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Be True to Your School

One university’s adventure in reconciling corporate efficiency methods with academic values
University Business, March 2012

(Ed Note: The university and its executive vice president referred to in this story have asked to remain anonymous.)

Can a university use efficiency methods from the corporate world while staying true to its values?

That was the challenge facing The University’s executive vice president (EVP) and his team.

The University’s vision called for increased investments in research and emerging initiatives. But the dismal economy had donors in a “wait-and-see” mode, and anything more than a modest increase in tuition was not feasible. The leadership team made the difficult but necessary decision to shift funding away from the administrative functions that the EVP controlled (Campus Services, Finance, Human Resources, Information Services, etc.) and toward areas more directly focused on the university’s core mission. Since demand for administrative services was forecast to grow, the EVP’s team would have to do more with less.

An obvious solution: cut costs through a reduction in services, staff, or both. Some degree of belt-tightening was clearly necessary…and already underway. But too much could easily compromise The University’s mission, reputation, and long-standing commitment to preserving jobs. A more compelling option was to increase capacity—i.e., find a way to do more with existing staff. But how?

Could this work for us?

After considerable research, benchmarking, and discussion, the EVP and his advisory committee decided to pursue a Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) approach. The focus would be on making administrative work processes more efficient and more capable of consistently meeting the needs of faculty, students, and staff.

Small teams would identify their department’s core work processes and the “customers” of those processes. Guided by an experienced CPI practitioner, teams would follow a structured method to measure and understand current process performance; identify, test, and implement appropriate improvements; and monitor ongoing performance.

The committee was confident that this approach would free up labor capacity without the need for a reduction in services.

It seemed straightforward, but the EVP was concerned about getting CPI to work in an academic institution, where it is still relatively rare. The University was justifiably proud of its culture, long tradition, and great reputation. Leaders could—and would—accurately state that the university had been continuously improving for over a hundred years. And as the EVP had learned in the course of previous change attempts, there was widespread suspicion of anything that smacked—even remotely—of the corporate world.

The EVP knew he needed early and broad support from leaders and staff. And they needed to be confident that The University would stay true to its values of academic freedom; collaboration; and commitment to faculty, staff, and students.

Setting the stage

Early on, the EVP and his team made three pivotal decisions.

First, they had Martin McGee lead the day-to-day effort. McGee had the management skills, credibility with key university leaders, and an inclusive and influential style. His involvement sent a clear signal: CPI would be a collaborative effort.

Second, they agreed on a “pull”—vs. “push”—implementation approach. CPI would start in administrative areas where leaders were already interested. The plan: 1) jointly decide on problems to tackle, 2) work closely with staff to solve those problems with CPI methods/tools, and 3) make sure others in the university learned of the good results. Ideally, this approach would—over time—create a “virtuous circle” of improvements leading to buy-in, in turn leading to more improvements.

Third, they hired a consulting firm to help guide The University through the initiative. They chose one with deep experience in both technical and behavioral/cultural aspects of process improvement efforts. Two consultants became part-time members of McGee’s team.


Interviews with key University leaders made it clear: not everyone found CPI equally compelling. As expected, some viewed the approach as too corporate, unnecessarily complex, or entirely unsuited to their department’s work.

The EVP was disappointed by the lack of interest on the part of some leaders whose units seemed fertile ground for CPI. But he knew he had to let McGee’s team focus on areas where there was already energy for change. So he allowed the units to control the pace and nature of their participation.

Fortunately, several leaders were willing to give it a chance. Some had been looking for new ways to address issues raised in recent campus-wide satisfaction surveys. Others became interested after participating in a simulation designed to give them a visceral sense of CPI’s potential. A few had successfully used CPI at other organizations.

There were enough early adopters to launch a handful of “pilot projects” in administrative areas, including Human Resources (creating/filling staff positions), Information Technologies (project scheduling and demand management), and Procurement (travel expenses). To the EVP’s delight, an academic department asked for help in speeding up its admissions processes.

Project team members received basic CPI training so they could participate fully in the improvement efforts. Several went through more in-depth training. The consultants provided hands-on guidance on CPI methods and tools, and on “change management.”

