Learning institutions rely on many complex processes working together to meet the needs of stakeholders. And it’s these processes that come under scrutiny when institutions are asked to achieve more with less, be more accountable or flexible, or improve service to those stakeholders.
The recent Ernst & Young Universities of the Future report highlighted the need to streamline large back office operations. How a learning institution manages its many academic processes like course development, curriculum revision and advising, and administrative processes such as enrolling students can make all the difference when facing rising costs, reduced funding, falling enrolments of foreign students, increasing demands for flexible learning, and other pressures.
We’re all in search of that Holy Grail; operational excellence, and yet, the closer a trained eye looks at current processes, the more gaps appear, and the further off appears the goal.
This shouldn’t surprise us. We rarely encounter anyone who really understands how things are supposed to work from start to finish, and even fewer who can tell us what the organisational policy is for the existence and guidance of the process. Such a poor starting point inevitably leads to poorly conceived or implemented ‘enhancements’, often based on information systems that deliver expensive yet disappointing results. The outcome can often be poor service delivery, high cost and low flexibility, exactly the opposite of the ‘excellence’ being sought.
It needn’t be this way; our overwhelming message is one of hope and encouragement. From process-improvement experience across a dozen Australian universities and TAFEs, we’ve seen how common processes can be quickly, significantly and sustainably improved. It just takes the right approach.
Process improvement basics
Improving processes begins with mapping the existing processes and quantitatively ‘base-lining’ key operational metrics. Complicated? Not really, if one knows what to ask. Metrics such as cycle time, cost, seasonal impacts, and staff requirements, can be comfortably developed and compared. It is no secret that these are the main metrics that contribute to improving enterprise value.
Next, opportunities for improvement should be critically examined by team leaders, supervisors and administrators who understand how the process (or their part of it) is meant to work.
Operational weaknesses usually arise in one of four types;
- Process weakness - a poor design of how a series of actions is supposed to occur
- Policy weakness - a lack of operational guidance that justifies and ‘steers’ the process
- People weakness - inadequate management of the human input
- Technology weakness - poor support from computer-based systems within the process.
Interestingly, we find the same weaknesses appear regardless of type of process—so much so that they’re called ‘recurring themes’. They can be illustrated in a simple Process Requirements Model, used to contextualise components and allow measurement and comparison of, for want of a better term, the ‘health’ of each step in that process.
Process Requirements Model
The 4 themes are shown, broken further into sub-themes, for example, the Process issues theme contains the additional dimensions of (a) Clear requirements, (b) Well defined Inputs and Outputs, (c) Avoidance of duplication, (d) Design to minimise Duration and Effort, (e) Good communications, (f) Control over speed, quality and cost of the process output.
Each of the other 3 themes are similarly broken down, and the resulting model provides a practical checklist for analysis and improvement.
Let’s briefly examine what this model has shown up in the past.
Policy – “Tell me how you’ll measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave”
Process and Technology themes are no longer surprising, and the People theme is usually under-reported by operational staff, perhaps owing to human nature and the tendency to downplay self-critique.
Most surprisingly, however, is the recurrence of the Policy theme. Here we find that the set of guiding ‘statements of intent’, or business rules and decision-making criteria making up the typical Policy are often out of date, informally applied or missing altogether.
Organisational policy significantly impacts how processes function. Very often 10%-30% of gaps we find are not due to poor processes per se, but to a weak policy environment; (1) The Obsolete Policy – they no longer apply, (2) The Missing Policy - there are none, (3) The Unknown Policy – they’re there, but staff don’t know them.
A large Victorian University a few years ago was procuring most goods and services via Purchase Order, even though it cost them 8 times more this way than paying by credit card. The solution? Update the policy; changing P.O. minimum order amounts and transaction types, then communicating, implementing and monitoring the updated policy.
