Friday, 20 December 2013

A year of process improvements

During the course of projects we’ve run over the last year the question often arises as to the impact our changes are having on other areas. It’s certainly a worry that we are doing exactly what we ourselves point out as a failure of departmentally focussed thinking: improving things that we know about and making things that we don’t know about worse as a consequence. The solution is not simple - defining the boundaries of a project is key to project success, and that does mean other interests may be ignored. Understanding who these other stakeholders are, and what their interest is in the process, is critical, and although we include consideration of stakeholders and benefits when scoping the the project, we perhaps need to give this more thought for projects in the new year.

As well as thinking about the whole institution we need to make sure that individual projects are not an end in themselves, that people do not just think ‘we’ve been leaned’ and therefore don’t need to do anything further with the process. After all, it’s exactly this way of thinking that led to process problems in the first place. Without continuous improvement all we’re doing is shifting the chairs around. We’re not sure that people involved in our projects always ‘get’ this important principle.

It’s often difficult, in a University environment, to talk about ‘the customer’- and we ourselves are suspicious of the strictly commercial approach to what should be a ‘community of scholars’. But often we find that office processes are focussed on the needs of the office, rather than the needs of the student or staff member who is the recipient of the service. It’s hard to change this mindset - after all, the office is the organisational unit which drives and carries out work. How to change this? We need to encourage people to think first about value for the beneficiary, not cost to the organisation.

And this applies to the way that we measure what we do - how many performance statistics are to do with how an office is working (the number of forms it gets through, the cost of providing the service) and how many to do with things the customer cares about (the time it takes to deal with a request, the number of times things went wrong)? Measures need to be simple and actionable, and they should be focussed on those things that can make a difference to service provision, not office efficiency. As quoted by our VC “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are” (Ortega y Gasset).

We’re not immune to this way of thinking ourselves - after all we too work in an office environment and have our own set of tasks and targets. Next year, as well as asking our project teams to think about what the University is for, we need to ask ourselves that same question.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Access to staff accounts and services

Recently, we ran a five day rapid improvement event looking at staff user account provisioning. This process primarily begins when a new member of staff starts employment with the university and they need a staff card and computer account to access key systems and services. However, there is additional complexity depending on staff type, a role change for an existing member of staff, staff retiring or leaving and so on.
During the five days we unpicked the current process which had a number of start points according to staff type and how the enquiry was raised. We also started to create a master list of services that can be requested following the creation of a set of default accounts. This list is long and still requires work to clarify who across the university grants access and how this should be requested.
All in all, the team started to understand how many days (sometimes weeks) of lost work, frustration and inconvenience is can be caused by this complex, unclear process. In addition, the University is constantly evolving and staff types change to meet new needs. We were fortunate to have representation from a number of academic departments and Epigenesys (an enterprise company linked to the university) so that we could focus on getting the process right for all staff types.
The outcome was the draft of a document that will clarify the long list of additional services and access methods (this work will be carried out over the next month), simplification of the process for casual workers employed by the University, working out a way of improving user account provisioning for non standard types of staff/ worker and agreement to undertake some small system enhancements to allow this process to happen before staff start at the university, with the ultimate aim of all staff having access to the right services at the right time.
There is still some further work needed to achieve these aims, but by mid-January some of the initial quick wins will be implemented, and the medium term work will benefit from an improved process and shared staff vision of what is possible and we should be working towards.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Improving the Improvers

We've been in Edinburgh for the first meeting of the Lean in HE Hub committee meeting. The group has been created in response to the growing practice of lean in HE, we will create a website which will be a source of information about what's happening with lean in HE and there will be an annual conference. For me, the opportunity to meet with fellow practitioners and focusing on making continuous improvements in our practice was invaluable. The meeting was great, the networking  is always good, but perhaps most useful for me was the afternoon workshop where we discussed how to best support and develop lean advocates; the session generated loads of ideas and I can't wait to put some of the ideas in practice.

