Sunday, 29 June 2014

Advising the Advisers

Some while ago we helped the Student Counselling Service to review and improve their student registration and other administrative processes, with some success. As a result  the Student Advice Centre approached us to help them with their processes. On the face of it, the SAC has the same problems as the Counselling Service: multiple entry points; difficulties in scheduling appointments and balancing the demand from students with other work and priorities, a lack of clarity about the service offering and the extent and remit of the work.
It would be tempting, therefore, to assume that the solution for one could be applied to the other in a biscuit cutter fashion, but this would be a mistake.
Working with the Student Advice Centre last week, we soon realised that their history, position in the University (they are part of the Students’ Union), service offering and indeed processes are very different from the Counselling Service, and therefore approaches to change needed to be based on their unique situation.
So, while the Counselling Service team decided that the appropriate way to improve admissions process for students was to unify the various routes into counselling by introducing a short online registration and a half-hour triage session, SAC were very keen to keep a variety of contact mechanisms - email, telephone, ‘drop-in’ enquiries - to deal with the different student preferences and geographical realities. What SAC realised is that the method of contact should not be used as a way of prioritising work. As one team member said “an email is just a person really”. As a result of this ‘aperçu’, the team decided to unify the process ‘behind the scenes’, so that prioritisation could be done based on need rather than contact type.
As well as providing advantages for the student, this approach made it obvious that time needed to be allocated for advisers to deal with emails in just the same way as it was for drop-ins and other appointments.
It’s also interesting that, while Counselling Service were aware that their drop-in service was a sticking plaster designed to address the problem of lack of time for appointments, none of the SAC team saw their drop-in sessions as part of  the problem before the improvement event. As a result of unpicking the current process, however, they came to realise that drop-ins did not guarantee timely service for the student, and that an appointment system might serve both advisers, who would have more control over their diaries, and students who would have greater flexibility about when they saw an adviser without having to wait for an indeterminate amount of time in a queue.
What does this tell us? For us it’s about making sure we understand what’s happening in the particular place of work, and not assuming that solutions for one place will work in another.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Buying Shinyometers

In process improvement we often talk about “runners, repeaters and strangers”. Runners are the work that happens all the time, that is already well understood and highly standardised. Repeaters are the work that happens on a regular basis, but is perhaps more specialised or requires special expertise to process. Strangers are those pieces of work which are seen as unique and therefore require unique ways of working every time.

Last week we facilitated an improvement event to look at the process for procuring, installing and commissioning expensive research equipment. Because such equipment is only bought relatively rarely (about 5 items per month), and because the kit purchased is different every time, and because the timescale for purchase varies enormously, it has been difficult to create and follow a ‘standard’ process. Every purchase has been treated as a “stranger”.
So why is this a problem? Surely the uniqueness of the kit, funder requirements and timescales necessitates a unique approach every time?
That might be true if the outcome of each purchase was successful installation and use of the equipment, but on too many occasions it is something of a disaster. For instance:
  • the kit needs more power than can be supplied by a 13amp plug, but nobody knew this would be a problem;
  • The kit needs space that we don’t have allocated, because it’s too big to go in Professor B’s office like the last one he bought
  • We can’t buy the kit for 50 days because it needs to go through EU tender, and the funder wants us to spend the money in 30 days
  • The kit needs to operate in a controlled environment (heat, dust, vibration) which we don’t have;
  • The kit needs computing support because it produces 10 TB of data every week which needs to be stored somewhere;
  • and so on
Some of these problems could be foreseen by the academic leading the bid for funding, but many not. The end result is inevitably a great deal of running around by everyone now involved to make the best of a bad job - and the academic, whose interest is starting research using the kit, often finds herself in the position of a project manager, chasing progress through the procurement office, through estates, the computing service and all of the support services who are needed to get the research equipment installed and working.

So one of the aims of the process improvement activity was to move towards treating purchases as repeaters, rather than as strangers. This in turn would make it easier to make sure that all the key people get involved at the right time every time. But could the team do it?

It turned out to be easier than everyone thought. The academics on the team accepted the need for proper planning, research services understood the need for dissemination of information to all parties, estates and procurement saw the advantage in getting involved early on to provide broad-brush figures and ideas on how to proceed. All that remains now is to implement the new process!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Second International Conference on Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education

The fantastic Rozet building in Arnhem
We recently attended the 2nd Lean Six Sigma in HE conference. The conference was held in the Rozet building ( It was a slightly smaller conference than last year's in Glasgow. Initially, I was concerned that this showed a decline in numbers of practitioners using Lean in HE. However, feedback from the organisers stated that timing had been an issue; their advice to next year's organisers was 'don't run it first week of June'.

My next concern was that some of the conference was about using lean practices for improving teaching and research - would this be relevant to me? I was delighted to find out that some of the issues were absolutely relevant, many of the processes that affect teachers and researchers are admin processes and the sort of processes we have been helping people improve. Additionally, it was fantastic to hear people who are involved in core business using lean to help them think about and improve their work.

The conference had discussions about hoshin kanri (strategy deployment) and lean  leadership. This addressed two things that we want to focus on in the next year or so - how can we get our leaders to practise lean and use lean to support their staff and ‘super-processes’? How can we make sure our strategy is supportive and responsive to improvement methodologies? We've got lots of ideas and look forward to sharing them with our steering group next month,

All in all it was a great conference, with representatives from Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States and rather than a sense of decline, the story was very much that lean is  relevant, appropriate and a beneficial methodology for making university processes both effective and efficient. You may wish to read Bob Emiliani's blog about the conference here:

The addition of slide, from second to first floor, in the Rozet building offers an efficient way of getting children out of the library at the end of the day.