Total School Alignment: How Great Schools Streamline Their Strategy, Stay Centered, and Accomplish Extraordinary Results
Back in late 2015, I was visiting Mary Kay down in New Orleans to help her out with enrollment growth.
She'd gone through three years of steady enrollment declines and had hired us to reverse the trend.
We were helping her to boost enrollment using our signature digital enrollment funnel. She had also requested additional help on site.
Mary Kay was an amazing person - kind, elegant and really fun to be around. I loved the way she told her life's story.
After each long, exhausting day at her school, we'd go for an early dinner with her daughter Jasmine, and Mary Kay would take me through the ups and downs of her walk of life.
She had spent her entire education career moving through a number of positions in Louisiana's schools, including science teacher, assistant principal, chief communications officer, and lobbyist.
She had been the ultimate outsider – and a virtually penniless one at that.
Growing up poor in Atlanta, Georgia, she was the daughter of a custodian and a seamstress who each left school after the 3rd grade. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school. As a teenager, she then worked to save $1,000 to travel to Texas, and then to Louisiana - where she hoped to find better opportunities.
Arriving in New Orleans, she enrolled in a community college and worked as a seamstress to support herself. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree with the support of a presidential scholarship and thought that she would become a doctor.
But over time, she realized she preferred helping people improve their minds more than their bodies, and she pursued her career in education.
What were her expectations from our work?
Mary Kay was very clear that her main goal was to get her school back on a path to enrollment growth and financial stability. She had been injecting cash into the school over the past three years and couldn't keep it up for more than a few more months.
After our second glass of wine, and while her daughter had stepped out for a smoke, she confessed to me that her true dream was that Jasmine would come to work with her at her school.
Mary Kay had just gone through a tough divorce and felt she still owed a lot to Jasmine. The region was also going through tough times, so Mary Kay wanted to assure continuity of leadership for her school as well as help with Jasmine's career in education.
But with her school in dire straits, she would never ask her daughter to jeopardize her career and join a sinking ship.
It had already been two weeks from when we had started implementing our signature digital enrollment funnel that included ad creation, copywriting, ad management, landing page design, and inquiry follow-up.
We were also supporting event management through volunteer recruitment and guest speaker outreach.
Thirdly, we were executing some light refinement to the school's brand, since our surveys had confirmed an already strong brand awareness in the community.
Finally, we were also aiming to improve their yield through campus tour coaching for the admissions office and a couple of enrollment managers.
Failure to Launch
I remember visiting three months later, and the team had completely dropped the ball.
I had pushed them to produce an additional layer of improvement actions for their enrollment growth, but I had not prepared them to follow through. The outcome? An ever-increasing backlog of tasks and a team running around in different directions like headless chickens.
I felt personally responsible.
One late night sitting in the hotel lounge and feeling exhausted, I made this realization: Above all else, we had to first help Mary Kay's team improve their execution.
All actions around enrollment growth would have to wait...
We had to begin with an alignment process within the school management team and refine their organizational focus.
Why Hoshin Kanri?
This is where I decided to put my past life to work.
Before my career in school marketing, I used to be the head of operations for a large European pharmaceutical manufacturing company.
I had teamed up with a Toyota consultant who taught me all about Strategy Deployment (Hoshin Kanri). Together we applied it for more than seven years throughout twelve manufacturing plants.
Mary Kay was kind enough to accept being our guinea pig in this new venture. Within one week, we had started Strategy Deployment across her entire school and staff.
We would focus on converting her school's strategy into actions, behaviors, and daily habits.
What is Hoshin Kanri?
Hoshin Kanri (aka Strategy Deployment) is a cyclic planning and management concept of Japanese origin that is applied on two levels:
i. The strategic planning level
A small number of key, long-range corporate objectives are planned systematically. They are called Breakthrough Objectives, and typically last 2 to 5 years with little change. They are directed at achieving significant performance improvements, or at making significant changes in the way a school operates.
ii. The day-to-day level
We break down long-range strategic goals into daily, weekly, and monthly micro-goals and actions. These micro-goals are then assigned to their respective sponsors and we enact a continuous, systematic, cross-functional monitoring and control system.
The benefits of Hoshin Kanri are:
- Better alignment: gets every staff member pulling in the same direction at the same time by aligning your strategy with your goals, your monthly priorities, and the daily actions and behavior of your staff members.
- Improved Consensus: opens up new channels of communication between school leaders and project owners, which greatly improves the quality of your school's shared knowledge about its processes, people, and relationships.
- Enhanced Buy-in: forges new relationships necessary to execute the strategy. By engaging multiple levels of the school in genuine give-and-take negotiations, your staff understands the “why” and can easier commit to the “how”.
- Deeper Organisational Focus: focuses the entire school team on the vital few, rather than the trivial many.
- Integrated cross-functional cooperation to achieve breakthroughs.
- Holistic step-by-step planning, implementation, and review processes for controlled and sustainable change.
- Clear annual targets derived from long- and medium-term goals that encompass the strategic vision of the school.
Start by gathering up your entire management team (between 6 and 15 participants), break them up into teams of three, and assign team leader roles - with the responsibility of moderating the discussion and taking notes.