The next day, I took the opportunity to go up to St Andrews and meet with the Mark and Finlay. St. Andrews has had a Lean unit since about 2007, having the opportunity to meet them, see their training room and discuss opportunities and problems was incredibly helpful. Immediate actions for me will be thinking about ways of reminding project participants that we work for The University of Sheffield, rather than in their own departmental silos. I also want to think about props to use for walking participants through an improved process, maybe even some lego mini figures? We also shared some ideas around 5s, ground rules for events and how to focus the group onto the needs of the student.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Training our Project Participants

We’ve just run a training event for the project team for the Staff User Account Provisioning Project. The training is a hybrid version of the lean awareness training and the process mapping training we deliver to small groups.

Lean principles are still relatively new concepts to our project participants, the training frequently generates interesting discussions about the term ‘customer’, ‘student’, ‘user’, ‘beneficiary’ etc moving people on from questioning terminology to focusing on the main concept of designing processes with the primary customer's needs and desires in mind, can be challenging. Equally concepts of value, waste and flow can be thought-provoking and quite difficult for staff who are part of a process that is managed across many different university departments.

One of my favourite parts of the training is process mapping the tea making process, it always creates lively conversations, and people struggle to work through the steps of the process (often forgetting to add water/ turn the kettle etc). Staff find it a helpful introduction into the basic concepts of process mapping.

Last but not least, an exercise that involves lego; it requires people to go through various iterations of lego ziggurat building which helps people to understand the priciples of single-piece flow, pull and continuous improvement, so far it has been incredibly well received and it really helps people to gain an understanding of lean.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Process Stats

I’ve just finished six days training in advanced statistics. The course focused on understanding the data we collect and making sure that we collect the right sort of information. We also discussed how to interrogate the numbers to fully understand how a process is working (both current state and following improvement).
As you might expect the statistics often prove what common sense/ gut instinct might have prompted us to look at e.g. days with less staff lead to longer customer waiting times. “The theory of probabilities is at bottom nothing but common sense reduced to calculus. “Laplace, Théorie analytique des probabilités, 1820. Of course, data can also be used to prove/ disprove a lot of theories, and when a project team has certain ideas about what may be causing a problem with a transactional process we can use the data to give a shared understanding of what is a problem and indeed, what is the biggest problem we need to focus on.

For many of our process improvement projects we do not have a lot of accessible data about how the process is behaving; so often we need to collect it from scratch. One of the biggest challenges is collecting sufficient amount to be statistically useful without overloading staff that are involved in processes with additional workload. Frequently, we would love to have more, but we need to ensure that our collection methods are lean and focused only on the scope of the improvement project. To me one of the biggest advantages of using statistical measures is following on from the improvement phase, providing staff with basic control charts or building in simple data collection methods that enable people to monitor their processes and continue to identify problems and areas for future improvement.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Effective Explanations


As part of the data collection for our projects, we regularly talk to process stakeholders. When chatting to a member of staff recently, they gave an example of poor service that they had received. Part of the reason for the poor service was that the 'process expert' was so familiar with the process, they did not demonstrate sympathy towards the person experiencing the problem; indeed they were off-hand and the customer felt patronised.
This conversation led me to reflect on my own professional practice, with particular reference to facilitating rapid improvement events. During our events we aim to understand the current state process and start implementing improvements; with as many people who are involved in doing the process being represented.
Perhaps, I am as guilty as the expert in the example above, for taking for granted how easy some of the key steps are to understand? Many of the people in the group will not be familiar with process mapping, root cause analysis, concepts of value, waste etc My service to them, is clearly explaining the how and why in an approachable, customer friendly way. Feedback to date has been good, but it is a risk for practitioners that as we become more immersed in a subject, we greater distance ourselves from the people we want to help.
The two pillars that we adhere to are ‘continuous improvement’ and ‘respect for people’, another timely reminder that both of these pillars are relevant to all facets of our work.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Professional values = PIU values

