The Proof is in the Processes

The missing link in improving K-12 education and meeting NCLB goals is process management.

Quite simply put, processes are a series of actions, changes, or functions that bring about a desired result. Processes are the way we work. No matter what we do — whether we serve as superintendents, principals, technology directors, or teachers — we are all involved in processes, from recruiting teachers to upgrading the technology infrastructure.

Yet few in education think in these terms. Instead, educators tend to describe their work in terms of functions, like maintaining the online teacher application system, or outcomes, like positive test results. Still fewer map their processes, and when they do, these maps often chart within function, not across functions.

For example, look at the diagram below. For centuries, we have used the left side of the diagram to seek ways to improve. We wanted and asked for more and more inputs — in the form of teachers, administrators, facilities, supplies, and, of course, money.

Then along came No Child Left Behind, which dramatically shifted the focus to the right side of the diagram — outcomes. As a result, we've neglected the middle column. But outcomes cannot be changed unless we also change the way we deal with processes.

The Methodology

Managing processes means paying attention to five key elements.

Process maps are graphical representations of the flow of work or sequence of events needed to achieve an outcome, such as a product or service.

Process measures quantitatively represent the effectiveness of a process against a stated goal or objective, such as the average time to resolve a service disruption or the number of unscheduled network outages per month.

Process comparison compares process measures internally over time or externally with other districts.

Process improvement refers to increasing the effectiveness of a process incrementally — improvement is done on an ongoing basis through small changes to the components of the process, including adding or deleting a process activity or measure.

Process innovation is the dramatic or radical redesign of a process to increase process effectiveness and/or efficiency, including remapping the entire work flow, adding new process owners, and developing new measurements or goals.

The Process Management Advantage

Process management offers many opportunities for educators to improve and innovate. Done correctly, process management has the potential to:

  • enable educators concerned about NCLB to change the processes that influence the outcomes, moving away from one-time fixes toward a continuous process of improvement;
  • get at the root cause of current performance and drive a culture of measurement and performance, as well as facilitate integration of instruction and administration because of the systems-wide focus on student achievement;
  • lead to fewer dropouts and higher graduation rates because of the focus on prevention at the front end rather than inspection and blame at the back end;
  • enable real data-driven improvement rather than "I think" or "I believe" or "we've always done it this way" justifications;
  • allow participants to make benchmark comparisons;
  • provide data to school boards, states, and the federal government about efficiency and effectiveness of processes, not just responses to typical requests for input;
  • enable fiscal accountability as well as academic accountability.

Ultimately, process management can help districts make transformative changes. What's more, it may be the only way to reach NCLB proficiency goals by 2014.

Piloting Processes

How does process management work in practice? In 2005, an organization I chair called the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) designed a study called Process Improvement and Implementation in Education (PIIE) to examine what could happen if districts began using process maps, measures, and comparisons to assess their own performance and compare it to others.

Twenty-three districts with enrollments from 10,000 to 747,000 students joined the year-long study. [Note: In the future, APQC plans to expand its PIIE initiative to include districts of between 2,500 and 10,000 students, and later, smaller districts.] The districts selected three processes to explore in depth: assessing student achievement, managing information technology, and finding and hiring qualified staff.

APQC and participating districts developed highly detailed surveys to obtain quantitative and qualitative process data. Each district sent data to APQC where it was validated, blinded, normalized, and stored. APQC then analyzed the data and compiled detailed, customized reports for each district.

Those reports let districts see how they stacked up in cost effectiveness, cycle time, process efficiency, and staff productivity. They could also see how their process performance compared to others, since all districts used APQC's process taxonomy, the Process Classification Framework (PCF). Participants also received qualitative information about administrative and instructional best practices.

Implications for IT Leaders

Here's a sampling of quantitative and qualitative information PIIE participants collected about the second process they investigated, managing information technology. They learned that top performers:

  • communicate constantly and effectively with all customers, internal and external;
  • operate with centralized management and resources, and respond rapidly to customer change requests as well as to drastic shifts in technology;
  • spend on average 5 percent more on growth and transformation initiatives, including enterprise systems such as a data warehouses, student information systems, or instructional management systems;
  • spend on average $160 per student on IT processes, compared to bottom performers' $491 per student;
  • operate with a stable technology framework that lends itself to zero unplanned down-time;
  • map all work processes and use them in communication, analysis, and planning;
  • have more productive staffs, serving on average 1,225 customers per full-time employee (compared to bottom performers' 475);
  • use longer planning horizons and shorter change cycles;
  • manage data centrally, share common data among all business units, and have assigned data owners for each information asset.

Almost every district was surprised by its performance metrics, not only within the district, but when compared to others. We learned that most districts do not keep accurate personnel time records by process or subprocess, and that many districts do not allocate dollars to various processes or subprocesses, and thus had to estimate costs between processes and activities. Furthermore, many respondents had to go to several departments to get process data. No district reported organized cross-functional processes or process owners. Following the study, many plan to organize teams to improve selected processes.

Schools Not Alone

In the '70s and '80s, leading American businesses weren't paying attention to processes either. They, too, were functionally managed. But, in order to compete globally, they learned that they had to focus on processes and get rid of what they silos, operations in which elements acted independently of each other. Today, most leading businesses, some leading healthcare organizations, and many forward-acting federal government organizations are process-managed and excelling.

Education in this country needs to take its cue from business in this regard. Education, too, can embrace transformational change. A move toward a process viewpoint and action methodology will help our schools improve efficiency, focus on urgent priorities, and improve student success.

C. Jackson Grayson, Jr. chairs the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), a Houston-based nonprofit that helps organizations improve through productivity and quality concepts and techniques. To learn more, visit

Do You Manage by Process?

These 10 questions will help you find out.

  1. Do you have maps of all your key processes? Are the maps drawn, updated, and used to guide process improvement?
  2. Does your process map include other functions that are affected by your processes — or which you affect?
  3. Do you measure process performance? If so, what measures do you use-for example, cycle time? Cost effectiveness? Staff productivity? Process efficiency? Do you track these measures over time?
  4. Do you compare your processes to those of other schools or districts? Do you benchmark yourself against them?
  5. Do you employ people (process owners) whose processes cross department lines?
  6. If you employ process owners, do they have enough resources, authority, and responsibility to manage processes effectively?
  7. Do you use process improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma or Knowledge Management for analysis and problem solving?
  8. Do you have senior leaders in the school or district who manage the process owners and resolve conflicts among departments?
  9. Do you have an explicit change strategy to move from a functionally based organization to one managed largely by processes?
  10. Are "customers" and/or "suppliers" to the process involved in the process flow?

If you answered "No" to most of these, you are not engaged in process management. If you answered "Yes" to most or all, congratulations! Please e-mail me at I'd love to know who you are. — JG