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  • Writer's pictureMatthew B. Courtney, Ed.D.

Improvement Planning 101: Needs Assessment

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

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As your team sits down to begin its improvement planning process, a good place to start is the needs assessment. A needs assessment is a critical review of your current systems, resources, and existing efforts in order to establish your top priorities for improvement. A quality needs assessment is a crucial element of the improvement planning process. Without a quality needs assessment, your improvement priorities may begin to drift away from your mission and your current reality.

Needs assessments are hard, emotional work. They require you to examine your existing systems and structures with humility. There are many ways to perform a needs assessment, but in this post, I will provide my preferred five step process.

Step One: Review the Data

It should come as no surprise to you that I begin my needs assessment process with a review of the archival data. Take some time to explore the current state of your systems by seeing what your existing data has to say. I love the exploratory data analysis process for this. Its an open ended process by which you wring information out of your dataset like a soaked sponge. Through this process, you will begin to see areas of need within your institution. If you need help with this, check out the free data analysis tools I have built in The Repository.

As you review your data, consider the following questions:

  1. Is there anything in our data that surprises us?

  2. Is there anything in our data that scares us?

  3. What takeaways from this data can we celebrate?

Step Two: Solicit Feedback

The next step in the process is to solicit feedback from your various stakeholders. This likely includes teachers, students, parents and families, and community partners. You can do this in various ways. Surveys are probably the most popular way to solicit feedback from a large set of stakeholders – but you should be careful to avoid the various forms or research bias that could weaken your results. I generally prefer to seek information from a small set of targeted stakeholder interviews and focus groups. In these settings, we can really engage meaningfully and ask the necessary follow up questions that allow us to deepen our understanding of their views.

However, you do this, it is important that you take a critical eye to your stakeholder feedback. Make sure you have developed clear structures for collecting and archiving their feedback and apply rigorous qualitative coding protocols to the final data set so that you can more clearly see the commonalities within your stakeholder comments. Check out this post for more tips on how to analyze stakeholder feedback.

Step Three: Systems Review

Now that you have reviewed your internal data and solicited feedback from the community, its time to take a hard look at your internal systems. Make a list of all the systems that run your institution on a day-to-day basis. Which systems are running smoothly, and which ones are starting to gunk up? Do you have any systems that are no longer necessary? Are any of your systems creating unnecessary or duplicative work?

Consider also how all your systems work together. Your systems should complement one another, and each system should generate data that can be reviewed later. A good tool for reviewing system health is the Muda, Mura, Muri system. I have written about that system in my free eBook “Tools that Drive Continuous Improvement” available in The Repository.

Step Four: Correlate

Now it’s time to take the information from each of the earlier steps and merge it together. What are the commonalities between your data analysis, stakeholder interviews, and system review? The places where these three processes overlap reveal your areas of greatest need. These are the priorities around which you should build your improvement plan. Depending on your current state, there many be one or two commonalities or there may be more than ten. Pick the ones that have the most supporting evidence and stick with those. No more than three. This ensures that you will be able to build a plan that is realistic and attainable.

Step Five: Root Cause Analysis

The last step in the needs assessment process is to perform a root cause analysis for each of the priority areas identified in step four. The root cause analysis is your pivot point between needs assessment and actual improvement planning. There are multiple ways to perform root cause analysis. I like to use the five why system. In this system, you channel your inner three year old and simply keep asking “why” until you have discovered a fundamental flaw in your systems. You can then build out an improvement plan centering around this system.

As you transition from root cause analysis into improvement planning, I want to give you one final step to consider – literature review. There are multiple types of literature reviews available to leaders seeking to better understand their root cause analysis, and the process isn’t all that hard. I’ve written about the steps in my free eBook “Writing a Great Literature Review”. The literature review process will help to jumpstart your improvement planning process by giving you some time-tested suggestions for addressing each root cause you have identified. I hope this post has given you some meaningful food for thought as you begin your improvement planning process. If you haven’t already, make sure you check out the tools I have made available in The Repository. These tools will help you when you get stuck. Good luck on your journey friends!


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