At The University of Sheffield we have a set of values for Professional Services (non-academic departments). It’s interesting to note how well the work of PIU aligns with these values.
  1. Customer focused: when we work with our project team we get them to reflect on the 'voice of the customer', to design processes with the customer in mind and to identify value-added steps as those which the customer would be prepared to pay for.
  2. Taking pride in our services: project sponsors, project teams and process beneficiaries have reported that improvement of our business processes fosters genuine pride in the service that is being delivered. Also, in PIU we are very proud to be helping people make things better. It's an amazing job helping people make change for the better.
  3. Professional leaders in and beyond our sector: we facilitate projects which focus on creating excellent processes. Rather than benchmarking and mirroring other institutions, we encourage the team to produce the best outcomes for the University of Sheffield.
  4. Empower our staff: our rapid improvement events have a large proportion of staff who are frontline, and work with the process on a day-to-day basis. Feedback from our events has shown that staff feel empowered to effect change and find the involvement in process improvement developmentally rewarding.
  5. Committed to improvement and excellence: we encourage our project teams to continue to improve their processes. Taking some time each day to make small improvements helps to avoid process rot, and encourages staff to create excellent processes. We practise what we preach, as lean practitioners, and continuous improvement is core to our work.
  6. Partnership, communication and openness: our project teams are formed across departments and faculties, to ensure we can fully understand the end-to-end process. Partnership working is essential to the success of our process improvement projects.
  7. Fairness and integrity: at the beginning of our rapid improvement events we establish strong ground rules for the team, to ensure that everyone contributes and is respectful to the views of others. By improving the entire process rather than individual tasks, we ensure that the changes we make do not have an adverse impact on someone else's work.
  8. Creativity and innovation: during the process redesign phase, we use a number of tools and techniques to inspire the team and encourage new ideas. Often, the greatest achievement is giving the team the time, space and feeling of empowerment to make the changes. The hardest challenge can be identifying the small improvements that will give people the time and space to make further changes.
  9. Our operations are efficient and sustainable: we are very proud of the efficiencies our projects have achieved to date including 1,000's of hours in staff time, £1,000's in cash savings. Of equal importance is the "shared memory" our project team have and a commitment to change and making things better.
  10. Making a difference: our projects have made a positive difference to staff and student alike. Training more staff in lean principles and process improvement techniques will offer even more opportunities to make a difference.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

PIU Launch

The Process Improvement Unit has been active for over a year now, and up to full strength since January of this year, and we’ve delivered a number of improvements around the university. The PIU Steering Group thought that an official launch of the unit would be a good way to publicise what we’re doing. Our original idea had been to buy some cut-price buns and cheap champagne from Sainsbury’s round the corner, but the VC had a better plan, and suggested we have a buffet supper at his home, inviting key influencers within the University to listen to our successes so far.


Our first task was to decide who to invite, and after long discussions, we produced a list of academics who haven’t so far been involved in process improvement and who between them covered the five faculties , and some project team members who could talk about their experiences. We also invited Steve Yorkstone from Napier University, who’s been a tremendous help to us in our first year of operation. His task was to provide the sector wide context.

The next job was to create some posters that would help us to tell the story of process improvement and of a couple of the projects we’ve worked on.  
Our Print and Design Services did a fantastic job of designing and printing the posters and we were really pleased with the result.

The event itself was a real success, although some of the attendees may have wondered why they were there. After a tour round the garden, the VC gave a short talk about the unit and our work, and spoke about us in extremely flattering terms. I gave a (very) short reply, waving my hands around a lot to explain that we work horizontally instead of vertically. People may have taken this to mean that we lie down on the job, but I meant that we work at right angles to the structure rather than with it, so that we can find out how processes work from start to finish.

We managed to get round to talk to everyone, and picked up some useful ideas for new projects, and some news about our existing projects which we need to pursue.
The event was a great way to celebrate our official launch, and we’re extremely grateful to the VC for giving up an evening to host it. It’s been a real boost to our confidence in what we’re doing, and hopefully an enjoyable evening for everyone.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Problematic Problem Statements

We’ve recently held a couple of project scoping meetings where the participants have wrangled with creating a clearly defined problem statement. There seemed to be two main reasons for this:

1. People were frustrated with talking about problems. There was already a shared understanding that the process was problematic and a keenness to take action and improve things. Time is precious and satisfaction can be gained from changing things; it makes people feel productive and gives a sense of achievement. Root cause analysis can feel like going over old ground, focusing on negatives and it does not give an instant fix.

2. People appear to feel comfortable using words such as ‘inefficient’ or ‘inadequate’. There is often a shared understanding about which problems are difficult; but they find it difficult to drill down to precisely what is causing deficiency in order to define and measure the problem accurately.

These two reasons can lead to feelings of frustration in a scoping meeting. Yet a clear, explicit statement explaining the problem is incredibly powerful, and while spending time on getting it right may initially feel like going over old ground and fruitless, once defined it gives a concise shared understanding of the problem and makes the process of agreeing project deliverables and measures of success much simpler and efficient. Charles Kettering of General Motors Corporation said “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved”.

