The Forgotten Lessons of Business: An Interview with Productivity Pioneer Jack Grayson
Jack Grayson has been many things in his 86 years. A farmer, FBI agent, journalist, importer/exporter, professor, business school dean, and member of three presidential commissions. But he has made a lasting name for himself as one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of productivity and quality.
Grayson rose to national fame almost forty years ago as Chairman of the U.S. Price Commission, which helped avert hyperinflation in the early 1970s. His brush with economic turmoil convinced him that productivity was key to the nation’s well-being, so he founded The American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC), a non-profit that helps organizations boost performance by improving their processes. As APQC chairman, he is devoting all of his time to the organization’s work in education.
These days, many school reformers are fond of reciting lessons they have learned from business. Be innovative. Focus on outcomes. Get the incentives right. The rest, the theory goes, will follow.
But Grayson says such reformers are missing the biggest lesson of all: Focus on process! He admits that talk of process can be dry as dust, especially when all of DC is abuzz with talk of innovation. But it is process improvements that brought the best American businesses out of the industrial age, he insists.
Yes, innovation and outcomes are critical. But if reformers ignore the hard work of building schools’ capacity to produce the best outcomes, even the most innovative school systems may well go the way of GM.
Listen to Grayson's interview on the Public School Insights podcast (~23:15).
A quick warning about our recording: It has a lot of background noise. If the side conversations and occasional pop music become too distracting, read the edited transcript below.
Public School Insights: A lot of people are talking about the promise of innovation in improving education. Do you think innovation itself holds the key to solving our problems in public education?
Grayson: No. Innovation will certainly help, and innovation in any area is the leader. It’s the new idea. But you do not want to leave the old idea behind because the innovation, if it’s not accepted and used, fails. I believe you need both.
But innovation has to come to this sector, because for many years education has not paid attention to it. And I appreciate the fact that there is now an innovation fund from the Department of Education.
Public School Insights: If innovation alone is not enough, what comes next?
Grayson: Hard work. Because you have to implement.
Innovation is not of use unless it’s implemented. Without implementation, it’s just an interesting idea. And when you start to implement, you need not just the outcomes the innovation produces—if it’s a good innovation, it will have outcomes—but you need to know, what are the processes that lead to the outcomes? Then you must use both in order to make the innovation useful. The word “useful” is very important.
Process is the key to getting an innovation accepted and used.
Public School Insights: But process sounds awfully “ho-hum.”
Grayson: I know it does, but you need both process and outcomes.
Process got a bad name, because for years people said it was the only thing that matters. I’ve been in a university where that was the mantra, and the accreditation societies focused only on process.
Then along came the people who said, “Let’s pay attention to outcomes!” Their first big visible act was NCLB, when they said, “It shall be outcomes, and you will do outcomes.”
I understand their frustration in wanting to do that. But they left behind the processes necessary to get those outcomes. No wonder people were saying “I can’t do this,” “I’m going to find another way” or “I am going to lower my standards because I have to get these outcomes.” Business suffered from the same thing years ago.
Public School Insights: That surprises me, because a lot of people are saying that education is finally learning from business and focusing on outcomes. And a lot of the big reforms that people are talking about now, like charter schools and performance pay, are structural, rather than process, changes. And many people say those are the lessons we are hearing from business.
Grayson: Those are wrong lessons to hear, because American businesses today are not as focused on those things as once they were.
It is true that at a time they were only interested in outcomes--“What’s our profit, what are the earnings per share, what’s our cash flow, how many sales do we have?”
For years they did that. But while they weren’t looking the Japanese were using processes. And then American business, while it took a long time, finally learned they better do that too. They learned a lot from the Japanese. Not just the Japanese, the Europeans too.
Suddenly business started turning to process about 20 years ago. That pulled them out of the industrial-age focus on outcomes. So when people cite business as being “outcomes, outcomes, outcomes,” what is missed is that the good businesses in the United States consider process.
Education has not gotten that message yet.
Public School Insights: Given that so many people are talking about innovation, and given that you think people are drawing some of the wrong lessons from the business experience, are you optimistic for the prospects of innovation?
Grayson: I am hopeful. I am not necessarily optimistic.
I think it is good that the administration is putting the word “innovation” out there. However, in the innovation fund guidance, there is a 20% funding match required to receive an innovation grant. That is one of the characteristics of the guidance I don’t think is going to change. But it tends to discourage some innovators who don’t have the money to either create or expand their innovative ideas.
What we are left with are the proven innovations, which we should applaud. And Teach For America and KIPP and all the others that are well-known—they want the money also, to expand and transfer.
I am not against that—I think those are good models. But what about all the other people who have innovative ideas? They are almost frozen out by the 20% match, because 20% of 5 million dollars is one million dollars. Most innovators can’t lay their hands on that kind of money.
So I am both encouraged and somewhat dismayed by the way some of the parts of the innovation grants are characterized.
Public School Insights: You mentioned transfer. Do you think that right now many people in the reform community are thinking hard enough about what it takes to transfer innovations?
