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Case Study: Cleaning School

Case Study: Cleaning School

| On 05, Apr 2018

Darrell Mann

In theory, keeping school buildings clean is a simple problem. On the other hand, because it involves people – especially those wonderful balls of chaos called ‘pupils’ – it turns out to be complex. As in complex-adaptive-system complex. Which in turn means that the cleanliness of buildings is an emergent property driven largely by the presence or otherwise of feedback loops. If the wrong kind of feedback loops are in play, the task of keeping the buildings clean can easily slip into a depressing downward spiral of more and more cleaner effort producing buildings that get grubbier and grubbier.

When a school finds itself in this kind of downward spiral situation, it’s a good idea to try and work out what’s driving it. The Perception Mapping process is designed to help do this job. We can make it explicitly relevant by formulating the initial question around the downward spiral issue.

Something like, ‘The school is in a cleanliness downward spiral because…’

Here are the responses we received after posing this question to a number of stakeholders:

As per usual Perception Mapping convention, the right hand column of the table contains the results of the ‘leads to’ analysis – the activity that allows problem solvers to manage the complexity of a situation by examining the relationships between each of the perception statements.

Figure 1 illustrates the resulting Perception Map. The Perception Mapping process forces the discovery of at least one loop, which, if the initial question is framed as a negative one, will reveal the downward spiral (or spirals) present in a situation. As may be seen from the Figure, in this case, there is one such loop. Examination of the five perception statements within the loop reveals a downward spiral stemming from not caring and no consequences. The single most significant perception within the loop is Perception ‘I’, pranks and the passing of blame to someone else. In order to solve the overall cleanliness, then, this downward spiral has to be removed somehow.

Figure 1: Perception Map Of The School Cleanliness Problem

Looking at each of the perceptions within the downward spiral, the one that appears to be the easiest one to influence seems to be Perception B, ‘pupils don’t care’. This might then be the perception we chose to couple with the initial problem statement to form a conflict pair we can submit to the Contradiction Matrix.

When we did this job in this case, we decided to use the new Business Matrix, and mapped the conflict as a Support Capability (i.e. cleanliness of the school) versus Engagement (i.e. pupils don’t care) problem. Which gave us the following Inventive Principle suggestions:

2 – Taking Out
13 – The Other Way Around
19 – Periodic Action
25 – Self-Service

While I’m certain the answer being suggested by these Principles won’t work in every school, what happened in the one where this exercise was conducted was that the cleaning staff were taken out and the pupils were tasked with making sure the school was clean. The pupils, in other words, are the ones quite literally that will clean the school at the end of the day.

What is far more generalizable is the idea that the downward spiral needs to be ‘turned around’ and made into a virtuous one: which is what very quickly happened at the school where the pupils were handed over the task of cleaning. If you’re the person who’s going to have to clean up your own mess, you very quickly learn that you can make life easier for yourself by not making the mess in the first place.

The generalization may, I think, be extended even further. Inventive Principle 13 is something that ought to be contemplated for any complex system environment in which there is evidence of any kind of downward spiral. No need for a Contradiction Matrix, the problem solvers job is to turn downward spirals into virtuous ones. And that in turn usually means using some kind of ‘self-x’ solution strategy.