How district leaders can reassess (and optimize) operations
Having clarity is often difficult during moments of urgency and quickly shifting priorities—such as our school closures and transition to remote learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. But each day, district leaders are making discoveries: We weren’t prepared for this or that; we hadn’t accounted for every contingency; or, perhaps, we’ve stumbled upon a better way to manage this particular task.
That’s why school districts and personnel at every level of education should be taking this time to reassess their systems, processes and vulnerabilities to optimize what will eventually be a return to some degree of normalcy. But it won’t happen overnight.
We suggest that administrators take a three-phase approach: Take immediate remedial actions where you can in the short term, plan for an eventual transition back to a more recognizable learning environment, and document what new workflows should be permanently adopted as best practice for the long term.
Phase one: Triage for today
Literally overnight, educators and administrators were thrust into an entirely unfamiliar work and teaching environment. Technology needed to be learned and adopted without warning. Employees dispersed to millions of disconnected remote home offices. Nearly everything we took for granted, in terms of collaboration, communication and cooperation, was suddenly taken from us. And many instantly discovered the limitations and vulnerabilities that few had accounted for.
School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and support staff to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed for the long term.
Access to systems and documents has proved challenging. But work needs to get done. Meetings needs to happen. Projects need to move forward.
All of this underscores the need to quickly establish and document new workflows, new teams, new processes for planning, and new systems and technology that live in the cloud or are accessible to anyone who needs information, 24/7.
Amid all of our other urgent priorities, administrators and educators should be documenting proper workflows that account for each of the following:
- Tasks: Capture explicit documentation of all required tasks to complete a given project.
- Teams: Make sure all tasks are assignable to ensure completion and inject accountability.
- Timelines: Create project milestones that are clearly defined and realistically attainable.
- Metrics: Measure progress and success against preestablished desired outcomes.
- Prompts and reminders: In times of uncertainty, teams will need (and must respond to) built-in alerts and prompts when deadlines approach or new priorities arise.
- Collaboration: Multiple teams may need to collaborate on overlapping projects. Create safeguards against tasks being missed due to workflow handoffs or unclear accountability.
Once decided upon and documented, leverage available technology to create one centralized knowledge base and project management tool, accessible remotely. Harnessing workflows into one centralized location will ensure that nothing gets missed or skipped, and can account for new workflows that might come along as priorities shift or change.
Phase two: Transition to tomorrow
A return to regular education is coming, and we know there will be demanding deadlines and daunting decisions equal to those we are grappling with today.
If uncertainty can be mitigated, now is the time to do it, when it is most relevant and obvious. School districts should be encouraging administrators, educators and support staff to document where the vulnerabilities and shortcomings emerged, so they can be addressed for the long term—and to avoid a painful transition in the nearer term.
It may be time to plan for workflows and processes to be updated, especially considering that each individual workflow and task force may have several subworkflows, and, perhaps, even disparate teams collaborating at different times.
Here are a few transitions we can anticipate now, for which workflows and centralized knowledge bases can be established:
- How will we track and process the return of devices that have been assigned out, and who is assigned to each subtask?
- What is the new process for building preparation and maintenance, following the sudden dispersal of maintenance personnel, including timelines and accountabilities for reopening facilities?
- What updates to registration workflows may need to be made if registration for the new school year is in a compressed time frame or needs to occur remotely or digitally?
- How do our teacher and student evaluations need to be addressed, given how the final weeks of this school year’s curricula were delivered?
- What changes need to be made to accommodate school lunch provision, both over the summer and should another similar crisis arise—delivery or centralized pickup?
- Districts may have been preparing to roll out a new math series in the fall, for instance: Will workflows need to accommodate new realities and timelines?
- How will summer school be administered?
- Are there necessary changes to scheduling and processing of material assets, such as bus maintenance?
- As budget deadlines approach, how can we build in scenarios, given the many unknowns?
Technology is better equipped to manage these tasks, workflows and scenarios at scale than humans or even static spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. In most cases, the data to make informed decisions and create optimized workflows already exists and is readily available.
Phase three: Adopt to adapt, and stay adept
What many discover during times of crisis is that processes and procedures adapted out of urgency or necessity can actually be adopted as best practices going forward. In fact, the quicker, most efficient way to accomplish priorities can be discovered and then defined to make our teams more effective, while reducing costs and eliminating unnecessary exposures to human error.
The first step is moving away from paper and into digital environments. Next, make sure that data and technology is universally available and accessible—anywhere, anytime by anyone who should rightly have access. Lastly, allow (or force) technology to do the heavy lifting of planning, coordinating and measuring successful projects and collaborating teams.
Your new workflows and systems should allow you to:
- plan and prepare for the unknown
- proactively put processes in place and document workflows
- account for contingencies
- consider various and, perhaps even unforeseen, scenarios
- trigger alternate paths, as appropriate
- maintain a centralized knowledge repository that can be shared among existing team members and in perpetuity, as personnel turnover continues at pace for the foreseeable future
School district leaders may find it challenging to manage the complexity of workflows even under “normal” circumstances. Maybe “normalcy” will return soon, but in the meantime, increased urgency and shifting priorities can create or elevate margin for human error. If we can use this challenge as an opportunity to modernize and optimize workflows, we will all be better for it—both in standard operating procedures and when the next crisis presents itself.
This discipline and attention to detail in the short term will build better habits for the long run. Once we emerge from crisis mode, we should take comfort in the lessons learned and the uncertainty conquered.
Linda Kraft is director of customer engagement at Munetrix, a Michigan-based data analytics and management firm serving school districts and municipalities across the country.
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