Our challenge is not only using tools to help people formulate strong, focused and measurable problem statements, it is also to work with the project team to create awareness and understanding so that they truly value the problem statement.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Business as usual


It’s been a busy couple of weeks in the Process Improvement Unit. Last week we held a Rapid Improvement Event for the Counselling Service. We had a lot to get through, too much, and we had to scale back on our ambitions at the half way mark.  We are still working on getting scope right for our projects! Nonetheless, it was a successful event, with a number of real changes to the way that the service works that will make it more responsive to student demand, and at the same time make the service offering more easily understood, both by referrers and by clients. It was a big cultural shift for the service and we were impressed with their  willingness to make difficult decisions.

Many of the improvements depend on the software the service uses, and at least one member of PIU has been unable to resist the temptation to install and configure a test setup to see if it can do what we need it to do. Hopefully we’ll get all the bits together so we can run through the registration process and see how it works.

This week we’ve had two scoping meetings, one for Staff user account provisioning and one to look at the process for users requesting work from the Learning and Teaching Support team in CiCS. One group came up with a problem statement in about 10 minutes, the other took (considerably) longer. If a problem’s that difficult to specify, should we be looking at it at all, or should we wait until it becomes clearer?

In other news, we’re very pleased that the VC is hosting a launch event for the unit, and even more pleased that our friend and mentor Steve Yorkstone from Napier is able to come to lend sector credibility to our efforts.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A week in Process Improvement Unit

What springs to my mind when I’ve  done a review of all I‘ve experienced in the internship is LEAN.
This is simply the focus of the team of The Process Improvement Unit. Fortunately , I had the opportunity of being part of the team and seeing  the hard work involved in providing exactly what the university needs at the right time, by improving processes such as maternity leave or casual workers fees .
Very often, students  and staff of the University don’t realize the work which is behind from all the daily processes, especially in  making them accessible and available  to anyone, with any budget . The Unit  uses  techniques  for reducing  variation and eliminating waste , just better and more efficient, listening to needs from all sectors , holding   meetings with administrative sector or educational sectors as well .

Before coming to Sheffield, I would never have  known how the university deals with all their daily lives problems, and it’ s been worth it having this experience.

In other words, David, Rachel and Lizzie are the gear of the University of Sheffield , adopting a philosophy of continuous , incremental improvement and taking a long -term view of what the university needs and caring about what can they offer to the university  so that it can become up to date, efficient and competitive . Undoubtedly,  doing their best and cooperating closely with the university is the only way  of facing the future.

It’ s their first anniversary but I wholeheartedly think that they would keep growing faster and faster and becoming one of the most important units in the university.

Claudia Navarro Pascual, Universidad de Valencia

Friday, 5 July 2013

First International Conference on Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education

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PIU went to the First International Conference on Lean Six Sigma in Higher Education on 24th-25th June, in the elegant but somewhat eccentric surroundings of the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow. The conference was organised by the Centre for Research in Six Sigma and Process Excellence (CRISSPE) at Strathclyde University.
We were keen to go as the keynote speakers were two of the leading Higher Education exponents of Lean thinking in the States –Professor Bob Emiliani of Connecticut State University and Professor Bill Balzer of Bowling Green State University.
Bob Emiliani has blogged about the conference here: http://leanprofessor.com/blog/2013/06/25/lean-in-higher-ed-conference-part-2/ and here: http://leanprofessor.com/blog/2013/06/25/lean-in-higher-ed-conference-part-3/ and we don’t want to repeat what he’s said.
Interesting points that we picked up from Bill’s talk:
·      He feels that the improvement he made to the counselling appointments process at BGSU was so worthwhile, that even if it was his only Lean project, it would be a great achievement. We’re going to be looking at our own counselling appointment process soon so it will be interesting to learn whether we feel the same at the end of the review!
·      He introduced a different set of wastes relevant to Universities
o   Waiting
o   Non-strategic effort
o   Missing information
o   Unnecessary transport

Interesting points from Bob:
·      Management support means nothing unless they are prepared to be actively involved in process improvement activities
·      Students work on different timescales to academic staff, and academic staff work on different timescales to admin staff. Bob represented this as a series of clocks – the first in hours and minutes, the second in weeks, and the third in months. We think this is a really good visual indicator of why there is often so much mismatch between the needs of the student and the University – and we plan to pinch it for our own use.

