What we're doing
Sunrise is using the systems thinking approach to identify and act upon ways of improving the way in which distance learning is managed and administered. Members of the Sunrise team work together with staff in individual DL departments in a staged process called 'Check-Plan-Do'.
Checking the current system
This involves amassing and analysing data in order to build up a 'systems picture' which tells us what matters to our students, how capable our current systems are at meeting student demand, and what the causes of waste are and the impact of that waste. This information enables us to define what the current operating principles (management thinking) are, and what the new operating principles need to be. In systems thinking jargon, this is known as the 'check' stage.
In practice, what this means is that we spend a lot of time
- analysing records of student interactions with us (reading emails, database notes, records of conversations etc);
- working out how long it takes to carry out key processes (for example marking turnaround times);
- analysing student files at random to understand how and when the student interacted with us;
- mapping out current processes - not how we think they are, or would like them to be, but how they actually work in practice
Although the timescales for this are not hard and fast, it typically takes around 6-8 weeks and involves a lot of post-it notes and flip chart paper!
Planning how to put things right
Having identified all of the factors ('systems conditions') which are preventing us from delivering an efficient and effective service to our DL students, and the management thinking ('operating principles') which has led to these factors, the second stage is to formulate an action plan. We start by identifying what our new operating principles are going to be and identify the steps that we are going to take to remove the systems conditions which are preventing clearn flows. At this stage, we then present the plan to senior managers, along with the evidence that we pulled together during the check stage. The point of this is to make sure that we have a clear mandate to proceed with implementing the action plan. So far, our experience has been that the evidence is both compelling and shocking, but you can judge this for yourself by looking at some of the facts, figures and evidence that we have gathered.
The next stage is, of course, implementing the action plan. This means taking students through newly-designed flows, in real time. It also means evaluating the impact of the new flows, dealing with issues as they occur, and taking corrective action. The work is measured so that improvements or areas of concern can be seen at a glance and acted upon accordingly. It's all hands on deck at this stage - the whole systems thinking team is involved in carrying out the actions under the day-to-day leadership of the operational leader for the area (e.g. the department manager) with the support of the systems thinking co-ordinators.
Riding without stabilisers
The whole point of this approach is that it provides a sustainable way of working in the future. Therefore, as we progress through the 'do' stage, the experimental nature of the work diminishes, and so does the involvement of the non-core members of the team. This leaves the staff within the individual DL department free to embed the new ways of thinking and working into day-to-day practice, calling on the non-core members for input and guidance as required. It also means that the other members of the team can work with the next department(s), returning to stage 1 and taking it from there!