Friday, 31 July 2015

Preparing for a Process Improvement Event

Why is it important?

The majority of our projects are run via Process Improvement Events, usually lasting between three and five days. It is important that PIU and the Project Team are as prepared as possible prior to the event to allow us to fully understand the process and make changes during the week. Without first collecting the data, speaking to people that understand the process and its limitations and the customers of the process in order to specify the value, it is difficult to design a new and improved process.

  • Briefing the Project Team - We like to ensure that we meet and talk to each project team member prior to the event for a number of reasons. Firstly it is important to understand their involvement in the process and their views on the current problems and possible solutions. It is also important that we ensure that each team member knows what to expect during and after the Event. Team members also usually help us with our data collection and this allows us an important opportunity to discuss this.
  • Project Team Training - We deliver a short training session to the project team prior to the event, covering techniques that they will be using during the week, including problems solving, process mapping, identifying value and waste and an overview of Lean.
  • Interviews - we conduct short (30 minute) interviews with different people from across the whole process. We have found from past experience that it is usually more effective to keep the project team to no more than 12 people, otherwise it can turn into crowd control. This often means that all the people involved in the process are not present during the event, possibly leading to missed opportunities for improvement and problems with the current process to be missed and not improved. PIU therefore make sure that we speak to individuals that are not on the project team but have an interest in the improvements and experience of the process.    
  • Data - Data collection is extremely important, not only does it help us to understand the current process and what a new process needs to achieve, it also allows us to compare the process pre-improvement and post-improvement. Using this comparison helps us to understand whether the changes have been effective and what further work or adjustments might be needed.
  • Briefing the Sponsor/Sponsor agreement - The project sponsor is not normally present at the whole event, however they have given the authority to the project team to make the changes needed. It is therefore important to keep the project sponsor updated on any findings from our data collection and interviews as this will inform some of the improvements. We also arrange for the sponsor to open the Event, reassuring the project team of the importance of this process review and the authority they have given the team to make changes. The project sponsor is then invited to attend a presentation at the end of the event where the project team present the improvements they have made and outline any help they may need for the sponsor during the implementation phase.
Catering - As we are asking for so much or a project teams time during the event, we make sure that this is at least partly compensated by drinks and food. Gillian plans and orders different and interesting lunches for over the week and Rachel and Dave always bake.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

100 Hours Student Placement

After 100 hours of very hard work, Anna has now completed her student placement with us, producing a great report on how we can increase student engagement with continuous improvement. The main aim of the project was to understand how the University can better engage with students when improving processes and services that directly involve and affect them. We also wanted to look at the best ways to inform and consult students about any changes and improvements that are implemented.

This week Anna presented her findings to our steering group meeting who found them very interesting. Below is an outline of her project and the key findings.

  • Clear scope - we scoped the project to include undergraduate students only as they make up the larger proportion of our student body and the current methods of engagement and feedback topics for undergraduates are similar across The Faculties. We ensured that each Faculty was represented, rather than just focussing on one.
  • A focus group.
  • An online questionnaire.
  • One-to-one interviews.
  • Development of customer personae (hypothetical archetypes), as a way of understanding the different student types, their characteristics and their needs.

Key Findings
  • 85.2% of students said they would be more likely to respond to a feedback request if it was quick (5 minutes). But 72.9% were prepared to spend 10-15 minutes on something they feel strongly about. A suggestion from the focus group was to design short, five minute questionnaires that could be extended if the student wishes.
  • 71.3% of students prefer to give written feedback. Outputs from the interviews and focus group suggested that this was because it could be done more quickly and that it allowed anonymity, particular important to some students when providing negative feedback.
  • Students sometimes fear the possible negative consequences of giving negative feedback suggesting that feedback could be collected by an impartial party to negate this. Although this was suggested and prioritised by the focus group only 13.9% of the students surveyed felt as though this was necessary.
  • 42.3% of students surveyed would like the opportunity to engage on issues outside of their direct department/course, suggesting that despite the time constraints, students would like more opportunities to help improve the student experience.
  • Only 76.2% of students confirmed that they were asked for feedback on their course. This was surprising given that this research was carried out over May/June when course assessments are sent out to students. The possible reasons for this need greater research, however our focus group suggested that as many feedback requests are sent out as generic departmental emails some may be ignored or missed. They suggested that requests may receive a greater response if sent more personally via course reps or tutors for example.

  • Keep feedback requests concise with an option to extend.
  • Use a range of methods to engage different students such as focus groups and interviews which allow greater detail to be extracted a greater degree of collaborative engagement between the student and The University.
  • Incentives will not necessarily make students more inclined to complete feedback requests however simple gestures such as a free lunch may be an encouragement.
  • We found that the most popular time to hold a focus group was over the lunch period as students said they would be having a break from their studies then anyway.
  • Encourage staff to respond to feedback appropriately, creating a blame free, impartial environment.
  • Communicate to students about how feedback is being acted upon or why certain changes can not be made. Many of the students we spoke to said that they do not respond to feedback requests because they believe that nothing will be acted upon.

