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Destination: Excellence

Creating meaningful change—and making it stick—means moving your culture to a new place. See how Texas A&M achieved an all-aboard among its stakeholders.

By Alissa Schroeder, Kathryn Symank, and Grant Trexler

*When the division of finance at Texas A&M University, College Station, first implemented its continuous improvement (CI) initiative in January 2008, many staff asked, “What exactly is continuous improvement, and how does it apply to me and my job?” The first thought for many employees was that the effort was going to eliminate and consolidate positions within the division. However, educational sessions eased concerns as they helped employees understand that continuous improvement is about doing things better and not about cutting the number of bodies.

Simply put, continuous improvement is the ongoing advancement of services, products, and processes. Effective people and organizations practice continuous improvement even if the formal term is never used. It's a cycle—an ongoing effort the division is using to improve its processes, eliminate inefficiency, and provide excellent customer service.

This successful effort has now been in place for almost two years and assists the division in pursuing a culture with “a commitment to service excellence.” The division of finance at Texas A&M University comprises 12 diverse departments, ranging from surplus property and procurement services to human resources and accounting operations. The division has approximately 300 employees.

The goal of the division's CI initiative is “to create meaningful change within the division by moving to a culture of continuous improvement based on measurement, process analysis, and systematic improvement aimed at making the division the best organization possible.” Getting to our destination has meant dedicating significant time and human resources to move the initiative forward. Sometimes it has meant overcoming resistance by those who fear change. But we've persisted by championing our cause and continually communicating the CI message.

Now, with most stakeholders on board, we're gaining momentum. In the past year, we've completed 11 process improvement projects in departments across our division. These activities led to recommendations that can bring positive changes to processes and outcomes. Following is a description of our progress, lessons learned, and further efforts.

Committing to Continuous Improvement

Management and staff buy-in is essential. The division's executives facilitated this commitment through ongoing, direct communication that detailed their vision for the CI initiative. The leadership team allocated both hard and soft dollars to the program. Hard dollars paid for an 18-month, full-time leadership position and operating costs to support the initiative. Soft dollars were committed through release time and expenses for the other three members of the division's CI Team.

Although the financial resources were not significant compared to the division's overall budget, symbolically the commitment informed the division that the CI initiative was something that was not going to go away. Initially, some employees viewed the idea as a fad that they could resist, but allocation of funds meant that continuous improvement was something every employee within the division would learn about and might be asked to participate in.

To gain further buy-in, the CI Team concentrated its work in several areas:

  • Developed core values and division mission and vision statements. The division did not have a well-articulated strategic plan, and through the collaborative efforts of the CI Team and the division's leadership team, we drafted core values, a mission, and vision. We realized that as an organization, you must know who you are, who you want to be, and what you believe in so that you can determine what path to take. Continuous improvement is impossible without this.
  • Led a series of meetings with all division employees, seeking their feedback. This effort took several months, but it was critical in educating employees about the mission and vision as well as gaining their commitment to the initiative.
  • Developed a Web-based collaborative SharePoint site to post the draft mission and vision statements and solicit feedback (through blogs) from employees. We included employee comments in the final core values and mission and vision statements, showing that division leadership listened to staff and valued their input. Of the several statements, the one most recognized and used by employees is our motto: “Committed to Service Excellence.”
  • Brought continuous improvement to the forefront. The division's vice president initiated communication with employees through various newsletters and blogs. Content described the efforts of the CI Team and the leadership team's expectations. Full-day work sessions, held on a quarterly basis, focused on different aspects of the division's initiative, and managers actively engaged in steering the processes.
  • Met to map progress. A Continuous Improvement Council (executive staff and CI Team) began to meet monthly to help chart the course of the initiative and continue moving it forward.

Taken together, these activities further solidified buy-in from division employees.

The importance of having employees buy into CI has long been documented. As noted, our process involved training and discussion about the importance of CI and taking a hard look at its advantages and potential problems. It was only then that doubts and fears could surface and be dealt with realistically.