More generally it was interesting to note that although the conference was entitled ‘Lean Six Sigma’ there was a lot of Lean and very little Six Sigma. We were also intrigued by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which has c. 300 students and 2000 staff. They have been implementing a Six Sigma programme, even though they were only set up 4 years ago, in order to accelerate their research into energy resources.
It was also good to reconnect with Steve Yorkstone of Sustainable Futures and Mark Robertson at St. Andrews, and to talk to colleagues from the UK and other parts of the world.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Our First Anniversary


To mark the first twelve months of the existence of the Process Improvement Unit, our Steering Group requested an additional meeting, so that we could update them on our progress.
We started by talking about the number of staff we have managed to involve in process improvement projects (95 staff directly involved in projects and a further 119 contacted/interviewed/invited to give personal opinion). The steering group were pleased to see that almost 50% of academic departments and professional services had been involved in process improvement projects to date. We discussed some of the challenges, which were anticipated, and largely similar to the experiences of other organisations. This included looking at institutional culture, middle management engagement and attitudes towards continuous improvement.
We then updated the group on the outcomes of the projects we have run to date. Every single project had efficiencies to report, in process time, opportunity costs (staff time) and meeting customer requirements much more effectively than the old processes. There were also cash savings, in reducing inventory, paperwork, and overprocessing. We quoted one of our project managers “I would definitely recommend the PIU and the methodologies they use particularly for projects where stakeholders come lots of different areas of the University”.
The VC (chair of the steering group) was pleased to hear that departments are approaching us with ideas for process improvement projects; and steered us to continue to run projects at the request of university staff.
In the next twelve months we will be delivering a number of training sessions, to raise awareness for middle managers and to help staff understand some of the lean tools and techniques, so that they can become more confident in improving their own processes.
We were encouraged to celebrate our success (watch this space) and to identify opportunities to engage with senior managers in the institution, so that they can hear about successes and also enable some of the wider lessons learned to be fed back to heads of department.
It's been a busy year, lots of groundwork to set up the unit, and establish good practice. We are looking forward to the next twelve months, helping people to improve their business processes, engaging with other areas of the department and continuously improving our own professional practice.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Working with Software Hut Students


Students are frequently the customer of many of our process improvement projects and within the unit we are often looking at ways of capturing the voice of the customer. Often we are reliant on the use of focus groups, questionnaires, input from the Union of Students and looking at the process data eg emails from students about problems they are having with a process, or emails that identify questions that students may ask about a particular process.

When an email came round in January asking for people to identify projects that would like software developed by 2nd year computer science students as part of the Software Hut Project, we thought that it would be both useful and interesting.

We agreed that we would identify a software development project from the casual workers process improvement project, for two reasons: 1. our project had similar timescales to the software hut student project and 2. some potential for software development had been identified as part of our project.

We wrote an initial specification for the system, which would include registration of casual workers, approval within the department they were working in, and then a system for casual workers to submit time sheets, these to be approved by line managers, coded and approved by departmental administrators and then sent to payroll where the information would be exported in bulk for entering on to the university finance system. The system would need to allow for tracking the progress of the pay claim.

We were allocated three teams of students, over the twelve week period we worked together to agree a requirements document and to work with the teams as they developed the systems. This included six formal meetings with the teams, and three demonstrations of the systems in weeks 3, 5 and 10. The teams worked incredibly hard, and we had to ensure that we provided each team with the same information. It was quite challenging when some teams asked questions, to work out how much should be shared with the other teams. We were really conscious that it was student coursework as well as a traditional client/developer relationship.

The three teams submitted their systems on time, we tested the systems and marked them against a very clear marking scheme. One of the highlights was attending the final presentation, all students from the module attended, each client got the opportunity to feedback to their teams and declare their winner. We hope that all of our teams had a good learning experience working with us, and thank them for all of their hard work.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Inter University Project Management Group


On 4 June Sheffield Hallam University and The University of Sheffield co-hosted a meeting for the Inter University Project Management Group. The theme of the day was Business Analysis and Process Improvement across universities. It was the first time that I had attended this event, though I am told that the attendance was the largest to date.