It was wonderful having Anna to work on this project, it was particularly helpful for the research to be conducted by a student as she was better placed to empathise with some of the concerns expressed and talk more candidly about the process and experiences raised.

There is plenty more work to be done in this area but Anna’s hard work has given us a great starting point.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Setting the record straight.

There are a number of common misconceptions about the Process Improvement Unit that we are trying to address. Blogging about these is perhaps one of the easiest and most cathartic ways to address these erroneous beliefs, possibly not the most effect though!

The top ten incorrect facts (we hear) about PIU are:
  1. We're all about process improvement projects.
  2. We only run projects via five-day events.
  3. It's just about the process mapping.
  4. We tell people how to improve their processes.
  5. We're all about efficiency.
  6. It takes a long time to get a process improvement project set up.
  7. We use the same techniques for every project.
  8. It's a fast track to systems development.
  9. Use of a manufacturing management model is not fit for purpose for a Higher Education Institution.
  10. Process improvement is a one-off activity (we've been leaned!).
Our response:
  1.  We offer a variety of services and training - not just projects (take a look at our website
  2. We find the five-day event model a very effective approach, but run projects in other ways (workshops, observations and meetings etc.). We agree modus operandi with our project sponsor at project scoping phase.
  3. Process mapping is a tool to help people get a common understanding of how a process works/ will work. The root cause analysis, clear scope, clear set of improvements are arguably more critical to a project than the process map.
  4. The role of the process co-ordinator is facilitative, albeit with expertise in process and lean thinking which we will use to guide and question the group. We should never tell a project team what to do (unless you take advantage of our consultancy service). We do emphasise the value of having a neutral facilitator!
  5. Our view is that  processes need to be effective first and efficient second.
  6. Our fastest timeline, is going from request to event in three weeks, other projects have taken much longer (often because of project team availability). We discuss timings at request and scoping stage.
  7. We have a standard process for running projects, however we use a range of tools and techniques for each project - perhaps we should emphasis this more in our case studies?
  8. We often identify small technical enhancements, and have even run projects that include a developer. However, we are not a fast track to systems development, changes have to follow the standard university process.
  9. More and more universities are using lean and other process improvement methods to improve ways of doing things. Lean in service is an evolving, continuously improving methodology. We hope that our results to date are starting to dispel this myth.
  10. Outputs of our projects are often a short term practical process, there are always further improvements, the project is only the start.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Meeting the FDOs

We've been trying since the inception of the Process Improvement Unit to engage with staff outside the 'centre' - Professional Services. We've had some success with this effort. Many of our projects have involved team members from academic departments, and indeed their involvement has been crucial to the outcomes of these projects.

However, involvement has usually been from the ground up, and departmental staff have attended because they saw the need to improve particular processes. 
What we need now is a more strategic involvement at faculty level, so that we can help with the bigger processes or value streams which really do have an impact on the strategy of the University, rather than purely the operational side of the organisation.
To this end, we set up a meeting with the University's five Faculty Directors of Operations (FDOs) so that we could ask this question: what can we help you with? 
With the help of our Chief Financial Officer, who is very supportive of our efforts and convinced of the benefit of our approach, we tried to stimulate discussion about where our resources might best be directed.
We wait to see whether concrete suggestions are made post-meeting, but the meeting itself was slightly disappointing for us. It's clear that there is a range of understanding and misunderstanding about what we do, about its benefits, and about its sustainability. We need to work harder to remove these misunderstandings.

Friday, 3 July 2015

At the hub

The University of Leicester hosted Tuesday’s Lean HE Hub meeting  ( The morning comprised of the Steering Group meeting where we finalised the arrangements for the September conference (, received updates on the 2016 conference plans and drafted the plan for our annual seminar series. There was also the opportunity to catch up on the lean/improvement activities happening across the HE sector. Consensus seems to be that there are still pockets of good practice, there is a growing appetite for improvement activities (albeit with multifarious models of practice), and that leadership is vital to link activities to strategy, reward and of course support for individual reviews.

In the afternoon the Change Team at the University of Leicester who use the systems thinking approach presented four case studies, an update on the work they are undertaking for the Leadership Foundation/Efficiency Exchange and also some research on their organisation culture web. We also had an opportunity to network and work in small groups to discuss key ingredients for supporting change (and I think that we created some good outputs). As ever it is really valuable meeting with other practitioners and the day has given me some good case studies to bring back to the day job.