Continuous Learning & Improvement (CLI) as a tool to integrate equity into crisis decision-making


by Curcio Smith and Lauren King


During crises, such as the COVID-19 and the fight for anti-racism and racial justice, the needs of people and the community rise in number and variety. This often puts heavy strain on social service and education organizations creating a need for quick decisions that ultimately have far-reaching impact. For example, when schools began to close due to COVID-19, many districts had to quickly create food distribution plans with relatively little window for planning. As people are making those decisions and monitoring outcomes, the need for data informed decision-making becomes vital in providing racially equitable services that meet the needs of all members of the community. Continuous learning and improvement (CLI) (an approach to improvement by which a team uses data to refine a problem, sets goals, and implements small tests of change to identify practices that are successful and can be scaled to a larger scopeis) a process that can be extremely helpful in these situations because it forces teams to slow down and integrate perspectives from multiple stakeholders. However, slowing down is often seen as a luxury that can’t be afforded.


The notion of having your team participate in training to enhance continuous improvement skills can feel daunting. Time and resources are limited and it is easy to deprioritize these types of trainings. However, CLI is not about learning a whole new way of thinking, but rather infusing current ways of problem solving with inclusive community feedback. For example, CLI does not require learning new ways of brainstorming solutions, but rather teaches ways to organize brainstorming which support a root cause analysis as opposed to surface level explanations. The tools taught in CLI build upon the instinctive desire to identify a problem, investigate the cause and create an effective solution. Equally important, CLI is built upon principles that have been tested and utilized by Lean Six Sigma, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and Columbia Law School’s Center for Public Research and Leadership. This means these processes have been shown across numerous sectors and organizations to support the notion of slowing down now so you can address ineffective processes in a way that enhances efficiency. 


While crises can bring about workloads that stretch our teams thin, shying away from racial equity work is not an option, as it can have dire consequences for communities of color already burdened by systemic inequities. Equity in the Center – a nonprofit that works to shift mindsets, practices and systems within the social sector to increase racial equity – highlights the goal of having “an equity culture that values the humanity and lived experiences of all persons equally.” Across all organizations, but especially among social service and education organizations, this requires stepping away from assumptions about what people need and want, and giving people space to speak to those needs themselves. In addition to giving space for people to speak to their own needs and desires, the CLI process also integrates those people’s ideas about how to create and implement solutions that accelerate outcomes for group facing persistent disparities. 


Although CLI was not originally created to address racial equity, the processes and related tools naturally support integration of a racial equity lens into decision making. The process creates opportunity and demand for seeking information directly from stakeholders, as opposed to relying on instinct, individual experience and assumptions alone. This translates into more informed root cause analysis that highlights existing disparities, as well as opens the door for community authority to be embedded in the generation and implementation of solutions to overcome those disparities. 


CLI is not a one-size-fits-all approach: it leaves room for adapting tools to best fit the needs of the team. Here are three specific ways CLI can be most helpful in ensuring racial equity is at the heart of decision-making during a crisis:


1. CLI is built upon data-driven decision-making. Throughout various steps of the process, teams are expected to identify variances in outcomes (eg- differences related to race, gender, age, socio-economic status and other social factors) and examine the institutional, structural and systemic factors of what may be causing this variation in outcomes across groups.  This allows teams to become more aware of patterns among students/clients that are not benefiting from current programming. For example, in a recent collaborative community partner meeting, the group was intimately familiar with student absenteeism and could list a number of factors that were contributing to the problem. However, once presented with a data chart, they were able to see that some students were absent more than 14 days, which classifies them as chronically absent. Distinguishing between students who are chronically absent versus students who were sometimes absent helped the team become aware of the need for different types of interventions. It also allowed them to brainstorm about solutions that would allow them to remove barriers that stifled attendance for certain groups of students. Without that data, they may have been likely to use the same type of intervention for all students, which may have further exacerbated existing attendance disparities. That same approach to teasing apart data to look at sub-groups with a focus on race, combined with critically examining the institutional and systemic causes, can ensure that racial discrepancies rise to the attention of stakeholders. That in turn creates opportunities for leaders to be more intentional, and to not use the same approach for all students/families, if in fact it’s showing to be less impactful for students of color.


2. Tools that support the CLI process can be used outside the full process to support organized brainstorming sessions. For example, the Impact/Effort Matrix,a tool we teach in CLI 201 that helps visualize where ideas fall in regard to the amount of effort it takes to implement compared to the impact it will have, can be used in planning sessions as teams decide which projects they have the current capacity to pursue. Addressing racial equity can feel overwhelming, so this tool can help you identify which ideas are “quick wins” vs which ideas will require more long-term investment. Thus, enhancing the chance that teams ensure they are making meaningful progress towards racial equity, and not getting paralyzed with having too many ideas and not knowing where to start.


3. CLI encourages teams to make use of  racial equity impact assessments at each step of the process to ensure equity stays at the forefront of information gathering, analysis and decision-making. These assessments help teams to ask themselves reflective questions that are key to ensuring their decisions are supporting racial equity (eg- are the people being impacted by the decision part of the decision-making team?). Having this taped to your computer monitor or sitting on your desk can be a great physical reminder to integrate equity into your work. Race Forward shares great information about how groups have used these assessments.


Admittedly, CLI alone cannot eliminate racial disequity. However, integrating CLI into your organization is an opportunity to consciously make data informed decisions that are rooted in community authority. Whether it’s a crisis or not, as a community, we can no longer do anything other than prioritize racial equity.


To learn more about a complimentary workshop that provides a foundational overview of the CLI process and supporting tools, click here