1. All teams will then start by cascading your school's 5-year vision into 3 - 5 annual objectives. (1hr)
Your intention here is to involve your entire managerial staff in the strategic goal setting. You want to elevate them out of their day-to-day activities and remind them of your institution’s key mid-term objective.
Here are 5 questions you should be answering in order to set SMART objectives:
- Specific: What exactly will you accomplish?
- Measurable: How will you know when you have reached this goal?
- Achievable: Is achieving this goal realistic with effort and commitment?
- Relevant: Why is this goal significant to you and your life?
- Timely: When will this goal be achieved?
2. You will then break down your annual objectives into 5 - 10 key projects that support your annual objectives and the respective Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to monitor your progress. (1hr)
Your objective here is not to define your projects in an exhaustive and comprehensive way. Aim to establish a set of clear project titles which summarise your area of intervention and how it will bring about improvement towards your annual objective.
Similarly, you'll want to define 5 - 10 KPIs that unite your team towards achieving your common objectives. Remember that the key factor of a successful metric is that it measures your improvement or deterioration compared to past performance. Key Performance Indicators provide the means for tracking progress towards goals. They also have a considerable ability to drive behavior. So it is essential to think through whether the selected KPIs will drive the desired behavior without unintended side effects.
Example KPIs include:
Academics - Graduation rate, Student attendance rate
Finances - Grant money for advancement, Percentage of students on aid
Enrollment - Number of inquiries, Newly enrolled to acceptances, Acceptances to completed application
Retention - Average student attrition rate
Curriculum - Percentage of students in a certain focus, or if you're starting up a stem
Facilities - Average age of buildings, Last audited date of a building, Classroom utilization rate
Diversity - Enrollment of students of color as % of total enrollment
3. Prioritization workshop for annual objectives, annual projects, and KPIs (2hr)
At this stage, you'll typically end up with about 20 annual goals, 15 KPIs and 35-50 projects. You'll need to bring these down to a total maximum of 5-8 annual goals, 10 KPIs, and 15 projects.
To do this, you can use the MoSCoW prioritization method - which is the simplest technique to reach a common understanding between all your stakeholders on the importance they place on the delivery of each Goal, KPI, and project respectively.
The term MoSCoW is an acronym derived from the first letter of each of four prioritization categories - Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won't have.
So, gather four flip charts, or even flip chart pages, and stick them on the wall.
Then, give out a bunch of post-its (3x6" post-its are better so you have enough space for participants to write on).
You'll then ask everyone to write their chosen goals, projects, and KPIs onto their post-its.
This is where the magic happens…
You've set up the whole process for this moment.
You've created a seamless and frictionless way to 'negotiate' the workload required to achieve your school's goals.
You'll invite all participants to stand up, place their post-its in each of the 4 categories, and support their choices through reasoning. You'll see your team start playing around with these postings, discussing where each post-it should go, and having heated but productive debates.
In essence, you'll be observing alignment in the making.
Your team members will be walking around with a set of goals, KPIs, and projects in-hand (on post-its that they themselves have written up) and they will be talking over which of these are more important.
4. Fill out the X matrix. (2hrs)
- 5-year goals
- Annual objectives
- Annual projects & KPIs
- Project sponsors
5. The final step in the process is all about filling out the Hoshin Kanri X matrix.
The Hoshin Kanri X matrix is a single-page document that brings together your school's goals, annual objectives, strategic projects, KPIs, and project sponsors.
The goal of applying the X matrix is to align the long-term needs with strategic projects, identify the most important activities along the way, and list the metrics that you need to improve.
The name comes from the X that divides the matrix into 4 key quadrants:
- Long-term goals (south)
- Annual objectives (west)
- Top-level priorities (north)
- Metrics to improve (east)
At the corners of the matrix are visualized the dependencies between the activities in each section.
On the far right side of the diagram are placed the names of the people responsible for executing the plan inside.
a. List the Strategic Vision & Goals
b. Define Key Mid-Term Objectives
After your long-term goals are all set, list the most important objectives that you aim to achieve in a shorter time frame (e.g. 1 year) and put them in the left quadrant of the Hoshin matrix.
c. Set Short-Term Projects and Metrics
Next, you need to fill the top quadrant with the most important activities that your team has to complete in order to achieve the short-term goals.
The right quadrant is for the metrics that will keep you on track during the time when you are executing your school's goals.
Following this line of thought, right next to the key metrics, you need to list the key stakeholders who will be responsible for leading the completion of the projects in the top quadrant of the matrix.
d. Mark the Dependencies
Last, but not least, you should complete the picture by specifying the dependencies between every listing in your matrix.
To mark the dependencies between the quadrants in your Hoshin Kanri X matrix, you need to place a dot in the squares on the intersections between each quadrant in the corners of the diagram.
Just after the workshop, I remember Mary Kay and her team came up to me to say they felt so much more empowered and so clear about their goals and how they translated into action.
The school is now tracking consistently at close to 90% action closure rate. As a result of team alignment, the school was able to debottleneck its enrollment actions. They have since grown enrollment to 320.
Mary Kay's school is back on a path to financial sustainability and most importantly, her daughter Jasmine has now joined her as a curriculum development assistant.