May 16, 2022

Building and Sustaining an Improvement Culture

Chris Brandt
Juan D’Brot
Lori Vandeborne
Ann Webber
Illustration of colorful gears

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center along with state leaders in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia has been working to develop and implement Networked Improvement Communities (NICs) to inform improvement initiatives with an organized approach. This blog provides an overview of Step 8 in the 8-step NIC process, sustaining a continuous improvement culture. You may also access ready-made facilitator resources on the NIC website.

 

What is continuous improvement? Continuous improvement is a process that emphasizes rapid and iterative testing and scaling in order to generate learning about what changes produce improvements in particular contexts (EDC, 2019).

The central goal of continuous improvement is for an organization to learn from its own practices how to improve (Bryk et al., 2015). Organizations that implement continuous improvement embrace the notion that change is a constant and ever-present certainty. Learning how to thrive in the midst of constant change is at its core.

Organizations may use a variety of approaches to continuous improvement, including establishing a NIC. Continuous improvement aims to address three core questions (Langley et al, 2009):

  1. What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. What changes might we introduce and why?
  3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?

Continuous improvement often requires shifting an organization’s collective mindset from prioritizing compliance to prioritizing the process or continuous journey to improve (Bryk, 2020). In this way, continuous improvement focuses on learning and growth through a process of small successes and failures, as opposed to achievement of a fixed outcome at a given point in time.

In complex organizations like state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs), continuous improvement demands a strong core team who can effectively nurture strong networks and encourage productive input across a variety of stakeholder groups within a given context or community.

Anthony Bryk, in his recent book Improvement in Action, identified four key actions for districts to build the capacity for a sustainable continuous improvement and learning culture:

  • Building staff capacities,
  • Investing in the capacity of the improvement hub,
  • Leading for transformation and continuous improvement, and
  • Involving governing bodies.

 

How can my organization get started? A first step for organizations considering launching an improvement initiative is to assess their readiness. A toolkit developed by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northeast and Islands (Shakman et al, 2020) considers the following criteria:

  • Buy-in. Is there broad agreement on the need to change practice?
  • Stakeholder involvement. Are stakeholders engaged and have expertise across content, context, policy, and research areas?
  • Culture of collaboration and learning. Do existing structures foster collaboration and openness to a range of ideas or solutions?
  • Leadership support. Do leaders have the capacity necessary to lead continuous improvement and mobilize people?
  • Resources. Is sufficient time, funding, and staffing available to address the problem?
  • Data literacy. Does the team have skills and experience to use data for improvement?
  • Barriers to improvement. What anticipated or possible barriers to change may the team encounter when implementing the improvement process?

For additional information about how to establish and sustain a continuous improvement culture, visit our Networked Improvement Community facilitator resources.

For more information and support, contact the Region 5 Comprehensive Center.

 

Resources

Bryk, A.S., Gomez, L.M., Grunow, A., and LeMahieu, P.G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Bryk, A.S. (2020). Improvement in action: Advancing quality in America’s schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. (pp. 3-8).

Education Development Corporation (EDC). (2019). Building a culture of continuous improvement. New York, NY: Author.

Langley, G.J., Moen, R.D., Nolan, K.M., Nolan, T.W., Norman, C.L., and Provost, L.P. (2009). The improvement guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shakman, K., Wogan, D., Rodriguez, S., Boyce, J., and Shaver, D. (2020). Continuous improvement in education: A toolkit for schools and districts (REL 2021-014). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands.

Shakman, K., Bailey, J., and Breslow, N. (2017). A primer for continuous improvement in schools and districts.