Guest Column

Picture Perfect: A Model for Voluntary Standard

by Gray Rinehart


Kodak and Fuji last year introduced the "Advanced Photo System," the latest innovation in film and camera technology, promising greater customer satisfaction and better results for the novice photographer.

They worked with several companies, sharing information and innovations. The new film is self-loading, offers user-selectable picture size, and can store magnetic as well as visual information. These are features that current 35-mm film cannot match. The manufacturers worked closely with camera companies to ensure cameras would be available for the new system, rather than make film no one could use.

What can this venture teach us about improving education? I see four lessons.

* Competitors can work cooperatively.

We often hear competition will save education, that turning education over to the marketplace will transform it because competing for students and resources will spur improvements. This misses the point that education should be a system with interconnected and interdependent components working toward a common goal. Competition between system components leads to what W. Edwards Deming, the late quality improvement expert, called "suboptimization." Suboptimization occurs when each part of a system operates as if it were most important, damaging the overall system performance.

To produce the Advanced Photo System, Kodak and Fuji swallowed their pride and worked with their biggest competitors: each other. The benefits of this arrangement far outweighed the disadvantages by dividing the risk and ensuring the new film is standardized across the industry.

Imagine educational competitors—perhaps public and private high schools—working cooperatively on projects that benefit both. Together they could accomplish things neither could do alone. The same could be said for cooperative ventures across district or state lines, where competition is not so fierce but parochialism is. This might blur the lines between the different groups, but the only casualties are likely to be administrators’ or school boards’ little fiefdoms.

Cooperation ultimately is superior to raw competition, a principle basic to continuous quality improvement in learning and in life.

A Common Aim

* Focus on the overall system.

Kodak learned a valuable lesson from a not-so-successful venture, disk film, an innovation the company developed alone and kept to themselves. Disk film did not supplant 35-mm or any other film standards because Kodak operated as if it were alone in the photography industry and emphasized the film over the camera. With APS, they worked with camera companies to tie the parts together into a whole with the common aim of enhancing popular photography.

Are the components of our education "system"—public elementary, middle and high schools, together with higher education, private schools, and home schools—working together toward a common aim? No. The current system is divided and subdivided for the ease of administration, with little regard to the barriers between the components, and a common aim, like common sense, is not so common.

* Develop voluntary standards to ensure compatibility.

On their own, without government prodding, the companies guaranteed their new film will be interchangeable. This commonality, in every industry from batteries to floppy disks, is the cornerstone of our standard of living: an "AA" battery or 3.5-inch floppy disk may be substituted for any other because their respective manufacturers adhere to a voluntary standard.

Contrast this with educational standards. National standards would give students and teachers a solid foundation for quality education. Unfortunately, they are being badly mishandled. Educators are not determining stakeholder needs and developing voluntary standards to meet them. Bureaucrats, politicians, and ideologues are enacting standards from the outside. The resulting rules aim at accountability rather than standardization, at good order rather than improvement, or at pleasing particular constituencies with disregard to the truth. Ultimately, they will stifle innovation and improvement.

Customer Needs

* Improve without consumers clamoring for changes.

Most photographers have been satisfied with 35-mm film and cameras, but the manufacturers themselves were not satisfied. In education, we see the opposite: practitioners seem satisfied, their stakeholders do not.

Customer needs are often different from wants. Hobbyists need to load film correctly but only want to snap pictures. Students need to learn a variety of subjects but want to concentrate on their favorites. Customer satisfaction may mean educating customers on their needs. We may demonstrate, for instance, the superiority of worry-free film loading or how mathematics enhances the study of history. Continuous improvement results from practitioners begging to be satisfied and produces more satisfied stakeholders.

In the end, direct application of industrial models to education is limited. Education is more dynamic and complex than any industry, and human beings are not piece parts. However, the process by which these two industrial giants worked together is adaptable to education. Together we can develop voluntary standards for excellence. Living up to them we can satisfy our stakeholders and transform education into the coherent system it should be, with all parts pursuing a common aim of excellence and joy in learning.

Gray Rinehart, a consultant on total quality based in Colorado Springs, Colo., is the author of Quality Education, published by the American Society for Quality Control.