Failed Change Management at LA Unified School District

Last month, there was a major controversy over the Los Angeles Unified School District’s decision to largely scrap their Healthy Lunch initiative.  In a widely heralded project to replace corn dogs, nachos and other ‘junk foods’, the district planned to introduce a significantly more nutritious menu  with items such as curries, pad thai and jambalaya. For a generation raised on McDonalds, this was a humongous change!

The district tried a large scale taste test in 2011, gathering more than 300,000 comments, with students, for the most part, embracing the new foods and in general, approving of the new menu.

However, when it was rolled out to the entire district (which has nearly 700,000 students), the results were a 180 degree turn.  The students rejected the new lunch menu entirely, with thousands of students skipping their lunch entirely, or throwing their untouched plate full of food in the trash.  A black market of chips and sodas immediately emerged and the school district reversed course on its 650,000 meals-a-day program, bringing back favorites like pizza and hamburgers.

To be fair, the district is not abandoning the Healthy Lunch project entirely, and will be continuing to introduce new and healthy foods to the students, however, the media damage has been done and for an entity that spends over $20 million a year on just fresh fruits and vegetables, the waste in time and resources gas left a black mark across the board.

As we look back, the question must be asked – How could something which fared so well in a test program (which appeared to be quite large) utterly flop when put into production?

While there are many possible answers to this fiasco, the one I would like to focus on today is that of rolling out a change in phases.  Yes, the district conducted ‘tests’.  However, the next step was the immediate implementation of the product (in this case, 650,000 meals a day) across the board.  There was no intermediary step of trying the new lunch in one or two schools for a few weeks or a month to ensure that the quality of food was the same as the test!

We all know that it is quite easy to look good for 30 seconds, to prepare one delicious dish to be sampled, to show only the best of your product when it is time to sell.  However, the real test is whether you can look good day after day, dish after dish.

Rolling out a new product, whether it be food or the latest software, is never an easy task when thousands, or in this case hundreds of thousands of Customers are involved.  Trialing it in a pilot is great, and pushing it out in phases after the trial is even better.  If the LAUSD has done so, they would have been able to ensure that the same food quality that the students embraced during the taste tests was maintained by their suppliers for an entire school, and then several schools, and so on.

This would have given time to listen to their students (a.k.a. The Customer) and to catch any issues before they emerged on the front page of the LA Times.

The lesson for us is clear, the challenge is up to us to apply it as we roll out changes to our own Customers.

Thanks for reading, now I have to go try the Tortellini and Butternut Squash.


P.S.  In researching this article, I found this very eye-opening look at school lunches around the world, credit to them for the picture of lunch on Singapore.


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