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Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Conference Gem

I found my gem at the conference on the last day, at the last session. It was a Friday afternoon, after two days of conference and two days of pre-conference courses. Which means that by then the attendance at the sessions had thinned out considerably. And that’s too bad. I had given my second presentation at the next to last session on Friday, and had a pretty good crowd, but I know a lot of people were already heading to the airport. By the last session people were pretty sparse. I was a bit worn out after giving my two presentations and not having much sleep (which was odd, because I almost always sleep well), and wasn’t planning on going to any of the last sessions myself. None of the sessions looked interesting enough to draw me in, but I decided to go to one anyway. I picked one that was a little different for me, a session about a school district in Texas.

And that’s where I found my gem.

When I got to the room where the session was being held, there was only one other person there. Two more came in, but the first person left, so there were only three of us in attendance. A gentleman from the Aldine Independent School District in east Texas, around Houston, talked about how the performance of the schools in their district made a dramatic turnaround. It was truly fascinating and impressive. In 1993 the school district was in extremely poor shape in terms of performance, and they realized they were in severe crisis and had to do something. At that time they were introduced to the Baldrige Criteria, also known as the Criteria for Performance Excellence. They decided to use the criteria to improve their schools and their performance. And, boy, have they ever. From being at the bottom in 1993, to being an award winning district in 2004 through today, they have made incredible gains.

That in itself is impressive, but how they made the turnaround is a wonderful story. Given that over 80 % of the households in the district are “economically challenged” and near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, makes their results even more impressive. How did they make their improvement? By using the Baldrige Criteria and with a lot of hard work. The Baldrige Criteria itself is just a framework. It doesn’t tell you how to do anything, it just provides criteria that must be addressed if you want to achieve excellence. How you actually address those criteria is up to you. This school district did things like develop an effective communication system district-wide so that everyone knows what’s going on, implemented a peer review system that brought teams from one school to another school for evaluation, which also contributed to greater understanding an learning by the evaluators, and a system for providing structured help to poorer performers that allows them to improve faster.

This little gem of a presentation showed that the tools for improvement, for performance excellence, are there. You just have to use them, and have the will to make them work. That’s where the first criteria, Leadership, comes into play. Leadership provides the will to succeed. If leaders provide the will, you’ll find the way.

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