Process – “A sequence of activities designed to achieve a specific outcome”
The design of a process plays a key role in optimising quality, cycle time, risk, and cost. We find five common themes characterising badly designed and maintained processes; (1) Inefficiency - the process requires too much effort (thus cost), (2) Poor standard of input/output - work fed into or received out of a process doesn’t meet requirements, (3) Lengthy process duration - too much time’s taken from start to finish (cycle time), (4) Poor process management - the process itself may be fine, but it’s not running at full capacity, (5) Poor communications – the ‘team isn’t talking to each other on the field’.
A large TAFE Student Administration initiative uncovered process inefficiencies in the practices of laborious matching of student id records, document duplication where students are enrolled over multiple terms, unnecessary class creations that were never used, maintaining two sources of course information (a detailed handbook, and a summarised web version containing differing data), and the downloading of admissions system information into a manipulation and reporting spreadsheet.
According to a Quality and Compliance Manager, “achieving operational excellence requires constant scrutiny and challenge, for example, Justification - Should this process even exist in the first place? Simplification - Is it as streamlined and uncluttered as possible? Optimisation - Is it designed for maximum speed with minimum effort? Standardisation - Is there a single way it can be completed? Centralisation - Where sensible, can we consolidate activity into a single location?”
Technology – “If you apply technology to a bad process, all you get is a fast, bad process”
There’s nothing quite like the use of inappropriate information technology to kill the effectiveness of a process. Conversely, we also find that not every process needs, or benefits from, high-tech, fully automated computer systems - sometimes the best information systems are simple paper-based checklists, tick sheets and whiteboards.
In broken technology-related processes we generally find two recurring themes; (1) Poor system functionality - existing computerised systems don’t do what’s required, or (2) Poor system integration - each computerised application works fine on its own but manual interventions are required to make the end to end process work.
In a large TAFE, their Student Enrolment processes involved the manual completion of enrolment forms by hand, and so were prone to error and required much data checking, completion and correction. The allocation of student numbers was also done manually outside of the administration system (which itself was quite capable of unique number generation), using a separate database and stickers, which increased the work effort, duration and error rate.
The solution? Deployment of an online enrolment form with inbuilt data validation mechanisms, plus the return to standard system functionality for application identification.
People – “the most costly and least managed enabler of any process”
This key process enabler requires active management like no other, and yet low skill levels, mismatched staff allocation and poor seasonality management are allowed to impact service quality, cost and risk. Two people themes are common; (1) Under-skilled labour - people are not sufficiently trained to do what’s required of them, or (2) Insufficient labour - not enough trained staff, either overall, or at key times.
A large NSW University’s Student Administration area had an exam results and grading-related process which was only required for a spell of 4 weeks in each semester. According to their Faculty General Manager “such a large ‘volume spike’ required a ‘flying circus’ type operation; the setup, operation and dismantling of the process on a scale that tested the ability to source casual and part time staff in sufficient quantity to handle the peak loads required for very short periods, and without sufficient cross skilling being available. It’s an epically chaotic affair, and everyone hates it”.
The solution? Understand and quantify the additional resource required well beforehand, identify non-critical work tasks, identify back-fillable staff, and formulate plans to redeploy staff from non-critical activities for these high pressure periods.
The bottom line
Australian learning institutions are under relentless efficiency and effectiveness pressure.
The good news is that when institutions undertake considered, systematic process-improvement initiatives, they routinely find 50% improvements in service delivery, and efficiency savings of at least 20%, sometimes 30% - often accompanied by ‘quick win’ programs to usher the transition.
A Senior Executive of a large and well respected Queensland University reviewed the success factors in their operational excellence journey. “A good place to start was to establish the highest possible level of commitment for ongoing process change. Next, we established a competent, continuous improvement function, one empowered to boldly challenge any operational status quo. Then, we adopted a collaborative approach; (a) bottom-up involving operators identifying improvement, building understanding and fuelling commitment for improvement, and (b) top-down in which managers impart clear, strategic requirements into future processes. We then took the most insightful step of them all; we simply looked at two of our processes—one we believed to be in good shape and another known to be dysfunctional. Then, through some straight-forward, systematic analysis, we amazed ourselves at the opportunities for improvement that we discovered in both of them”.
It seems like sound advice for the rest of us on the operational excellence journey.