For our division, the training we provided early on to all employees served two purposes. First, it introduced all employees to basic continuous improvement concepts and informed them about why we were undertaking the initiative. Second, the training set aside fears that the division was using the effort to reduce staff and cut costs. For example, employees wanted to know how they would personally benefit under what could be new and seemingly different practices. What would happen to the old ways of doing things and the old relationships under this new initiative? We informed employees that there might be changes, but the end result and goal of the CI initiative was to create a strong culture that benefits employees and external customers through a commitment to service excellence.

We reminded employees that we were already a high-performing organization, and part of what we were doing was merely documenting that fact.

An ongoing discussion ensued—and continues today—about organizational culture, including how employees may begin to envision and move toward an organizational culture with an emphasis on teamwork, problem solving, customer satisfaction, and metrics. For some, this discussion was uncomfortable and meant that a different set of expectations might be developed for evaluating their job performance. However, we reminded employees that we were already a high-performing organization, and part of what we were doing was merely documenting that fact. Overall, employee education helped involve the employees and build enthusiasm.

Championing the Cause

The members of the original CI Team (and the current team) are not individuals who are experts in continuous improvement or quality management. Rather, they are professionals with an interest in those management techniques. Team members have basic knowledge of CI concepts through past experience or a strong willingness to put time in to quickly learn about those concepts. They are generally already respected in the division so they can be champions for the CI effort. All team members are volunteers, with the exception of the full-time staff member who originally led the initiative.

The original CI Team began with four individuals, who were directors or assistant directors chosen because of their backgrounds and experience. The original concept for team members was to require a commitment of 6 to 12 months, for up to 50 percent of their total work time. However, as things have evolved, member commitment varies from 25 to 50 percent effort, depending upon the team member's current job and the skill set he or she brings to the team. Two of the original team members are still on the team almost two years after start-up, while two other team members have rotated off. The size of the team was expanded to seven individuals, each from a separate department within the division.

Along the way, we learned that the title of the team member was not important; the individual's interest and commitment to the cause and his or her sphere of influence were the elements that made each member essential. We also found that bringing in staff with varied and diverse ideas and skill sets was valuable for engaging the team in dialogue about complex issues and topics that could be sensitive to some within the division.

Building on Others' Experiences

The CI process began by immersing the team in learning what others were doing in that area. Much of this work was independent research by team members who shared with the group the best practices they discovered. The team found individuals at other universities, colleges, community colleges, K–12 school districts, and for-profit companies who were willing to share information about their CI efforts, explain what worked and what did not, and provide resources for the team to review. Most of these initiatives had been in place for more than a decade. As a result, they provided a rich and deep source of valuable information to help formulate our division's efforts. Some takeaways from our research include the following:

1. For continuous improvement to be successful, management support is required, and you need to engage employees throughout the institution. We visited several organizations that continue to maintain successful programs because they have focused on both of these factors. One such organization told the story of how the president of a hospital went so far as to put his desk in an elevator for a day to get the word out about what was going on in the hospital related to its continuous improvement efforts. Similarly, a school district official shared with us the fact that some of the best efficiency ideas often come from frontline staff. For example, one group of custodians saved the district more than $50,000 a year on chemicals as a result of a suggestion that it put forward.

2. Baldrige award recipients are excellent sources of information. Don't be afraid to tap them for expertise. We found that Texas has several Baldrige National Quality Award recipients, one in education, and these groups were willing to host our team for site visits where we could learn from experts in CI. The team conducted five site visits, and the most important takeaways from these meetings were that commitment from the top is a requirement for a successful initiative; you have to start somewhere, so do something now—and don't wait until you think you have all the answers or know what model of continuous improvement you want to follow (Balanced Scorecard, Lean Sigma or Six Sigma, the Baldrige National Quality Program, Excellence in Higher Education, or others).

