Nov 11, 2021

Strategic Budgeting: Continuous Improvement

School children in uniforms walking in row on painted up going curve. photographed from above on various painted tarmac surface at sunset.

Introduction

Welcome to the ninth blog post in the Region 5 Comprehensive Center’s Strategic Budgeting series.  In these posts, we are walking through the five elements of Strategic Budgeting to help provide additional tools to local education officials who want to think more strategically about how to use their resources. For reference, the five elements of Strategic Budgeting are:

Five Element graphic showing the circular connections among the elements. List of five elements. Identifying Vision and Goals, Assessing Resources, Using Data, Communicating with District, Continuous Improvement

 

 

Continuous improvement icon in teal

 

 

Today's post is about continuous improvement. 

 

 

 

You may have heard of continuous improvement in other settings.  Or you may have noticed that it’s the big dark-green circle around all the other icons in our graphic above.  But so far, we’ve only mentioned it in passing.  Now’s the time to dive in. 

 

Continuous Improvement (or CI) is a term that’s been used to a greater extent in recent years.  At its core, it’s a management methodology that allows people to regularly assess how well things are running and make repeated changes to improve performance.  There are many different iterations of the process, and none of them necessarily are better than others.  But some may meet your specific needs more than other versions.  We recommend that you peruse the different schools of thought and choose the one that’s best for you, or perhaps merge two or more to develop your own system. To learn more about four improvement methodologies used across industries for decades, click here.

 

Different CI Approaches

Early thought about CI largely came from a 1986 book by Masaaki Imai called Kaizen: The Key to Japan's Competitive Success.  In that work, Imai discusses:

  • Feedback or self-reflection;
  • Efficiency to identify, reduce, and eliminate barriers to successful processes; and
  • Evolution through incremental, continual steps—as opposed to giant leaps. 

This approach has even been adopted into formal budgeting practices, in some instances. 

 

One of the more prominent advocates of CI in recent years is the Carnegie Foundation.  They use six core principles, which roughly translate into:

  1. Define the problem,
  2. Determine when and how things work better,
  3. Assess the entire system,
  4. Measure results,
  5. Use  “Plan, Do, Study, Act” cycles to adjust processes, and
  6. Increase your efficacy by involving others in the improvement process. 

 

Evolution or “Plan, Do, Study, Act”

As you can tell, CI is a philosophy about continually assessing your situation, making adjustments, and then seeing what the results are.  If the adjustments result in positive outcomes, keep them; if they don’t, try something else. 

 

The Kaizen approach calls this Evolution, but it’s most commonly referred to as “Plan, Do, Study, Act,” (or PDSA) in today’s literature.  And, the PDSA approach is most popularly sourced to W. Edwards Deming, a thinker and author from the early-to-mid twentieth century.  The Carnegie Foundation now operationalizes this approach into the following four actions:

Plan, Do , Study, Act graphic. Plan: Describe your proposed change, and predict the results; Do: Implement the change and document the results; Study: Compare prediction and results; and Act: Decide on what to do next.

Applying CI to the Other Four Elements of Strategic Budgeting

All of this management gibberish probably sounds OK, but you want to know how to actually use it, right?  The strategic budgeting process is itself grounded in a CI methodology, in which an improvement cycle can be applied to each element. Below are some examples.

 

In our posts on Identifying Vision and Goals (here and here) we stressed that districts should review their vision and goals every 3-5 years. The vision and goals are the focus of the overarching CI approach, serving as the measurements against which success is determined. But they can also be subjected to an improvement cycle of their own.

 

For instance, you may find that parents are unhappy with one aspect of your vision, and you may attempt to massage it to take into account that local feedback.  You can use a CI approach to make incremental adjustments that could eventually lead to a more wholesale revision of that aspect of your vision later. 

 

Our two posts about Assessing Resources walk through several steps to determine how your resources are currently allocated.  CI can be applied to addressing any misalignment of resources you may uncover.  For example, if your goal is for all students to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade, but you are falling short, perhaps your investments in reading instruction aren’t working. Try shifting your resources to new instructional strategies and programs. Use CI to assess progress and make further adjustments as needed.

 

We blogged twice about Using Data (here and here), and listed five steps to conducting cost-effectiveness analyses.  Calculating the cost-effectiveness of several different options inherently aligns with a CI mindset.  If, following your cost-effectiveness analysis, you implement the most cost-effective option, monitor its impact, and the data show it is not accomplishing what you hoped, you may either try making adjustments to the program (for instance, perhaps you found not all schools were implementing it with fidelity) or replacing it with another of your cost-effective options.  In addition, CI could be applied to assessments of your spending allocations compared to peer districts, because you could choose different criteria to determine peers, based on results from previous analyses. 

 

Finally, in our post on Communicating with the District, we discuss the fact that communication should be integral in all of the three previous steps.  However, the method of that communication could be continually evolving, as you learn what types of communication works best with which audiences, and on which subjects. 

Additional Resources

Jefferson County Public Schools, located in Kentucky, has undertaken a form of CI in their recent budgeting process and outlined it very nicely in this report.  The section specifically about CI starts on page 15 (page 16 of 57).

 

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center’s Networked Improvement Community (NIC) applies principles of implementation science to improve students’ learning experiences in remote and hybrid learning environments. Region 5 NIC members are developing facilitator resources for education leaders to support continuous improvement. Resources may be adapted and used to address a variety of education-related problems that emerge within a single building or persist across a district, state, or region. Two modules, Establish Teams and Identifying the Problem and Developing a Theory of Improvement are available now. The third module, Using Disciplined Inquiry to Drive Improvement, is coming soon.

 

Our Final Blog Posts

We are nearing the end of our blog series.  We hope that you have enjoyed the posts and found them useful.  In the coming weeks, we will sum up the posts, and provide some overall thoughts.  In the meantime, let us know if you have any questions or suggestions. You can reach us at BradKeller@westat.com

Housekeeping

Bread Crumbs/Wayfinding

New posts will appear here on Monday mornings, so feel free to bookmark the page.  This is the ninth post in the series; if you want to start at the beginning of the series, go here.  The previous post was on communicating with the district, and can be found here.

Keeping up with our posts

If you would like to be notified when new posts in this series are published, please email BradKeller@westat.com and ask to be put on the notification list. 

Office Hours

We plan to hold monthly “Office Hours” where you can join live with the authors (virtually), to ask questions, provide feedback, and discuss the topics explored in this series.  Office Hours are always the last Tuesday of the month, at 1 pm Eastern Time.  You can click here to register and add the event to your calendar.  This month’s Office Hour is Tuesday, November 30th at 1 pm Eastern Time/Noon Central Time. 

Legal stuff

This blog post is in the public domain. While permission to reprint is not necessary, this publication should be cited. The blog post is prepared by the Region 5 Comprehensive Center under Award #S283B190030 for the Office of Program and Grantee Support Services (PGSS) within the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE) of the U.S. Department of Education, and is administered by Westat. The content of the blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the PGSS or OESE or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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