Published on 2018/06/19

Continuous Improvement and Innovation: They Are Interconnected Through Research

The EvoLLLution | Continuous Improvement and Innovation: They Are Interconnected Through Research
By focusing on continuous improvement processes and bringing IT into the center of those conversations, it’s possible for a postsecondary institution to be regularly innovating, reducing administrative costs and growing while keeping the needs of faculty, staff and students at the center.
Continuous improvement helps fix broken business processes and inefficient services. To these ends, innovation in administrative process is sometimes perceived as using fancy, new software to automate business processes or by asking amusing questions like “how I can use artificial intelligence to automate the help desk?” You don’t necessarily need to be innovative to engage in continuous improvement, and not all innovation leads to making a process better. Regardless, technology and institutional infrastructure can be leveraged to support both strategic continuous improvement and innovation without raising the sticker price of education.

The term “technology” is straightforward in relation to continuous improvement, and it describes the hardware and software that enable our business processes. Though a bit vague, the term “institutional infrastructure” refers to the people, processes, and culture at our university. Many universities have a long-standing commitment of continuous improvement, with dozens of improvement projects and hundreds of people trained. At SMU, we used continuous improvement to save money in order to provide additional funding for the academic mission to hire IT staff in data science so we can (1) help faculty with sponsored research and (2) have the same high-tech workforce bring their new expertise to improve processes at the cutting edge. In the end, we don’t want to just buy the latest AI engine; we want to help build it, too.

Several years ago, SMU began to transform institutional infrastructure by creating a program named Operational Excellence for the Second Century (OE2C). SMU was formed in 1911, and the second century brought a new fundraising campaign, a new strategic plan, and a focus on recovering administrative expenditures to be put back into the academic mission. There were four phases of the project: analysis, implementation, continuous improvement, and innovation.

In the analysis phase, President Turner started with a message to the entire university. His message underscored the importance of executive leadership, making a strong statement about continuous improvement and cost reduction so that the implementation stays on track. The goal of the OE2C effort was to identify funds currently supporting administrative and operational costs that could be redirected toward academic priorities. Three teams made recommendations to redesign finance, information technology, and facilities. This resulted in the creation of shared services centers that brought together staff members with a breadth of skills and expertise, allowing for greater collaboration and innovation, opportunities for career growth, the more efficient use of resources, reduced operating costs, and consistent, streamlined and effective processes throughout the university.

The OE2C IT initiative focused on unifying and repositioning IT from that of a general campus resource into a strategic technology partner. The initiative consolidated and centralized IT reporting, which helps maximize the use of enterprise software, eliminates redundancies, and continues to improve and to optimize support services throughout SMU; however, the most exciting changes have led to the cultural transformation of IT shared services devoted to increasing the support of innovation.

This new organization lets us focus our continuous improvement on administrative efficiency and creating better processes for the right people. I’ve been in many meetings throughout my career where proposals for saving time for administrators and IT staff was the priority, and people proposed new projects to save time for themselves. The beneficiaries of any continuous improvement exercise must be critically analyzed because the ultimate goal is not to save time for someone in, say, the purchasing department. It’s to save time for those spending the money, or it is for someone in the purchasing department so that they can spend more time working directly with faculty on purchases that are relevant to their teaching and research. It is to free up time to visit the dean’s leadership meeting and figure out how save money by purchasing in bulk with other schools or to discuss why we have five licenses for products that perform almost the same task.

Eventually, process improvement gets down to the technology. We have an ordinary ERP that is used for the majority of the student, financial, and human resource transactions. In addition, we have specialized software for student recruiting, fundraising, research administration, card access, and many other services. We also have an ad hoc form-generating tool so we can automate those process that don’t fit within any of the other systems. Occasionally, we write our own software as we did to automate the faculty computer replacement program which, now includes eligibility notification, simplified shopping and order tracking. We are now looking at robotic process automation to help individuals create a digital buddy to automate highly repetitive, personal tasks.