Grayson: No. Definitely no.
Business had to learn this same lesson. They said, “Oh, a best practice is going to transfer automatically.” Spontaneous diffusion. It will just radiate out, because it’s a good practice.
What they didn’t realize is that there is transfer involved, from the source of the idea to the person or the organization that wants to use it. That is not an easy process, and when I hear people say, “Let’s go to scale with this, it’s a great idea,” they are being naïve. It’s hard to go to scale.
Business has shown that. Some of the leading businesses in the United States didn’t realize that in their own organization they had best practices that were not transferring. But suddenly they woke up to it.
One of the leaders of TI—Texas Instruments—said, “If only we knew what we know.” So I wrote a book called “If Only We Knew What We Know” to show how difficult it is to transfer, and that instead of just lamenting that an idea doesn’t automatically spread, we should work on transfer.
Sometimes an organ transferred from one person’s body to another does not match, and the immune system will take over and drive it out. That often happens to the best ideas, too.
Public School Insights: You have drawn these lessons working with businesses for many years. Now you are moving to education and working with school districts. Tell me more about this project.
Grayson: I created the American Productivity and Quality Center thirty years ago. I wanted to help all sectors improve, but the first one that I wanted to work with was business, because it’s our mainstay in global competitiveness, standard of living and jobs.
So for a long time we worked only with business, and we really learned from them and with them. Then I moved over into looking at healthcare. Then I moved into government and working with some of the government agencies in Washington.
Ten years ago I suddenly realized that one of the best and most important sectors in the nation is education. Why couldn’t I take what I’ve learned and adapt it to education? That is what I am doing now at APQC.
I am calling this the North Star project, because I couldn’t think of any other name. And the North Star is a guiding light. It’s inspirational.
I am now working with eight districts around the nation for one year, trying to help them learn that there is such a thing as combining process and outcomes.
One of the larger districts we are working with, and one of the best, is Montgomery County (Maryland). It is really an amazing district that caught process before I even walked in the door—they had process maps and were already thinking in those terms. They did have a lot to learn, because they did not know what some of the leading businesses were doing in this area.
We also have Clark County (Nevada), which is another 340,000 students. We have Fulton County down in Georgia. We have two Baldrige winners, Iredell-Statesville (North Carolina) and Jenks (Oklahoma). And we have two really small districts—Poudre (Colorado) and Hampton City Schools (Virginia).
We’ve got this mix to show this can be done at any district size and diversity. They all have offered written testimonies that this has helped change their whole landscape.
Public School Insights: What parts of the landscape have changed?
Grayson: Just yesterday I was at Montgomery County, and I was talking to (Superintendent) Jerry Weast and one of the district leaders working with us.
Our strategy is now spreading in their organization because people who have learned in the direct project we work on are walking around and saying, “We can do this over here.” They enlist other people. They are self-training, which is the key to real self-organizing transfer. I don’t have to be there. And they are doing it in the right way, learning from others who have done it, and learning the “how.”
I see that in Montgomery County. I see that in even the smallest district…Poudre, Colorado. Not many people have ever heard of them, but they are now enlisting nine other districts to join this effort. And they can help them, because they have been through it.
Public School Insights: As you know, we are not in the best of economic times. Districts are loath to spend any extra money for anything. Could anyone argue that we have other, more urgent things to do right now, and that we don’t have the resources to work on process improvements?
Grayson: That would be a mistake.
I know districts are strapped for funds. I have been there trying to get them to work on this, and they’ll say “We don’t have any money.”
I’ll say, “I understand that. But inside your organization, if you were to look at your processes, you have got a lot of waste.”
I learned this from businesses—they have terrific amounts of waste in their processes. The same with schools. Driving buses, feeding students, designing curriculum and training teachers…All, if viewed with a process focus, will show “We don’t need to do that, we don’t need to do this, we can do this differently.”
Money is there if they will squeeze it out of the system. People don’t like that, because they think the only way is cost reduction. I am trying to say that funds are there, but locked up, and if you can release those funds you can transfer them to the most critical projects.
Public School Insights: But you need a process map to know how do this.
Grayson: That’s correct. Process maps are one of the best and simplest ways to start.
Just draw a process map of what you do every day. If you teach a class, let me see a process map of teaching a class. If you drive a bus, let me see a map of that. Let me see what it is you do and let’s put it down on a map. And make little boxes like, “Get my gradebook,” if I am walking into a classroom. Or if I am a bus driver, “Prepare to get in the bus.”
You look at your little tiny steps, and then suddenly you discover carryovers from old methods that are not necessary anymore. You see alternative ways to do things. The process maps reveal them. And once you see that, it’s a quick move towards process management.
Public School Insights: Often you have these policy prescriptions that come down from on-high. In the example you cite—finding waste and transferring money to where it’s needed—you could point to advocates for the 65% rule, who tried to legislate that 65% of all money go to the classroom. Do such top-down policies drive good process?
