8 Elements of Continuous Improvement @ SSN

Continuous improvement is challenging but many of the nonprofits and schools that make up the Student Success Network are getting it right. Whether you are just starting on your continuous improvement journey or you’ve been at it for a while, check out the 8 elements we’ve seen drive success in continuous improvement.  


Grounding change efforts in data, especially disaggregated data, can help uncover what needs to be improved, increase urgency, and set a measurable improvement goal. SSN members leverage various data sets to begin their improvement journeys including the Network social-emotional learning (SEL) survey, in-school and after-school student attendance, staff satisfaction surveys, and student feedback on programming. We’ve seen that failing to leverage data at the start can lead to never knowing if you’ve achieved your goal, lack of buy-in, and even burnout. So before jumping in, think: What are we aiming to improve and how do we know it needs to be improved?


How do you better understand what is causing the challenge? Engaging in root cause analysis can help better understand what is really going on and treat the cause rather than the symptom. SSN members disaggregate data to understand which students need which supports (see below), and conduct 5-why analyses and create fishbone diagrams to get to the root cause of a challenge. Without taking the time to look under the hood of your challenge, you might find that you are merely addressing a symptom.


Students, staff, families, and communities should all be considered partners in the continuous improvement process. Engaging the people that are most affected by a challenge in co-designing the solution can result in more equitable solutions. SSN members engage youth as partners in driving organizational change through the Elevating Youth Voice Program and conduct empathy interviews to learn more about a challenge from a users’ perspective. When designing a change, ask yourself: Do we have the right voices at the table?


Change is not a solo effort, and in fact, requires a “strong guiding coalition” to be successful. At SSN, we think about coalition building at two levels: 1) the collaboration that happens within organizations and schools when staff teams engage in a change effort and 2) the collaboration that happens between organizations and schools at Collab meetings, Network-wide events, and informal meet-ups. We’ve seen that collaborating within organizations increases motivation to change, the chance that a change will be implemented, and the change’s overall impact. We believe that collaboration between organizations increases accountability and the quality of the change. Overall, building strong coalitions at both levels leads to faster learning and stronger overall outcomes.


“Right-sizing” a change will help teams move to action and can save teams from investing too much time and resources into an untested idea. A “right-sized” idea is one that doesn’t require lots of resources to implement – think staff time, funds, and planning. If an idea is going to take months to get off the ground, consider scaling back and trying the idea with one classroom or a few teachers. What you learn from trying something small can help you advocate for increased funding or roll-out a more informed idea to a larger group of users in the future. And sometimes, small changes can have a big impact — for example, hospitals implemented a simple check-list that saved hundreds of lives.


Teams that leverage rapid cycles of improvement, or Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycles, learn faster. Engaging in multiple cycles of improvement requires picking a change that is best suited for improvement. A large staff training that is hosted once per year, while an important project, isn’t well-suited for PDSA cycles. The greeting used to welcome students into program, on the other hand, is easy to iterate on because it happens regularly. Every time an idea is tried, you gain evidence about whether it was successful or not. Your learnings help inform future change efforts.


Learning and improving continuously requires ongoing information or data to inform know if a change is leading to an intended outcome. SSN Members collect leading indicators like daily student attendance at programming and # of college applications submitted over the course of their change journey. They view the data in run charts or change over time graphs that include when changes were implemented, to better know if their changes are having an impact and how they should act on them. Tracking and monitoring data in this way helps teams celebrate small wins — how would you feel after looking at the run chart below?


We’ve seen that change is hard and is often not linear. Some teams find it challenging to get a change off the ground, a few teams try a change that is “unsuccessful”, and all teams encounter roadblocks. Successful teams frame the no-gos, unsuccessful ideas, and roadblocks as learning, learning that can be applied to future change efforts. To leverage the learning that comes out of engaging in continuous improvement, members rigorously document what they are learning so they can share with their organizations and the broader network!

Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing change stories from our network that highlight organizations and schools that exemplifying one or more of the elements.

Does your organization or school have a change journey you’d like to share? Apply to present at the SSN Innovates: Learning EXPO to share it with the network. Applications are due April 27th.

Think we missed something? Share your organization’s keys to continuous improvement in the comments section and we’ll try to include you in our next iteration of this list!

Some of our favorite continuous improvement and change management resources:

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Ali Slack

Ali’s goal is to promote a culture of continuous learning and improvement among SSN organizations and practitioners. She believes that those who work closest with youth hold a wealth of knowledge and experience, and thus is passionate about empowering practitioners to be the change makers their students need. Prior to joining SSN, she taught high school as a TFA Corps Member in Atlanta, GA, and later worked as a management consultant where she learned tools and strategies to lead improvement efforts.


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