The day started with presentations outlining how things work at both of Sheffield's Universities and some facts and figures. Pablo mentioned our peregrine falcons and we even looked at a few minutes footage - the chicks were very active in their messy nest.

There was a session on what does business analysis / process improvement mean to you? There was broad agreement that it is about helping people to understand their process, help people identify improvements, asking the challenging questions and creating an environment of continuous improvement. All of these ideas were identified using post-it notes!





There were some excellent presentations from people had benefitted from business analysis at SHU  and an interactive session based around the TV show Family Fortunes to help us understand some of the challenges of a BA, e.g. how do you identify customer requirements.

Post lunch, I gave a presentation about the work we are doing in PIU, I managed to use examples from Mary Poppins and talk about Lego. It was far from highbrow, intellectual debate one might have wished to engage in, but that's always the challenge when presenting post-lunch; sometimes basic and "fun" can be effective... I got some good feedback, and lots of people were interested in developing links with the unit.

Finally, there was presentation about process improvement in action at The University of Sheffield, covering the value of a kaizen event, the frustrations when impetus for change dissipates; it was referred to as  "a trough of despair" (and I saw lots of people nodding in agreement) and the challenges of continuing with an improvement when a project takes longer than anticipated.

Final Q&A touched on how to get academic involvement, identifying the voice of the customer and lessons learned.

All in all, a great day, I met some fabulous people, we were able to highlight some of the good work happening in Sheffield, and take lots of ideas back to the office.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Continuous Improvement Conference

Last Tuesday, we went to Manchester for a conference, "Continuous Improvement: Embedding the Culture in the Public Sector". There was a full agenda, with ten of the speakers only having 15 minutes each to speak. This only enabled them to give a brief overview of the experiences in their organisations, and some of the more relevant and challenging ideas left me wanting to find out more. Fortunately most of the speakers are on LinkedIn and/or twitter so we can follow this up. There were also three workshops, which allowed for q&a and a little more substance. Key themes from the conference included embedding a culture of continuous improvement into an organisation, getting people at all levels of the organisation involved, understanding the importance of continuous improvement and having an atmosphere of continuous kaizen. Leaders and middle management play a key role in enabling, and empowering this process and one of our challenges for the next year will be working with staff to ensure that all levels of the university desire improvement. There is an imperative to remove fear, and allow staff to make the changes that make sense and make a difference: these changes need to be made regularly, quickly, simply and with minimal bureaucracy.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Stimul8ing training

  I was off down in London learning how to use a software package called simul8 for a couple of days last week. I’d come across the software when on my Six Sigma training in Edinburgh. One of the attendees was from the company, who’d sent her to find out how simul8 could be adapted for Lean and Six Sigma improvement methodologies.
The software allows process improvement practitioners to create simulations to experiment with changes to their processes, without taking the risk of making the changes in real life. By changing various parameters of the simulation it’s possible to look at, for example:
  • Where queues of work build up
  • How long events take
  • How equipment and staff are being utilized
Lots of different ideas can be tried out quickly - simulating days, weeks or years of a process in a short time.
We had a real life problem to look at: helpdesk referrals in the Information Commons, where the software would have been very useful. Modeling the process and finding out how various approaches to referrals would work, without the expense of moving desks and possibly knocking down walls would have given confidence in the suggested solution – and provided a very visual way of demonstrating how it could work.
We bought a copy of the software to try this out, but I found it very difficult to get started with it. The course really helped me to get to grips with the complexities of the software, and gave me some ideas about how to use it for making reasonable extrapolations about the time savings which can be achieved by improving a process. I’m going to get started right away!

Monday, 29 April 2013

Change of Status (slight return)

As a follow-on from the Undergraduate/Taught postgraduate Change of Status process improvement, we spent last week helping Research and Innovation Services (R&IS) to look at their postgraduate research change of candidature, Extension of Study and Leave of Absence processes.  Initially we thought that the processes would be largely the same as the undergraduate, but as we studied the forms (which were already split into three) we realised that there are substantial differences.

