Three Years of Continuous Improvement
It’s been three years since the Process Improvement Unit was first set up. What have we done with our time?
We think we’ve created, at least with those people with whom we’ve worked, a real sense that change is possible. Many of our projects have dealt with seemingly intractable problems, built up over a number of years. The history of poor process and failed improvements has a draining effect on people’s ability to think about better ways of working, and indeed, encourages a sense that change is not only impossible but undesirable - being fraught with difficulties and unforeseen dangers.
Why is what we do any different? Of course, sometimes it isn’t, and below I’ll detail some of the many ways in which we’ve failed. But where we do succeed, I think it’s because we encourage our project participants to see that there can be a better way to organise work, and we give them the confidence to put some of their ideas into practice.
We’ve been particularly pleased with the work we’ve done with the Counselling Service for instance, where we helped them to reshape the way that students come into the service, and at the same time removed the waiting list which took up oceans of counsellors’ and administrators’ time.
We have also been pleased with our work with Finance and HR on some of their processes, particularly with the way that they have been willing to alter the location of work in order to achieve greater efficiency.
Our training has been well received wherever we have given it, with participants declaring that it’s the best training they’ve been on, and some of the most useful training they’ve had at the University. We’re really pleased with this validation of our efforts, because we know that it’s only through passing skills on and embedding a culture of continuous improvement that we can hope to effect real and lasting change in the University’s way of working.
Our work has been recognised externally, both by formal award, and by colleagues from other institutions such as Salford and St George's London signing up for bespoke training. While recognition by the sector might not be directly beneficial to the University, it surely adds to the acceptance of the ‘lean’ way of thinking, and therefor makes sustainability and improvement more possible.
Problems are still plentiful. We haven’t always convinced our sponsors of the importance of following through on commitments to resolve resource constraints, with the result that projects have stalled at the implementation phase.
With increasing numbers of projects implemented, we’re aware that we haven’t time to re-check on progress and problems with process, and we fear that in some areas entropy has set in - as is inevitable if continuous improvement is not a daily activity. As King Tang (pictured) said, ‘if you would improve yourself, do so from day to day - yeah, let there be daily improvement’.
We still face the difficulty that process improvement is seen by the University as an add-on - not something which is at the heart of what we do. In spite of initial enthusiasm at senior level, practical support is not forthcoming. Indeed we sometimes feel that we are acting as window-dressing (every University needs a continuous improvement office of some sort after Diamond I). In spite of continuous efforts to become part of the management training programme, we have had no success.
What’s in store for the next three years?
Much more training - if we have to work from the bottom up, as seems inevitable, then training leading to wider awareness of the philosophical approach seems the best route to sustainability.
We will also be revisiting the idea of embedding ourselves in a department to help them review their major processes. We have started working with HR operations on this tack, and are hopeful that it will show the visible difference for the University that enables us to tackle bigger and more strategic projects.