing school, because we have these wonderful systems that prevent kids from missing school at all. What do you do as different? We were talking about quality as the answer to your problem, well, when you have a much higher level of quality experience going on in the classroom, and that’s happening in every single classroom with every single teacher, and the joy level is really high, you actually have the opposite problem with attendance, you’re actually encouraging people to stay home when they are sick, not to come. You actually tell parents, “Look, I know they’re really excited,” but that’s a whole different problem to have, than to think all we gotta coerce these kids into coming and punish them into compliance and reward them into things.
0:12:04.6 DL: There is a school district that set up… I think they’re still doing it today. Even set up a reward, the local car dealer said that for any child that is not… Doesn’t miss a day of school for 12 years they get a new car. Again, it sounds like a great idea till you think about it, and I think the first year that I saw they filmed it and it was on the local news, and everybody’s all excited, and local businesses are supporting education and isn’t this great? And isn’t this wonderful? Only problem was there were about 10 kids that had perfect attendance for 12 years.
0:12:46.4 DL: And the guy at the car dealership says, “Woah, woah, wait a minute, I’m not donating 10 cars.” So now they’ve got a whole different promise so what they do, well, they gave all 10 of these students a car key and then you went out and you got in a new car, and if yours started, then you were the one that got the car. So, the TV station films the one kid that and their parents and oh, the excitement isn’t as great and that. When in the background, you see nine other students…
0:13:20.6 AS: Nine disappointed.
0:13:21.9 DL: Mad, disappointed, kicking themselves, “Stupid, stupid, stupid. I did all that effort and everything else came to school when I was sick and everything else for this vague promise.” But none of that’s gonna change the system because when you stop doing all that stuff, the system goes right back to what it was designed to do.
0:13:45.7 AS: Yeah.
0:13:47.0 DL: What it was created to do. And that’s what Deming’s talking about. Once you understand that, okay, now let’s go about figuring out what are we gonna do about this, what do we wanna change? And is and what you’re saying, too, is attendance your number one problem? And sometimes I’ll say that it’s administrators in schools and say, “Well, it’s a big problem around here. We know it’s a big problem.” Well, okay, what are all your other big problems?
0:14:16.8 DL: And is this the number one thing? And is this interrelated with everything else you’re doing, right?
0:14:23.7 AS: Yeah.
0:14:24.2 DL: And maybe the number one problem is the actual learning experiences in classrooms not engaging, and not fun, not interesting, not relevant, not timely, right?
0:14:37.7 AS: Yep.
0:14:38.5 DL: And sometimes I’ll have administrators say, “Well, yeah, but we don’t wanna work on that. That’s hard.”
0:14:44.9 AS: Yeah.
0:14:46.3 DL: It is a lot easier just to have a new car for showing up to school on time.
0:14:51.0 AS: Yeah, we’ll figure that out when we get to the end of the year. David, you’ve reminded me of a story that I tell about when I was the head of research at a research operation here in Bangkok. And we got a new boss that came in and he came in from outside of Thailand, and he basically went to one of our first meetings in the morning. We met every morning at 7:00 AM to present to our sales force. And one of the analysts on my team came in a little bit late, maybe 15 minutes late, and my new boss pulled me aside and he says, “I do not accept people coming in late for meetings, and I want action.” And I said to him, “That guy was up until 1:00 AM last night working on what he had to present to the clients today.” And so it was my decision as a manager to not go off on the fact that he was 15 minutes late.
0:15:47.7 AS: Now, if you tell me that we have to do that, I’m just telling you, you’re gonna lose all that extra joy that he had. And he was determined to work until 1:00 AM to get it done. But you’ll find him saying, “Okay, I’ll leave at 5:10 also.” And so, I couldn’t really get my boss to understand that, but I saw that part of my objective was to get the maximum out of what was potential that was there. So, you know, that was just a story that happened in my life.
0:16:19.3 DL: Yeah, you reminded me the first time I got the chance to work at a whole school level. The superintendent said, “Well, we have a tardy problem, you know kids being late to classes.” And so we went to work on the tardy problem. And it’s really funny because when I did some work in Australia and I mentioned to them that tardy problem, they didn’t even know what a tardy was. You mean I said, “Well, it’s students being late to classes. It’s a big problem in the US and we work on it and we do all those kind of stuff.” And I said, “Don’t you have that problem here?” And they said, “You mean the teachers being late?”
