Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Continuously Improving University

We had a meeting recently with our VC to update him on our progress, and during the course of the conversation we raised the issue common to improvement units in the University and other sectors:sustainability. We have started to find, as we anticipated, and as many academics and practitioners have found, that improvements gained are not always maintained, and that in a culture where continuous improvement is a desirable, if considered at all, the natural tendency can be to assume that improvements are final rather than temporary. It’s also frustrating but common to find that even amongst project teams who ‘get’ the idea of single piece flow, batching up work soon takes over when work builds up.

So, while we are justifiably proud of the improvements we’ve helped to bring about, we’re also conscious that there’s a lot more to be done. In our original terms of reference we clearly had in mind that training and staff development was a key part of our role, and our training programs have been recognised to the extent that other universities are making use of our services. But this is simply not enough.

What we want to help build is a University that does not require management initiatives, customer excellence programmes, performance management schemes, Service Level Agreements and benchmarking exercises to improve, but where improvement comes from the desire and the will of the people inside the organisation.

It’s a bold and possibly foolhardy aim, especially in a highly federal structure like the University, but we believe that it’s one that everyone should be able to sign up to (there aren’t many people who really like wrestling with bad processes and responding to endless queries when things go wrong, although people do enjoy firefighting and getting rewarded for it). But it’s a long-term project, and University senior management have to lead it actively in order for it to stick.
So what are we doing to get things going? We’re going to recommend the setup of a small group of senior leaders to develop a 5 year plan. Their task will be:
  • to look at ways of making planning round proactive rather than reactive
  • to embed ‘lean’ thinking as part of academic and professional services culture
  • to build a culture where process informs strategy just as strategy informs process
  • to look at way of rewarding continuous improvement rather than heroic firefighting
  • to identify major value streams and assess possibilities for improvement

In a year’s time we will have made a good start on this, and in two years we’ll already be the go-to University for others in the sector who want to see how continuous improvement is done.

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