The Kaizen Way to School Growth

Over hundreds of interactions I've had with some of our nation's best schools, I've found that one of the most persistent challenges faced by school leaders is determining how best to grow their enrollment.  The quest for growth is never-ending.

This is because every school faces the same pressures - to keep the lights on, pay its teachers, deliver an excellent education, and support its students and their families all year long. There is no way to reduce those pressures and keep the school going without enrollment growth.

Finding ways to grow can become all-consuming.

Every school has room for improvement, but not every school leader knows where to look for that improvement or how to course-correct and rally the school to change when times get tough.

There are five different ways to think about school growth:

  1. Student Success: Retain more students and extend your school's advocacy and word-of-mouth through better academic outcomes.
  2. Parent Base Penetration: Get more enrollments from your existing parent target group by streamlining your enrollment marketing efforts.
  3. Market Acceleration: Expand into new target family audiences with your current curriculum by marketing to different family demographics.
  4. Curriculum Diversification: Expand your program offering to existing and new prospective families.
  5. Partnership: Leverage third-party alliances, channels, and ecosystems. An example could be a partnership between a brick & mortar middle school and an online curriculum provider to cofound an online school (targeting families considering homeschooling).

While reading these, you might be getting consumed by a feeling of dread and powerlessness.

Out of the five key paths to school growth, you might feel that, at most, a couple are within your circle of control.

According to conventional wisdom, the first thing every school leader must do to bring about growth and improvement is to create a strategic plan — a static document that describes the size of the change, the problem to be solved, and the solution that the new venture will provide.

Typically, it includes an analysis of your current state, a well-defined future state and an exhaustive list of strategies, milestones, and actions needed to get there.

In this sense, a strategic plan is an incredibly complex, resource-heavy research exercise written in isolation before one begins to make change happen. The assumption is that it’s possible to figure out most of the unknowns of a school's growth plan in advance - before you carve out the required budget and actually execute the improvement actions.

From this perspective, tackling any of the above 'Paths to School Growth' becomes impossible and hopeless. Where will you find the time, the resources and the collective energy to drive growth?

By shifting to a kaizen mindset, you can 10X your growth initiatives without impacting your academic objectives. How?

I. Use The Business Model Canvas
Rather than planning upfront, agile school leaders structure a set of well-thought-out hypotheses —basically, good guesses. Instead of writing a detailed strategic plan, they start by summarizing their hypotheses in a framework called a 'business model canvas' (google it).

II. Upfront Feedback
Second, agile school leaders use a “get out of the building” approach to test their hypotheses. They go out and ask prospective parents for feedback on all elements of their initiative. The emphasis is on nimbleness and speed. Using parents’ input they revise their assumptions, make small adjustments (iterations), and refine their plan.

III.  Kaizen
Third, agile school leaders practice something called Kaizen (the science of small improvement in Japanese).

When school leaders want to improve, they usually turn first to change management theory or breakthrough innovation. According to these theories, innovation is a radical process of change. Ideally, it occurs in a very short period, yielding a dramatic turnaround. It is fast and big and reaches for the largest result in the smallest amount of time.

Where innovation demands shocking and radical reform, all that kaizen
asks is that you take small (albeit frequent), manageable steps toward improvement. These frequent small improvement steps accumulate and lead to significant change over time.

All changes, even positive ones, are scary. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of kaizen disarm the brain's fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.

Kaizen demolishes large change projects into smaller digestible action, eliminating fear, stress and overwhelm.

So, forget your strategic growth plan for now, and focus on continuous incremental improvement.

Here are three practical steps to get the ball rolling with kaizen:

  1. Keep an idea log of the enrollment processes that seem inefficient and opportunities for improvement. It's often easier to spot these in the heat of the moment than in cold reflection.
  2. Once a month, spend some time identifying areas where there are improvement opportunities in the way you or your, school's enrollment is working. Use your idea log as input, but also think about the broader picture and your overall ways of working. Go through each of the items on the list and ask: What is the one immediate next step with which we could improve this item? As opposed to trying to agonize about the perfect thing to do, think about what you can do immediately to start to move forward.
  3. Make a simple action plan on an excel sheet by using the 5W2H method:
    - What?    What will be done? Action steps, description.
    - Why?    Why will it be done? Justification, reason.
    - Where?    Where will it be done? Location, area.
    - When?    When will it be done? Time, dates, deadlines.
    - Who?    Who will do it? Who’s responsible for it?
    - How?    How will it be done? Method, process.
    - How much?    What will it cost to do? Costs or expenses involved.

    You need to strike a balance between getting on with making the improvements immediately, and avoiding "change overload."

Now it's your turn

How can you start implementing a kaizen growth mindset?