0:16:58.8 DL: That whole different worlds and whole different systems going on. But I played all kinds of games trying to figure out this whole tardy system. And I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna go back and ask the students, what do you think is the number one… What’s the number one reason that people are tardy that are late to class?”
0:17:18.0 AS: And they said it’s boring as hell.
0:17:20.6 DL: Well, the number one thing came back, almost 80% of students said classes don’t start on time. And I thought, “That’s fascinating.” Because you could put a whole group of teachers in a room for a month and just say, “What are all the reasons that students are late?” And they’re not gonna come up with, “Classes don’t start on time.”
0:17:42.7 AS: Definitely not. Definitely not.
0:17:43.8 DL: The second highest thing was even if it does start on time, it’s boring. It’s not relevant, it’s not boring or it’s not… So if you think of it from their perspective, am I gonna put in effort, get to school on time for something that is not gonna start on time anyway? And I’ll always ask teachers, I say, “What do you do in the first 10 minutes of class?” Well, I’m passing out papers and taking roll, I’m doing this, I’m doing that. That’s what students are talking about. Nothing towards learning is actually taking place, right? Then that system. So if you really wanna make an impact on the tardy system, all right, teach everybody how to start classes immediately, and then make sure that it’s immediately relevant, interesting…
0:18:30.8 AS: With value.
0:18:31.5 DL: And engaging. And guess what? You’re not gonna have a tardy problem, and you’re not gonna have to have a tardy czar in the front office counting tardies. And you’re not gonna have to have penalties and rewards and all the other systems that go with that. That kind of bring us back to our topic today is about continuous improvement or continual improvement. You have to get to a point where you start to say, “Okay, our tardies system is not working. Therefore we need a continual improvement. We need a PDSA cycle, study this system to figure out what we can learn. Then we’ll make a change, then we’ll let it run and maybe we’ll let it run forever. Maybe we’ll reach a point where we say we think good is good enough.” With a system like that, I can put up with somebody. I remember I told the teachers at one time that, “Okay, at this school there’s no such thing as a tardy anymore.”
0:19:33.7 DL: And somebody said, “Well, what do we do if somebody’s late?” And another teacher said, “Maybe we should just get them caught up.” Hey, oh, I see your late and oh, let’s get you caught up. Instead of spending time berating them and putting tardy marks and all these kinds of stuff in books and sending it to the front office and all the data and everything else. Hey, you must have missed something really great, right? So let’s spend some time get you caught up with this. And so you change this system, change your attitude, change your system, and you’re gonna get a different result. Rather than what we taught to do is we try to manipulate the system.
0:20:17.3 AS: Yeah. And unlike in the world of business, you can’t force compliance, you can’t force people to buy your products, it’s voluntary exchange. So I wanna just wrap up and review what you’ve talked about. So first thing is you talked about the fact that education is, it’s a human system. And human systems can’t adapt to continuous change. And that’s where you’re highlighting to us the idea of it’s not about continuous change because continuously changing implies that you’re changing almost for the sake of change, and that’s where I said, don’t just stand there, do something. Instead, what you’re telling us is focus on continual improvement. And let the system run, understand that there’s times that you’re gonna wanna just leave it where is and focus in another area. Is there anything that you would add as we wrap up?
0:21:21.3 DL: No, it’s absolutely true. You know, we talk a lot about systems and everything else, but I think one of the breakthroughs that I had was when I started this process with students is to get students to think about, you are your own system, you are the top of your system, right? And so if you wanna see a different result in what you’re doing, you have to think of yourself in the very same way. I can do a PDSA cycle on why am I habitually late in morning? Okay.
0:21:50.7 AS: That would be a learning process.
0:21:51.8 DL: To use Deming to go through that process and change myself within that and get a different result. And what would that be like?
0:22:01.4 AS: Yeah. And I think for young people, as I always say, they say to me, I have a problem waking up early. I said, you probably have a problem of going to sleep early. [laughter] Alright, well, David, on behalf of everyone at the Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for our discussion. And for listeners, remember to go to deming.org to continue your journey. This is your host Andrew Stotz. And I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming, that is, people are entitled to joy in work.