3. Our state provides other resources for performance management. Quality Texas “helps organizations achieve performance excellence using the Baldrige criteria as a framework for improvement.” Many of the companies we visited started their CI journey by applying for the organization's Texas Award for Performance Excellence prior to applying for the Baldrige award. Quality Texas also has a resource library that the team has found valuable during its CI journey. Two of our team members were recently trained as Quality Texas examiners and reviewed Quality Texas applications in early 2010. We hope the information they gained can serve to move our division's efforts forward.

As a result of our site visits, we've reviewed principles and concepts from Baldrige, Quality Texas, and Excellence from Higher Education methodologies and tried to tailor them to the finance division. Because of the diverse set of departments within our division, it's an interesting blend of nonprofit, educational, and for-profit entities. As such, none of the specific principles that we'd identified exactly fit the division. Consequently, we reviewed the specific categories and category questions under each methodology and tailored them to our needs. The result was a graphic—affectionately dubbed the “hamburger” by division staff members—which represents our overall approach to the continuous improvement process (see figure, “Texas A&M Approach to the CI Process”).

Profiling for Progress

Early in the process, the division leadership committed to developing an organizational profile—a snapshot of our organization that sets the context for the way we operate. The profile, which became the foundation of our CI initiative, identifies the environment, key working relationships and influences, and strategic challenges and advantages. It serves as an overarching guide for the organization's performance management system. We updated our organizational profile in August 2009, and will continue to update it annually.

The profile was also an important predecessor for the development of the division's strategic plan, and was essential in the creation of the division's measures of success in CI. One reality we found while developing the organizational profile is that departments within the division often think about what affects their unique sphere of influence while focusing less on divisionwide initiatives. By creating a division organizational profile at the onset, we were able to establish a framework for departments to follow, and we completed departmental profiles also in August 2009.

In addition to the division's mission, vision, and core values, the organizational profile includes the following:

  • The division's major work units and the services they provide.
  • Employee profiles.
  • A description of our facilities and the current regulatory environment.
  • The division's major customers and strategic challenges.
  • Key performance measures.
  • Goals and imperatives.

The organizational profile was developed during several months through workshops with the division's leadership team. Tools used to facilitate the profile included (1) affinity diagrams (a group decision-making technique designed to sort a large number of ideas and opinions into naturally-related groups to find common themes), which aided in the analysis of risks the division faced and the environment in which the division operates, and (2) a SWOT analysis that considers strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The latter is a simple but powerful tool for sizing up an organization's resource capabilities and deficiencies, its opportunities, and the external threats to its future well-being.

Results from these analyses assisted us in identifying the imperatives and goals that are included in the division's strategic plan.

Perfecting Processes

Process improvement is where the continuous improvement theory became practice for many division employees.

Prepare personnel. The backbone of our effort is division employees who were trained to facilitate the various projects. Facilitators and CI Team members were provided four days of training by a recognized CI expert, a Baldrige examiner, and a Texas A&M faculty member who actively consults on CI. To date, more than 20 division staff have been trained as facilitators, and we have a waiting list for staff who desire to be facilitators. The division's vice president, associate vice presidents, assistant vice president, and executive director of IT attended a condensed “20,000-foot view,” half-day training course that acquainted them with the process improvement methodology.

The backbone of our effort is division employees who were trained to facilitate the various projects.

Facilitators are nominated by department directors and confirmed by the executive staff and the CI Team. We purposefully set the facilitator-selection criteria to include staff who were below midlevel management and who exhibited the following traits: leadership potential, enthusiasm, team orientation, and positive attitude. Facilitators also possess problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict-resolution skills. Division staff have recognized that becoming a facilitator is a great way to build leadership skills, develop contacts outside their specific departments, and interact with division leadership. Facilitators continue with their daily duties while working on the process improvement projects and typically spend two to four hours a week for two to three months on process improvement project teams.

