Thursday, 17 April 2014

Process and Process at the AUA

On Tuesday we spent the day at the AUA (Association of University Administrators) Conference in Manchester, where we ran a morning workshop for about 60 attendees. The aim of the workshop was to focus people’s minds on fixing process rather than blaming people. Almost consistently during our projects we observe staff going above and beyond what is required because they are dealing with failure demand or a whole series of process errors that take away people’s time to stand back and fix things. It can be easy to question people’s actions, but harder to take time out to look at the end to end process.

We gave an overview of how and why the Process Improvement Unit was set up, a little bit about how projects are identified and a couple of case studies (readers of our blog will be familiar with this). For me the most useful and interesting part was the discussion that ensued: the majority of universities are starting to think about process, although this is still fairly peripheral and there are challenges in getting buy-in across academic and administrative departments. There was some dissatisfaction expressed about the use of consultants, who don’t always understand the needs of the institution, or aren’t there for project implementation.

Various methodologies are being used (not exclusively Lean), but it was pleasing to hear that the concept of focusing on customers' values and needs is growing in popularity. There was also general keenness to map processes, and our steer was very much to go to the gemba (where the work happens) to see the reality of the processes, rather than the picture in someone’s head.

The rest of the day allowed us to catch up with a few colleagues, make new contacts and hear about the work happening in their universities. A couple of really good plenary and workshop sessions dealing more generally with change and how universities are addressing change. A few mentions of the work that is currently ongoing to produce Diamond 2 - the follow up to The Diamond Report (2011), so it looks like the focus on efficiency and effectiveness in HE is going to continue to be on the agenda for the time being.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Tale of Two Steering Groups - Part 2

Last year the Lean in HE Hub was established ( The Steering Group has representatives from 10 universities in the UK. It was established to promote continuous improvement in HE.

On 3rd April we hosted the second Steering Group meeting. Eight of the ten universities were able to attend. We started the morning by introducing the group to some of the work we've been doing here at Sheffield, and the Head of Counselling Service joined us to talk about the process improvement project she was involved in. Her praise made us blush!

The main business of the meeting covered a variety of things including the creation of an advisory group comprising of senior leaders in the field, specific actions around the website and the LinkedIn group, and plans for the conference that will be held in Cardiff in November 2014.

At lunchtime we were joined by our boss, Christine Sexton (Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services) who formally welcomed the group to the university and contributed to the lively lunchtime debate.

Post lunch, we facilitated a workshop looking at our customers, which will be written up into a paper and shared via the hub website in due course. In short “customer” is still a challenging term for many staff in universities, and needs to be used with caution. However, the feeling was that it is generally becoming more acceptable. We then led an exercise to create an “empathy map” of a student’s view of our universities’ processes. It was the first time some people had used this tool, so it generated some interest. The most interesting conclusion was that we all need to do more to understand our students, and each member of the group identified a short term action to expedite this.

It was an honour and a pleasure to host the day. Sharing time, anecdotes and specific examples with colleagues was both interesting and valuable. We're already looking forward to the next meeting in September.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Tale of Two Steering Groups - part 1

The Process Improvement Unit is a University resource: we send an update to our Steering Group about our progress once a month and meet three times a year. The Steering Group is chaired by the Vice Chancellor, other members are the Registrar, PVC for Science and the Directors of CiCS, Research & Innovation Services and Strategy, Planning & Change. We are pleased that so many members of senior staff take an interest in process improvement.

Our latest meeting was held on 2nd April, and the main piece of business was a review of the unit's progress to date. The report highlighted results from a selection of our projects and also had a selection of general comments from staff about the work of the unit. Next steps will be building on the success of the past year or so, and talking to staff to identify our next tranche of projects.

The other really useful conversation was about lean leaders. We’ve been concerned in PIU that, without a general cultural awareness of ‘lean’ in the institution, the impact of individual projects will be dissipated over time. Working with University leaders at all levels to encourage lean thinking and leadership is a key part of our strategy to avoid process decay, so we were really pleased that the group came up with a number of ideas about how we might start this work. Our next step will be to identify a group of leaders with whom we can progress this work. We’ll be working on the concepts of PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) and continuous improvement that a “Lean Leader” needs to understand, and on the support that they need to give their staff to identify and fix problems at their root rather than "papering over the cracks".

In order to do this successfully, the backing and support of our Steering Group will be essential.