At any university, it is important to remember that continuous improvement must focus on our primary customers: the students. At SMU, we have a CIO student advisory board that provides first-hand input on what is most important to students. Two of the more obvious requests are for ubiquitous wireless networks and a wish that every course would use the same learning management system. Digging in a little deeper, there is the desire to have a universal calendar that makes it easy to search and add calendar events whether they be homework assignments, basketball games, club events, or something new that they’ve never tried before. Simple, mobile applications to interact with the university are popular and so is “what if” course registration. Recently, we talked about a discovery tool that lets you not only track your degree progress, but also lets you know if you are close to getting a minor based on your current course load.

Finally, our student advisory group is looking into the future at SMU. We discussed the difference between a today’s university graduate and a 16-year-old junior in high school. The junior knows nothing worse than an iPhone (which was released in 2007). Given that reality, our SMU student advisory group talked about the need for every student, not just STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students, to be well versed in some aspect of data science. This could be using software for analytics, programming in Python or R, using visualization packages like Tableau or Jupyter Notebooks, integrating GIS, or becoming Microsoft Office certified. They believe that this will be the competitive advantage that differentiates them from other graduates. Coincidently, these are not only great skills for students to have, but they are great skills for any employee to have that wants to engage in innovative continuous improvement.

In response to demands of our students and faculty, we are expanding our focus on research support with funds recovered by the OE2C initiative. Specifically, we are hiring into our consolidated IT staff a data scientist, internet-of-things developer, high-performance computing specialist, an academic technology service director for our gaming institute, a data architect, and a data visualizer. These new positions complete the cycle for us—that is, use continuous improvement to free up funds, invest those funds in the academic mission, develop innovative tools and techniques related to data science and analysis, and finally, apply what has been learned back to the administrative processes of the university.

One of the more striking results from continuous improvement initiatives is the reduction in technology infrastructure expenditures that result. Prior to the establishment of process-improvement projects, the typical solution to business process improvement was to buy new software. This almost never works because it’s not the software itself that saves money. It’s modifying the business process to do something better or faster. In fact, if you don’t change the business process while you are implementing new software, you may run the risk of excessive modifications to the software that increases overall costs rather than reducing them. This is one of benefits of SMU’s circle-of-life model—we use the same staff members to help research faculty, which increases innovation productivity, as we do to work on continuous improvement projects, which reduces expenditures.

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Another Example: A Comprehensive Continuous Improvement Machine at the University of Illinois System

Most universities engage in some form of continuous improvement and innovation. There may be a special project, a department devoted to process analysis, or specific individuals embedded in different administrative groups throughout the campus. One example of a successful model is the University of Illinois System’s Business Process Improvement Shared Service. As described on their website, the University of Illinois System’s BPI group was started in 2011, and a small team provides central support for initiatives that improve customer service, free up staff time, deliver services faster, reduce total cost, or a combination of these goals. The central staff work with hundreds of people throughout the three campuses to perform introspective analyses on operations and processes to increase efficiency and productivity.

In the U of I System’s annual report, they describe the work done over the past year. It shows that 70 different departments collaborated with the shared service to create 62 process improvement recommendations and train another 270 people in process improvement fundamentals. This brings the total to an astounding 1454 people trained since 2011. The shared service has an advisory group that includes high-level administrators and also faculty members from colleges of business and design. The group also trains BPI facilitators so that staff can run their own process improvement projects, holds a seminar service, and participates in Network for Change and Continuous Innovation (NCCI) and Higher Education Lean Exchange (HELEX). Finally, they held a process improvement showcase where 200 people saw presentations and poster sessions on what was accomplished over the past year.

The University of Illinois System’s work shows that you can change the culture of an organization through continuous improvement. In the end, there is no way that a single, small department could make change at a massive university system; however, by getting in excess of a thousand people involved in the tools and methodology of process improvement, you can create better and faster processes as part of day-to-day activities.

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