Process improvement project teams each consist of six to eight staff members, including experts in the process, a team leader, a team sponsor, and customers. An assistant director or higher-level staff person in the area being reviewed serves as the team sponsor, selects the team leader and internal and external team members, and meets with a CI Team liaison to document the scope of the project, but is not active on the team.

Invite other perspectives. We found that customer involvement with the process improvement project teams is critical. Department staff know a process from the standpoint of how it functions within the division, but outside customers often see things differently and provide excellent input for the team to consider. We learned that feedback from one or two customers is not enough; teams should involve a minimum of three customers to make meaningful changes and provide diverse perspectives.

A side benefit realized through this inclusive process is the favorable “press” we've enjoyed. As a result of our projects, the CI Team has presented its story to several campus groups and will be assisting other departments interested in starting similar initiatives.

Document, delegate—and use diplomacy. The process improvement methodology uses tools such as affinity diagrams, run charts, interrelationship diagrams, flow charts, histograms, and scatter diagrams to document a process as it currently exists, analyze whatever data is available related to the process, and provide recommendations for improvements. Teams conduct formal report-outs of their observations and recommendations to the division, where they present and discuss storyboards created during their weekly team meetings.

The team sponsor selects an implementation team that works on the recommendations and provides timelines for their completion. The implementation team may have some members of the work team included, and other staff within the department may also be added. Process improvement projects, team recommendations, and implementation plans are on a SharePoint site so that division staff can see and track project results and team progress.

Division executive staff and department directors solicit projects. Their initial requests did not generate a lot of enthusiasm, as directors were hesitant about individuals from outside their departments “poking their noses” into their operations. However, once initial projects were begun and directors understood the process improvement methodology and saw the results, apprehension has not been an issue. We remind staff that we are looking at the process, not the people involved in the process. Too often blame attaches to a person when the process is really the problem. Despite this early resistance, during the past year, we've completed 11 process improvement projects in departments across the division (see sidebar, “Process Improvement in Practice”).

Assessing Performance Excellence

To monitor eventual outcomes, we developed a performance excellence self-assessment tool that division directors completed in August 2009. To create the tool, the team reviewed self-assessment questions used in the Baldrige and Quality Texas applications and also in Excellence for Higher Education (a similar exercise developed by Brent Ruben, executive director, Center for Organizational Development and Leadership, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey) and modified them for our environment and operations. (Because we are a division of a larger institution and most of our departments provide a service to the university, the education-specific criteria of these three methodologies did not fit the specific needs of our division.)

Process Improvement in Practice

A recent process improvement project studied how vacant, classified positions were reclassified using Texas A&M University's online employment system. The objective was to reduce the number of steps in the process and decrease turnaround time. This project originated out of concern from division directors about the length of time it took for a position to be reclassified to another level. The sponsor of the project worked with the team facilitators to identify a team leader, team members, and customers. The team was provided with training so that its members would have baseline information on process improvement methods and tools. The team leader set a schedule of weekly meetings to conduct the work.

During these meetings, facilitators guided the team through several process improvement analysis tools including flowcharting the process, creating a SIPOC analysis (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers), and graphing relationships among the different elements of the process. The team worked for approximately three months, and its findings drove the following recommendations:

  • Provide additional training to the department processors using the online system to avoid a bottleneck at the start of the process.
  • To clarify the initial request, require additional information on the employment system's electronic form, thus eliminating the need for manual clarification by human resources staff.
  • Establish certain fields in the system as “required,” making the gathering of initial information more accurate.
  • Add help links to provide online assistance to users.

Implementation of these recommendations has been successful, and data is now being gathered to determine the impact of the process changes.

