The Golden Calf of Process and Standardization

Way back in the dim recesses of time, about 2009 to be precise, Netflix published an interesting slide deck on how they structure their business. I remember reading it and I believed it was an interesting and positive way to frame a company culture. I shared it with a few people in our district and life rolled on.

The concept has come back to me repeatedly in recent days and it seems to fit a variety of scenarios well enough that I thought it was worth talking about again. Essentially, I see this concept applying at the national, state, district/county, school, and classroom levels.

The images below are my slight adjustments to the Netflix slides. All credit goes to them or whoever they got the idea from.

Derived from Netflix presentation


In the beginning . . .

Small (often new) organizations have a very high proportion of highly skilled employees1 and as a result don’t need much in the way of processes, rules, regulations, policies etc.  That’s the green area.

As organizations grow and complexity increases2, the proportion of highly skilled employees drops.  Things go wrong. People end up in the red area and everyone is unhappy.

Derived from Netflix presentation

Often the response to these failures is to implement processes, policies etc. There are a number of reasons I think this turns out poorly in the long run.

  1. Processes give you a short-term positive result.   Process driven environment are consistent and predictable. They let you get by with lower skilled employees.  Yet, processes are the “grapefruit diet” of organizational change.  You get the initial positive response that makes you feel good but the root issues that caused the problem remain, festering.
  2. Quality people are frequently not fans of process focused environments.  They leave and as a result you end up with even lower proportions of highly skilled employees which in turn drives the need for even more processes.
  3. Process adherence becomes a core value.  Issue? We can develop a process for that.
  4. Attention, money, and energy flows into improving processes rather than people.

I can’t see how this doesn’t become a death spiral of ever snowballing processes driven by an organization with an ever increasing need of processes.

Before I get into how I see this occurring in k12 education, I want to throw an element of gray in the mix.  I think it is possible to create processes that improve understanding and capabilities but it takes overt thought and intent and that isn’t happening much.  People tend to focus their energy on creating a process that can’t be corrupted by the worst case scenario employee.  The goal is simply to “dummy” proof the process, not help create better employees.  Break the work into enough yes/no questions or if/then decisions and even a sea slug will be able to get from A to B.

  In the classroom  . . .

With students, you can see processes in lieu of learning across the board but it tends to be pretty evident in things like math, projects, science labs, research papers (essentially the respites from memorization) . . . The kids don’t actually understand what they’re doing, they just memorize steps or follow the directions.  When things shift from that very clearly delineated path students end up completely lost or end up completing the project no better for the process.

We often do the very same thing with teachers. Many initiatives are outside solutions that teach processes with no attempt to build understanding or internalize concepts for broader application. This sort of thing is really in the “solution” company’s best interest.  From their prospective, a good process based solution will address your current needs (give a positive but limited score bump) without preparing your teachers for anything broader.  That’s when they return to sell the next process based solution —- “I’m so happy the winter differentiated reading phonetic instruction module for KG students worked. Have you thought about what’s going to happen in the spring? We also have a module for 1st graders and pre-K in case any of your teachers change grade levels.”

You can see strong moves towards this in the way some districts have moved to standardized lessons on standardized dates across the district. Some places use scripts to standardize the process. This process uniformity is epitomized by the belief that at some point computers and algorithms will faithfully, and with absolute consistency, walk students between Khan-ish videos based on the results of multiple choice assessments.

I don’t know what process/standardization people need vs what they’ve come to expect. I know that personally I didn’t need books given the kids had computers and I could mix up much more effective mixtures of content and activities for my students. That’s in history and English. I don’t know about other subjects or how it might work when kids don’t have computers. I do feel that textbooks and all the resources that began to come with them was an attempt to “idiot proof” teaching. The current obsession with computer facilitated/directed learning seems to have re-reared its head at a time when faith in teachers seems to be declining drastically. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

So much focus is on teachers seen as incompetent that everyone other teacher is marginalized. Continuing to build a system for the lowest level will likely drive even more high quality teachers from the profession.

It’s not unimaginable that K12 could become a series of Disney themed edu-tainment videos linked together by multiple choice tests. This move will be backed by more consistent test scores and dramatically lower costs contrasted against schools that have already been labeled as “failing.” Given the current conception of education, arguing that providing recordings of great teachers is better than letting students suffer with less able teachers would be relatively easy (and is being done already).

1 I think how they become high skilled is worth looking at that may be more related to attention, communication, etc. as opposed to just raw awesomeness.

2 I’m interested in looking more at the relationship of these two variables.  What gets more complex at scale, to what extent, and is there any predictability there?

Comments on this post

  1. hoosjon said on February 7, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    “The current obsession with computer facilitated/directed learning seems to have re-reared its head at a time when faith in teachers seems to be declining drastically. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.” This is an excellent point.

  2. Garth said on February 8, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    I won’t say much, but great post. I hear you…happening all around the country.

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