Six Things I Learned By Teaching Quality Monitoring and Improvement to Social Work Students

1. Social work students intuitively understood that the social service agencies they loved had quality problems. Every one I know in the social services understands this. But few talk about it.  These students knew the arenas in which their agencies struggled.

2. Despite the allure of studying just the fancy outcomes that everyone wants to see, like recidivism or sobriety or safety, the students understood the value of honing in on practical, fixable, problems. Many of our agencies struggle with basic things like making social service clients feel welcome, respecting privacy, giving people a comfortable and respectful environment in which to receive service, getting people to come back, getting basic paperwork done (including the most vital stuff like client informed consent). This pleased me. Program evaluation courses and data analysis courses don’t focus on the same things as improvement projects. But these students realized that agencies needed to get some basics right before they could expect to move mountains.

3. Social work students did not want to shy away from the numbers. They were fine with hand calculations of variation  statistics to get a better feel for statistical variation. They would have preferred more depth in learning how to not just interpret statistical control charts, but to develop them, run the analyses themselves. Next time I teach the course I will have them buy student versions of SPC software for excel. These students are too capable to dumb anything down.

4. The quality tools were variously appreciated. The quality field is tool happy. I like this. But I also like cameras and smart phones and gadgets and stuff. If I were to guess from class response, I would say the monitoring tools like dashboards and run charts were really appreciated. At the bottom of the list, I would say SIPOC charts were not appreciated as much I thought they should be (no one used one in their final projects). I think I didn’t sell the value of flow charts as well as I should have. I needed to demonstrate a really bad social service process. Suggestions?

5. The social work students saw the potential of quality professionals to really make a difference in the lives of clients. Social workers, even those who have been a round a long time, often struggle with how to really make a difference. If I have a caseload of 20, how many of these families are really changed by what I do, over what someone else might have done in the same situation? We know it is hard to make a difference. The students saw the potential of the multiplicative effect of solving simple problems. If clients won’t come back because they were not welcomed into an agency the first time, they won’t get better by your service. If you can improve the second appointment show rate from 40% to 80% by changing a few things up front, more people have a chance to get better.

6. My sense that there is a snug fit between what social service agencies need to do better and what the quality field can teach the social services was reinforced. Students, working in real agencies with real clients in real programs, took almost every concept taught and could immediately apply it. They saw what their agencies should be monitoring. They saw what their agencies should be improving. They understood how changes could happen through improvement cycles. They saw how these improvement efforts could go awry and need to change course. They not only “got” things, they embraced things. I left enthused and eager to take these lessons farther and wider and to work to gain more voices for quality in the social services.


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