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Business Officer Magazine

Making Changes on Multiple Fronts

Armstrong State University’s path to innovation and improved service included work with consultants who facilitated numerous shifts in organizational culture.

By Robert Howard and David Carson

When Armstrong State University, Savannah, re-engineered its processes to better serve its students, Ellucian Revitalization Services had the greatest impact on leveraging technology to greatly improve our customer service functions. That work ultimately expanded to include other consultant engagements that have put us on a path to a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. (To read the full story, see "Pattern-Perfect Processes," in the October 2014 Business Officer.)

Lean Six Sigma. This business process includes a set of techniques and tools that enable an organization to find ways to do business more quickly and efficiently—resulting in a better product or service, more satisfied customers, and higher revenue for the institution. One of its principal goals is to improve quality by eliminating or reducing defects in outcomes. It began in a manufacturing context and found its way into service industries.

The real value of the Six Sigma "green belt" training (a particular level of expertise) was bringing together a diverse group of staff. About 15 people from our information technology, registrar, admissions, financial aid, advancement, and audit departments—the same staff members who had gone through the revitalization process—learned how to think about problem solving in new ways. During the on-site training session, the presenters talked about how to measure and define the problems that needed to be solved. Staff reviewed analytical tools and statistical techniques to measure before-and-after results. This change in perspective helped to isolate the particular issues that needed correction or resolution.

Each person came to the training with a problem to solve. For example, the assistant bursar noted that it took us 45 minutes to process a student's admission documents. The group identified one of the holdups: residency status had to be determined before we could admit a student, and our admissions counselors were not equipped to verify it. By analyzing the workflow, we determined residency status was a bursar/tuition function with no bearing on an admission decision. By eliminating this step at the admissions stage, we reduced our processing time from 45 to five minutes.

We also learned some useful analysis techniques.

Lean mapping. "Lean" is about removing the forms of waste found in inefficient processes: defects, overproduction, inventory, overprocessing, motion, transport/handling, and waiting.

Value stream mapping. This tool provides a visual map of the process being analyzed. If you map, for example, the various steps in a process, you can then look for waste and inefficiency, allowing you to redefine a leaner process. After the class, a facilitator who didn't know the particular process we were analyzing kept asking why we did things a certain way. That approach forced people—who repeatedly had followed the only steps they'd known—to see an issue in a new light.

The Six Sigma week of face-to-face training was followed by group work on a project to earn the green belt. We are also offering yellow belt training (focused on identifying processes that could benefit from improvement) to all Armstrong staff and students and will make available a round of black belt training for a smaller number. The idea is to embed continuous improvement evangelists everywhere.

Design Thinking. This technique is intended to improve customer service-in our situation, that meant empathizing more with our students and viewing our processes and services through their eyes. We worked with Miami University's Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies through the Design Collaborative to help introduce this technique.

The three-day Design Thinking training included a presentation to the president's cabinet on the importance of the executive role in creating the right culture. The rest of the time was spent with the same departments that participated in Six Sigma but with more representatives from each, because the material wasn't technical in nature. The consultants had us think about the frustrations of students and create an empathic bond with them outside of the transactional context, to understand the "voice of the customer." For instance: What do students really want during the transaction and afterward? What elements can we design to make that happen?

Together, the green belt training for 15 people and the Design Thinking training for about 50 people totalled nearly $25,000. We paid for the trainings with one-time monies from the contractor services budget.

Given the relationship a university hopes to establish with its prospective students and future alumni, we want to create a positive feeling that goes with our campus experience. That begins with enrollment—the administrative processes through which we can demonstrate the attitude and service that attract prospects and can help determine their ultimate university choice. We want our services to be efficient, yield good results, and also create a feeling of welcome for our students.

Robert Howard is chief information officer, Armstrong State University, Savannah. David Carson, formerly Armstrong State University's vice president for business and finance, is now vice president of business services at Flagler College, St. Augustine, Fla.


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