The University took a focused and low-key approach to communication. The team emphasized individual and small-group communication instead of banners, newsletters, and generic emails. This allowed for questions, in-depth conversation, and a human connection with those whose work was being affected and whose buy-in was critical to overall success. The consultants helped McGee and the project teams communicate details, progress, and successes.

The projects progressed, month by month, through the steps of the CPI method.

And the verdict is?

Fast forward a year. Did The University actually get the results it needed from CPI? Had it stayed true to its values of academic freedom, collaboration, and commitment to faculty, staff, and students?

The year was certainly not without setbacks. In some cases, projects stalled while teams waited for data, resources, or decisions. In others, it became apparent that the problems were so complex that multiple projects and/or more time would be needed to get the desired results. It was—and still is—a challenge to bring improvement projects to a close. McGee’s team found that they had to provide more direction and encouragement than they’d initially thought.

On the positive side, many CPI projects succeeded beyond what the EVP had anticipated. They did so in three ways.

First, specific administrative processes have greatly improved—i.e., they required less staff effort, ran faster, and/or produced a better result for internal customers. A sample of results:

  • Human Resources improved its lengthy and unpredictable process for recruiting staff, reducing the average time to fill a position from 87 to 27 days. Hiring managers saved 7 hours of work per position, and the quality of candidates improved.
  • Budget and Human Resources jointly reduced the time and complexity required to create new staff positions. Customers of this process now submit one form, down from six. A process that previously took an average of 14 days now takes two. Rework was reduced from 50% to 8%, freeing up staff hours in Budget, HR, and the hiring units.
  • General Services reduced the percentage of work orders requiring rework from 30% to 2%, freeing up staff time for other activities.
  • A department in the Business School streamlined its admissions process to provide a better experience for students and a more manageable workload for the staff.
  • Information Technologies reduced the complexity of its process for intake and prioritization of complex projects.      

Second, there is broader interest in CPI. McGee’s team began to get requests from other administrative areas, including some that were initially reticent. New projects were launched in food services, grant compliance, custodial services, and athletics. And there are more projects in the pipeline. Resistance has decreased in the Administrative units, and a few Academic units are showing interest. A current challenge for McGee’s team is meeting demands for its services while focusing on those projects with the best overall ROI.

Third, a sense of teamwork has been fostered within and among departments, and between departments and their internal “customers.” Team members spent concentrated time creating new ways of working together. They gained insight into—and appreciation for—not just the process itself, but also the challenges, goals, and contributions of all those involved. It’s not all rosy, but barriers are breaking down.

What about The University's values?

There are—and always will be—those who feel that even the mention of corporate techniques is inappropriate at a university. And to date, The University’s academic departments remain largely untouched by CPI. But the overall verdict on the administrative side of the university is that The University has stayed true to its values by:

  • Adhering to a pull strategy that has allowed campus units to retain control of their involvement
  • Respectfully collaborating and partnering with units to identify problems, goals, and timing
  • Involving staff in understanding customer needs, examining current processes, and making changes
  • Providing coaching on technical and behavioral/cultural issues
  • Focusing on creating labor capacity rather than cutting jobs
  • Building internal staff knowledge and expertise, greatly reducing the need for consultants    

The EVP sees CPI as an integral part of The University’s strategy. And he has his answer. Yes, a university can successfully use corporate methods while staying true to its values…as long as it follows an approach that is respectful, collaborative, and patient.

Mary Federico is an experienced organizational behavior consultant/coach/trainer who has helped dozens of leaders use the principles and tools of organizational psychology to get better results from their process improvement initiatives. She is the author/co-author of articles, pocket guides, a book chapter, a comic book, and a podcast on this topic. Federico has also taught influence skills to more than 600 process improvement practitioners from more than 30 countries. She can be reached at:

Harvey Dershin has more than 50 years of experience in a wide variety of organizations. His global consulting practice has addressed continuous process improvement issues in higher education, direct health care, pharmaceuticals, high-tech manufacturing, sales and marketing, financial services and IT. His publications and presentations span the gamut from basic engineering research to innovation management. He can be reached at:

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