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School District Takes Lesson From Industry in Putting Heads Together

February 23, 1986|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Teachers, secretaries, janitors and other employees of the Centinela Valley Union High School District will soon be given a voice in the daily operation of the 6,000-student district through a novel experiment in shared management.

The system, called Quality Circles, has been credited with helping improve productivity in Japanese industry, and several hundred major American firms have started using it in recent years in an attempt to improve efficiency and worker performance.

First District

But Centinela Valley, which operates Leuzinger High School and Lloyde Continuation School in Lawndale and Hawthorne High in Hawthorne, may be the first public school district to formally adopt the Quality Circles--small groups of employees that, in effect, tell the boss how jobs could be done better.

State and county education officials said they were not aware of any other district, in California or elsewhere, using the system developed by private industry.

"It's quite a departure from the traditional, hierarchal style of governing schools," said Jean Katz, a management development consultant with the county Department of Education.

McKinley Nash, the superintendent who persuaded his school board to give the idea a try, said that traditional hierarchy will still exist in Centinela Valley even after Quality Circles are set up in all its departments.

But, he said, administrators at all levels will be expected to pay close attention to the suggestions of their staffs before reaching decisions on everything from how to trim a bush to the best way to teach irregular verbs to students.

"In the past, when an employee complained, the supervisor could say, 'I am the boss and you shall do it my way,' " Nash said. "But now the worker can say, 'Hey, we're doing this backward,' and the boss will have to sit down with his workers and listen to how they think the job should be done."

Focus on Solutions

The result, Nash believes, will be a "non-adversarial style of management" in which supervisors and employees can focus their talents and energies on solutions to problems, rather than on bureaucratic maneuvering to gain advantage or to avoid blame.

Nash, who was appointed to his post in 1984, said he first learned about Quality Circles while working for a school district in Illinois.

"Some friends there showed me how it works in private industry and I began thinking about how it could be applied in schools," he said. "I saw it as a way to help people satisfy their own needs through interaction with the bigger group.

"This is a highly regulated, people-intensive business with a constant, ongoing need for solutions to problems, for resolutions to people conflicts. We need the Quality Circles even more than an industrial company like Northrop does."

Nash said he approached the aircraft division of Northrop Corp. in Hawthorne and asked the company to help set up in the school district a Quality Circle program based on the model used at Northrop and at other South Bay aerospace firms, such as TRW Inc., Hughes Aircraft and Rockwell International.

About six months ago, he said, Northrop agreed to add the project to the partnership agreements it has with local schools. Under the agreements, widely promoted by South Bay firms in recent years, companies contribute expertise, equipment or money for school programs designed to turn out better-trained graduates for the labor market.

Two of Nash's administrators, Eleanor Hooper and Jean Lukas, took Northrop's training course on Quality Circles, and company experts have been assigned to help set up the management system in the schools.

Hooper said the first circles will be formed next month at Hawthorne High School among secretaries and other clerical workers. From there, the program will expand to clerical workers at Leuzinger, then to teachers, groundskeepers and other employees throughout the district over a period of at least two years, she said.

She said a typical group will involve 10 to 20 employees in the same work area, a facilitator to keep track of group activity, and a group leader who will usually be a member of management.

The groups will meet on district time for one hour each week to review conditions affecting their work, she said. Leaders and facilitators will receive three days of training at Northrop and the circle members will take part in six one-hour sessions on how to analyze problems and their causes, she said.

Explain Rejection

The groups will be taught standard techniques for working out solutions and presenting them to their supervisors. The supervisors will not be obliged to accept a proposal, but must explain the reasons if they reject an idea, Hooper said.

"The person who actually does the job, whether it's teaching a class or making a cabinet, is presumed to be the ultimate authority on how to do it best," she said. "This system will help us make fuller use of that experience."

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