Grayson: No, because they can be arbitrary.
To get good process, you must first determine a priority, and then analyze it. Is it instruction? Analyze your instruction. Really break it down into minute bits. If you were analyzing going to work in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? You turn off the alarm clock. Two, you get out of bed. These are process steps.
My belief is that you don’t look at the high principles and theories of teaching a class; you look at what it takes to actually teach a class. When you do that, you are getting into the real opportunities for change and improvement. Not by the standard formula, but by improving what you do every day.
Public School Insights: I gather that you are not prescribing teacher actions in a class, but advocating for creating the conditions to make teachers more effective.
Grayson: I do not ever go to a teacher or principal or anyone else and say, “Let me tell you, I have found the solution.” One, they’ll throw me out and two, that’s the wrong way to go.
I can say, “I want to help you to form the best process you can, and I think you will save money and improve outcomes.”
You really need to link process and outcomes. Never focus on one or the other—it should be “and.” The link between the two is what makes for a thriving education enterprise, and also a thriving business.
Public School Insights: That raises another interesting question. As you know, turning around low-performing schools is, quite rightly, a big priority in the administration. Yet turnarounds take some time—often a few years. How do we ensure that we are not interrupting good process because the outcomes aren’t there yet?
Grayson: That is difficult—not being able to get an outcome. Yet if you want to turn around student achievement, it is hard to do in one year.
I really think you should have a time horizon in low-performing schools that is longer than you would like, because you are trying to change a series of processes at one time to impact student achievement.
We have 300 schools in Texas that are low-performing, and we are teaching them the concepts of process. We are not coming in with a formula. We are not coming in with a pat method. We have no program, except to say, “Let us work with you to see why you’ve got low performance.” And to do that, they need to tell us what their processes are.
That begins the conversation. One, they feel included—you’re saying, “What do you do?” Then, when we draw the map, they suddenly see, “Maybe I could do that differently.” Then you bring in other people in the organization who are affected by or could affect that process. Suddenly you are using the power of the people in the system to change the system.
But with the mandate that you are low-performing and I want you to get those test scores up…You’re telling them that you don’t know how they’re going to do it, but they need to do it. It’s a hammer.
Public School Insights: So you are saying, have measures of progress for process as well.
Grayson: That’s correct. Not just measures for performance, but also for process.
People are frightened at first, and say they can’t measure what they do. But if you sit down with them patiently and with an open mind, you find that they can measure what they do. They want to measure what they do. They don’t know how. The “how” is the missing link between process and outcomes.
Public School Insights: To shift gears, you’ve also talked about transfer. How are you going to transfer what is happening in the North Star project to the rest of the world?
Grayson: I was just in our partner districts recently, the “hubs.” They are beginning to process themselves. It’s not us coming in as an outsider anymore, though we never were “outsiders” because we brought their people in, trained and coached them, and helped them select projects.
Once we start that engine, it runs itself. Because people tell people. As I said before, when I visited Montgomery County yesterday, they told me that people inside the system are telling one another how to change, and helping them do so. So those who weren’t involved at the beginning are learning from those around them, and that’s one of the most powerful ways to go to scale.
Public School Insights: So you have the “hub” districts—the eight districts you have been working with. What about districts that aren’t in this set?
Grayson: We are going to select the next set and start them down this journey.
I am now looking for each hub to pick two to three districts that they think could be “spokes.” Those spokes will learn from the hubs. We’ll come in to get them started, and then we’ll turn it over to them. Those spokes will in turn, in a year or two, become hubs.
This is the way to go to scale. You have people in the system teach people in the system, with outside expertise when needed.
Public School Insights: A final question: Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?
Grayson: One could be, why is it so hard to get this across?
I think that’s because for years it was process only. Then it became outcomes only.
Even with the administration today, it’s mostly outcomes they talk about. The four assurances…Teacher quality, data systems and the others—those are outcomes. When the administration talks about money, they want money to be spent wisely. But what they leave out is the “how.”
It’s admirable that they are doing so much with the assurances and in other areas. But I would say the administration needs to collect more processes saying how to get to the desired outcomes. They can do that in one way, for example: Ask “What’s your process measure?” Why can’t they ask that, in addition to asking “What is the outcomes measure?”
Until that changes, they are in a lock, because the pressure on outcomes…You can’t improve your golf score by focusing only on the score. And here, right now, most of the focus is on the score and not on the process of getting the score.
Public School Insights: So you are not talking about the administration prescribing the processes. You are talking about the administration creating an environment where people focus on process.
Grayson: Yes, and one way to do that is to ask for process measurements. Did you know that in the United States government there are no process measures for districts? They’re all outcomes measures.
We should never use those separately, we need them both. But I don’t see process metrics being collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. I think they are devoid of process measures. So one of my urges is that the government requires process metrics along with outcomes measures.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- National PTA President Otha Thornton on the Common Core
- 2013 School Counselor of the Year Mindy Willard on the state of her profession
- Supervisor of Administration John Swang on saving money in energy costs
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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