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You Can't Continuously Improve Your Way Into Something New

The Total Quality Movement and the notion of continuous improvement has made significant contributions to business, industry, and education. Continuous improvement enables organizations and individuals to maximize the potential of a given product, design, or desired outcome. But what happens when that product or design is maximized to the point of diminishing returns? What happens when the desired outcomes and needs change so dramatically that they call into question the very thing that has been the effort of continuous improvement? Those who continue to hang onto the notion that they can "continuously improve" themselves out of the mess their in find themselves continuously frustrated and increasingly obsolete. In short, when there are dramatic shifts in context and direction, continuous improvement becomes a feckless and expensive dead-end. But it doesn't have to. Combined with the notion of design thinking, continuous improvement can once again be called to action and help drive us towards improvement.

Let's look at a simple example to help explain:

The Wright Brothers developed the first "heavier than air" flying machine over 100 years ago. This was not a continuous improvement of the stagecoach or even the emerging technology of the automobile. It was a new, "clean sheet" design informed and helped along by technological breakthroughs like the internal combustion engine. From that point on, a vision of "air travel" drove scientists and engineers to continously improve on this flying contraption. We made it faster, safer, and larger by continuously improving on the original design. Along the way, there were new designs that were introduced to the existing platform - jet engines, pressurized cabins, advanced navigation and flying instrumentation, etc. These new designs fit well with the on-going vision of "air travel." Today those improvements continue but at a much slower pace. Early on, there was a lot of "slack" in the design - there were many things that could be done to improve air travel and we quickly and drastically improved on the design. Over the past 30 or 40 years, however, things don't look much different, do they? The passenger jets from the 1960's don't look much different than those of today. In short, the improvements have slowed down. Sure, they're more efficient, safer, more technically advanced but they still aren't much different. Why? Because the airplane, like any design, has a maximum carrying capacity - a limit to what it can do and become.

In the late 1950's and 1960's when America began to think about space travel, did we seek to continuously improve the airplane to get us to space? Of course not - doing so would have been seen as impractical and unreasonable. Imagine it for a moment: our engineers would have built bigger fuel tanks, put more engines on the jets, increased the expectations for pilots, and recruited the best pilots by providing greater incentives and rewards. Chuck Yeager was a brave and bold pilot - we would have put him in this new and improved jet and instructed him to aim for the moon. Many unfortunate pilots would have followed in his demise, millions would have been spent trying to tweak the airplane to get to outerspace, and we would still not have reached it today. Imagine the world without satellite TV, GPS, and advanced weather tracking and satellites.

But we didn't do that. Why? Because we clearly understood that we had a new vision - it was no longer "improving air travel." Instead, it was "getting a man on the moon." This simple vision statement changed everything. Our engineers and scientists were no longer constrained by the design of aircraft. They could discard old assumptions like: every part of the ship must make it to the destination - (a relatively important element in air travel!); the trajectory had to be horizontal in nature, and; flying requires liquid fuels. Counterintuitively, they even utilized designs intended to take down airplanes - mortars and other ammunition. They were able to utilize the concepts of rapid, explosive power to project an object, leaving behind the very part that projected the device. They were able to consider the notion of a dry power source rather than a liquid fueled one. They were able to utilize what was learned in aviation about stability and control to influence their design but not be constrained by it. Over time, they iterated and approximated their design to maximize its potential.

So what's this have to do with the current debate and discussion around schools? In short, we too often assume that we can continuously improve into something new. Just like the engineers could have never continuously improved the airplane into a spaceship, education cannot continuously improve its current Factory Age model whose vision is to sort-and-select to one that unfolds the potential of every child so that we can compete globally and maintain our status in the world. They are dramatically different visions - equal in difference between "improving air travel" and "getting a man on the moon." We must forge a new and clear vision for our education system and begin to relentlessly move towards that vision, unstrapped yet informed by our past. Once down that road, our collective ability to continuously improve will create rapid and sustainable changes that do unfold the potential of more and more children. It's no longer practical and reasonable - or even defensible - to argue that continuous improvement on our existing design is the road to the future we want. A new vision and design with clear steps to approximate the design and move it forward - that's the practical and reasonable move we need.

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