Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Continuous Improvement in Child Protection

I concluded my previous post by observing that all too often innovations that make considerable initial impact are often followed by a period of sustained retrenchment during which the benefits are eroded. In this post, I want to develop that thought by looking at thinking which took place largely in Japanese industry in the middle of the twentieth century.

I have just been re-reading a book that I first read in the 1990s, Masaaki Imai’s Kaizen, the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1986).

A very simple, but important, diagram appears on page 7. It is highly applicable to current debates about improvement and quality in children’s services and child protection. You can find many examples of this diagram on-line. Here is one example.

Kaizen (pronounced Ky’zen) is a Japanese word which roughly translates as ‘improvement’. According to Imai, Kaizen is one of three functions that any business or organisation needs to carry out to produce goods or services which fully meet the needs of end-users, the other two of which are Innovation and Maintenance.

Imai thinks that typically Western organisations (especially manufacturers of the 1980s and before) recognised the importance of only Innovation and Maintenance, while Kaizen was initially conceived and developed in Japan.

‘Maintenance’ is a self-explanatory concept. Imai defines it as “… activities directed toward maintaining current technological, managerial and operating standards” (op. cit. page 5). In contrast ‘Innovation’ is about replacing those standards with new, and hopefully better, ones. Innovation concerns what are often ‘drastic’ changes resulting from significant investments in technology, equipment or working practices.

Imai argues that those Japanese manufacturing companies which took the world by storm in the 1960s and 1970s did so because they practiced Kaizen in addition to Maintenance and Innovation. In contrast to Innovation, Kaizen concerns small improvements which result not from large developments driven by senior management but from the activities of all employees “… as a result of on-going efforts” (op. cit. page 6). Whereas Innovation has traditionally been conceived as the responsibility of senior and middle management, while Maintenance is largely the province of workers and supervisors, Kaizen involves everybody at every level in the organisation working together to identify, co-ordinate and implement small scale improvements on a regular basis.

Imai does no disparage Innovation. Rather he believes that it must be complemented by Kaizen in bringing about improvement. Innovation involves periodic step-changes, while Kaizen is a continuous process which happens all the time. The effects of Kaizen are small-scale in the short-term, but cumulate to significant improvements over time. While Innovation is unpredictable, often depending on technological breakthroughs, Kaizen is gradual but constant.

A visual representation of Innovation + Maintenance looks like a staircase, but with the treads sloping downwards as the breakthrough improvements (innovations) are eroded overtime; maintenance is never perfect. In contrast a visual representation of Innovation + Kaizen + Maintenance has the staircase treads sloping upwards. In between innovations standards are incrementally raised by Kaizen activities.
Imai believes that Kaizen implies everybody being involved in identifying needs for improvement which in turn involves identifying problems which need to be solved. These may concern very small parts of the overall process, such as the way work passes between different teams or the accuracy or reliability of a particular business process or machine. In a service context, what may be at issue are problems relating to seemingly trivial service components, such as the way a form is completed or how a telephone enquiry is handled. As each problem is solved, so the overall operation improves little by little resulting in sustained gains in productivity and quality.

Imai provides an excellent table (Figure 2.1, page 24) contrasting Kaizen and Innovation. Important virtues of Kaizen, in contrast to Innovation, are that it involves everyone at all levels in the organisation, is ‘collectivist’ as opposed to ‘individualistic’, is orientated around people rather than technology and works well when financial and other resources are in short supply.

I hope that by now the implications for children’s services and child protection are beginning to become clear. If Western manufacturing companies have in recent years moved on from those attitudes and practices described by Imai in the 1980s, the same is not true of the types of organisations which deliver services to children in countries like Britain today. In England, many local authority children’s services departments still function as traditional bureaucracies in which management imposes policies and procedures on workers whose primary responsibility is to maintain standards, or else face discipline from employers or criticism from external bodies like Ofsted. Change has traditionally been driven from the top down as a result of small groups of influential people deciding which innovations should take place. The Every Child Matters reforms of the early 2000s were precisely of this type, with all sorts of new structures and systems being imposed as a result of ‘learning’ from enquiries, research and feedback from small groups of influential players.

Since 2010, change has been less formally packaged, but equally driven top-down. Recent initiatives regarding adoption and social worker accreditation, for example, have appeared from the Department for Education (DfE) with little or no connection to what are perceived to be priorities by those working on the front line. The Department has funded an ‘Innovation Programme’, the operation and scope of which is far from clear to the vast majority of people working in the field. There is an ever-present danger that the results of some innovation ‘pilots’ will be unthinkingly imposed across the board with limited consultation.

At the same time, the lot of most workers in child protection and other children’s services functions in England is to do the day job, while maintaining standards in difficult circumstances. The norm is for them not to be involved in questions of how to bring about change and improvement, however gradual. Change and innovation has been reserved for ‘experts’ – Ofsted inspectors, DfE officials, senior managers, policy wonks and academics. And those who have direct up-to-date experience of the daily delivery of services (front line workers) have been conveniently left outside the loop!

If only we could begin to practice Kaizen in children’s services and child protection! Even in the absence of successful innovation, services would become more effective and efficient as a result of continuous and incremental small scale improvements. And, in the absence of new investment and new resources, services would continue to improve, driven by the daily learning of frontline workers and their supervisors.

It would, however, be a mistake to see this as an easy task, because what is required is a shift in culture from top-down to bottom-up. Rather than instructing workers how they can work better, senior managers have to recognise that it is time to begin thinking of ways to listen to those who do the work and to engage with them in building better services. For many at the top, such a change of focus could be painful.

Imai and the Japanese industrialists who introduced Kaizen operated in a manufacturing context. There are, however, no reasons to think that continuous improvement cannot happen in services, even complex professional services such as child protection. If every worker was able to spend just a few minutes each day thinking of ways to improve the service (less bureaucracy, more value-added, fewer mistakes, quality improvements), and if workers’ suggestions for improvement were taken seriously by managers and acted upon, huge numbers of small improvements would amass in a relatively short period of time. Rather than standing still or, more likely, going backwards since the last innovation, small scale improvements would cumulate to lasting beneficial changes. And that would serve child and young people well.