These processes, each of them started with the completion of a form, are not particularly high volume - typically there are about 360 extensions, 320 leave of absences and 40 change of candidature (most of these withdrawals) per year. But they do consume a considerable amount of time, with each of the five faculty support assistants in R&IS meeting a faculty officer once a fortnight (or thereabouts) to discuss the crop of applications which have come in from each faculty. And the timings of the meetings can mean that applications take a couple of days or, in the worst case, three weeks. With multiple levels of authorisation required (supervisor, PGR tutor, and faculty officer/R&IS) and lack of clarity about the value added by any one of these levels, there were clearly some simple improvements that could make the process run more smoothly.

The process review followed the normal course - looking at the data, understanding the current process, creating the ideal process and then a practical process, redesigning forms.

Given the relative volumes, we decided to concentrate on Leave of Absence and Extensions. We soon found that there were opportunities to redefine the process for simple LOAs (such as those with a medical reason) so that R&IS staff approve them. Extensions, however, always require an academic decision.

Moving faculty meetings to a weekly basis and having faculty officers review applications for faculties other than their own will reduce variability (but not entirely eliminate it) and encouraging scanning will speed up delivery of applications and reduce losses. We've also recommended moving PGR tutors out of the line of approvals, so that they can take on more of a monitoring role. There are still more improvements to be made and we'll keep an eye on this over the coming months.

Once again we had a very good project team who all contributed to the review - either through direct knowledge, or by 'questioning the process'.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Presentation on waste and value


Last Monday we were invited to give a short presentation at the CiCS departmental meeting, ostensibly to give an update on PIU activities. The unit is still in its first year and we were keen to introduce as many people as possible to the tools and underpinning principles of process improvement.
The majority of the presentation was about waste and value; we showed photographs and specific examples from in and around the department. It is often a challenge for people to think about their work as waste, particularly when this is for the purpose of compliance or another non value adding process step. It can be even more challenging for people to focus on value from the customer’s perspective. We actively encouraged the group to think about the voice of the customer, to think about making small continuous improvements. We have received many comments from colleagues following the presentation and it is interesting that many have focused on waste rather than value. Our next step will be to encourage people to focus on value and incremental, change for the better. We are looking forward to supporting and working with colleagues on this journey of process improvement.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Taught Students Change of Status Process


We’ve been working with staff in Student Services and agreed to facilitate a rapid improvement event for the University’s change of status processes (for Taught students). Change of status is when a student decides to take some time out from study (leave of absence), withdraw (leave), extend their study, repeat a year (if they have failed) or change course.
This was a process that had been implemented in 1999: students apply for a change of status in one form, and the form has had numerous iterations, mainly to meet external compliance needs.
We carried out two surveys (one staff facing and one student facing) and interviewed lots of people who are involved with the process. Consistently the feedback included old forms being used, the process time is too long, forms completed incorrectly, forms completed without receiving the correct advice and that the form was too cramped to show the guidance and signposting that had been given to the student. We also noted that many staff were writing additional information onto the form, e.g. who to send further information to and the registration status in the margins of the form.
At the 5-day event, we spent a lot of time understanding each of the sub-processes, and identifying where re-work and waiting occurred.
After a lot of work mapping the current process, the project team was keen to make progress on the new processes. We looked at form and came up with four flipchart pages of problems with their design. Some of the group were assigned to redesigning the form while others looked at the repeat sub-process.
The repeat process was particularly challenging to the team; we realised that the ‘ideal process’ required substantial systems development, and major changes in working practices. We were able to make some small improvements to the existing process, and for the first time identify all of the problems with this process. The group recommended that the Project Sponsor take this forward for a separate review.
To improve the four other processes, we created a new clearer form for each process. This ensures that the form only requires information specific to the student’s request, removing room for error. The majority of the form will be completed by staff, who will be familiar with the requirements, once again alleviating room for error. It was agreed that the form should only be available within academic departments, to ensure that the student makes time to consult with staff prior to making an application for change of status, and that only nominated staff can approve and forward the form to Taught Programmes Office (TPO) (helping error-proof and track the form, and reducing the number of paper copies). Further improvements were made once the form arrives in TPO, some of which can be implemented in the short term, and others with minimal system enhancement.
It was incredibly helpful having representatives from five academic departments present at the event, this really helped us to focus on best process from the student and academic department perspective, and ensured that we have five champions to help embed this new process within the next few months.