After the division directors completed the initial self-assessment, the CI Team scored it using Quality Texas's scoring framework. As we are just beginning our CI journey, our scores were relatively low. Our approach to CI is not yet systematic, and most of our processes have not been deployed throughout the division. Truthfully, we did not envision scoring our responses when we began our initiative and self-assessment. However, after understanding the Quality Texas framework and desiring a metric against which we could measure ourselves in future years, we believed scoring would be appropriate and beneficial. One of the most difficult aspects of scoring the self-assessment was discussing the concept with division leadership and explaining that low scores were acceptable and appropriate since we were in early stages of our CI journey.

As we worked through the answers to the self-assessment and reviewed the scores for each area, we realized that we had developed a “to-do” list for the team for the future. We will identify the areas that the division needs to focus on based upon the self-assessment and then develop appropriate programs, policies, and procedures to address the needed improvements. The CI Team will be taking the lead in this process. We have also determined that we would work on two areas—strategic planning and customer focus—for the near future before moving into the other areas within our performance excellence management model.

Again, our focus is not necessarily to try to get higher scores in the future, but to move the division forward toward service excellence. We continue to be mindful that the CI initiative is a marathon, not a sprint. Performance excellence within an organization takes time, which is why the high-performing companies we visited have had similar initiatives in place for more than a decade.

Starting Your Own CI Initiative

CI Team members have presented the details of our CI initiative at national and state conferences within the past year, and the No. 1 question we were asked was, “What should we know before we get started?” Here are our suggestions for getting started down the right path:

  • Move beyond method. Don't wait until you think you have all the answers, but just get started. Thinking too much about what you want to do will not get your department or division moving in the right direction. All of us can find reasons why we can't begin a new initiative. Our early meetings were too focused on what methodology to use rather than on moving the division forward.
  • Put a priority on it. At conferences, when we asked participants why a CI initiative would not work at their institutions, the response we heard was that there was not enough time and money to begin such work. We thought the same thing until we focused resources on the issue and made CI a priority. If it's important, you will find the money needed to fund the initiative. Keep in mind that our initiative did not require a large financial commitment, since CI team members are funded by their individual departments.
  • Take it from the top. A requirement for any successful continuous improvement program is support from the top. We heard this in our site visits from organizations that have been working on CI for more than a decade, and it was evident as we began our focused effort almost two years ago. Division leadership had the vision to develop a program that allowed CI Team members to function in the roles within their respective departments while also allowing release time to keep the CI initiative moving forward. You need to find the right people to help lead the initiative: individuals who want to move your organization forward, have some basic idea of CI concepts, want to learn, and are respected within your organization.
  • Communicate openly about change. The ongoing communication from the division's executive team, highlighting the achievements of the process improvement teams, recognizing facilitators at annual awards ceremonies, and keeping CI at the forefront have allowed the division of finance to move forward. People who originally were not on the CI train are at least coming to the platform, and those who wanted to get on board are pushing the train forward. To date, approximately one third of division employees have been actively involved in the CI initiative as process improvement team facilitators or as process improvement team members.

That is not to say that the work has been easy. An organization's culture is hard to change, and people are resistant to anything that is new and different. It is more difficult to change the culture of an existing organization than to create an initial dynamic in a brand-new organization. In an already-established culture, people must unlearn old values, assumptions, and behaviors before they can learn new ones.

Texas A&M has more than 125 years of tradition, and people are resistant to and often fearful of change. But, despite some early pushback, we learned of strengths we hadn't fully appreciated, and we learned of areas needing improvement that had not previously been identified. We gained a better understanding of how we operate as a division. This learning and these insights occurred throughout the division. We learned that we have exceptional employees who want to do the right thing and to do things right. We learned that we just need to keep moving forward—systematically and with purpose—toward another goal, constantly focused on producing great work to become the best organization possible while remaining “committed to service excellence.”

ALISSA SCHROEDER is the director of benefits services, KATHRYN SYMANK is the associate vice president for administrative and human resource services, and GRANT TREXLER is the former director of analytical services at Texas A&M University, College Station. All three were founding members of the division's CI Team; Schroeder is chair of the CI initiative.