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Efficiency, Collaboration, Continuous Improvement and Optimization

  • Balzer, W.K., Krehbiel, T.C., & Francis, D.E. (2016). Retrieved on June 26, 2017 from Lean Applications in Higher Education
  • Friedman, T.L. (2016). Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 
  • Report prepared by chairwoman Becky Degen, director, Continuous Improvement; Wendy Cradduck, manager of unit programming, Information Technology; Teresa Hall, department head/director/professor, Construction and Operations Management; Dean Kattelmann, associate vice president, Facilities and Services; Amanda Mitchell, assistant to the dean, College of Nursing; Kristi Tornquist, chief university librarian/professor, Hilton M. Briggs Library. 


This committee viewed “optimization” as the umbrella concept for two interrelated components: (A) “collaboration” and (B) “continuous improvement” and “efficiency.” Ultimately the main focus of this concept paper is to illustrate how to optimize SDSU’s scarce resources—people, time, money, assets—so they can best be used to advance the land-grant mission of the university in teaching and learning, research and innovation, service and outreach. Optimization can lead to empowerment of faculty, staff, students, external partners and others regardless of their status. In turn, this will allow these individuals to examine how they can contribute and exercise their full potential. 

  1. SDSU's collaboration efforts in the past five years have included cross-disciplinary research projects, a new and growing emphasis on precision agriculture, strengthened faculty governance exemplified by policies and processes incorporated into the revised Faculty Handbook, the collaborative work of employees which purposely crosses internal unit boundaries (e.g., the Dean of Students) and the creation of new academic divisions and schools. In addition, there has been a continued emphasis on academic and research collaborations with other Board of Regents universities as well as partnerships with regional post-secondary institutions. 
  2. Much of SDSU's focus on continuous improvement and efficiency in the past five years has been in three areas: (1) utility infrastructure, (2) applying software applications to reduce or eliminate paper-based processes and (3) making process enhancements using a continuous improvement or “lean” framework. 

Over the last 10 to 15 years, SDSU has made significant investments in the utility infrastructure. This has resulted in significant savings in water, sewer and energy costs. Energy consumption per square foot, per degree day, has been reduced from 21.41 btu/SF/Degree-day in 2006 to 17.76 in 2016. Furthermore, using that same time frame comparison, we are heating 1 million more square feet with the same energy input. Additionally, SDSU leads the state with the number of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings. During this timeframe, the University has also addressed accessibility needs to assure students, faculty, staff and visitors are able to navigate and access campus safely and with ease. 

New and improved electronic forms have greatly reduced our reliance on routing paperwork as well as minimizing processing time and making approvals easier for SDSU employees, particularly those in remote locations. Examples of these forms include out-of-state travel approval, external funding routing process, conflict of interest reporting, motor pool request forms, Facilities and Services work order requests and a number of information technology services. Investments in creating these new electronic forms have been primarily initiated by process owners and were developed by campus IT services at the request of internal users. 

SDSU's Lean journey began in FY 2013 with a partnership between the Library and the Department of Construction and Operations Management. At the same time, President Chicoine observed the positive impact of lean practice via interactions with Avera McKennan and Daktronics Inc., and included a Continuous Improvement goal in the Impact 2018 strategic plan. Using the expertise of the partnership already existing on campus, a Lean Processes Task Force was formed by President Chicoine in March 2013 to address the Impact 2018 Strategic Plan goal to grow SDSU’s capacity as a high-functioning university via the integration of lean management practices. President Chicoine adopted many of the recommendations resulting in the hiring of SDSU's first Director of Continuous Improvement in January of 2015. Concurrent with this search process, an advisory group was formed, training was provided and a pilot lean activity was conducted at the Print Lab. 

The Office of Continuous Improvement has three main responsibilities: training employees on lean concepts, facilitating process improvement projects and outreach. In the two and a half years since its inception, the Director of Continuous Improvement has trained more than 250 employees. A Lean Champions program has been launched to grow the number of CI facilitators to expand the impact of CI on campus. Two cohorts of Lean Champions representing 10 departments are now prepared to lead lean efforts across the university. 

Here are the highlights of two projects the Director of CI has facilitated: 

Nursing Graduate Admissions Process—Dr. Mary Minton 

  • Goal: Make the Nursing graduate program admissions process more effective and efficient for applicants and faculty. 
  • Outcomes: 1) Established a clear understanding of the current state of the process for nursing graduate student admissions 2) Standardized the number of and established best timing for admission cycles which shortened the process cycle from three weeks down to one week 3) Admissions review committee meetings went from as long as six hours to two meetings at less than one hour each.

First Year Advising Center, University College - Jody Owen 

  • Goal: Reduce the amount of workload dedicated to administrative tasks and allow more time to advise students and build a culture of continuous improvement. 
  • Outcomes: 1) Eliminated steps in the advising process that did not add value for the student 2) Empowered advisers to make work process decisions 3) Increased the amount of time available to meet with students.
Lessons Learned 

When contemplating the impact of our optimization efforts over the past five years, SDSU has learned: 

  • Collaboration and continuous improvement are most successful within organizational unit cultures that value the process and have a long-term view on expected results. 
  • Open and authentic communication, trust and a sense of common purpose between all levels of the organization is required. 
  • If we want to continue our record of success and realize the full potential of continuous improvement, it must be operationalized at the unit, college and institution levels with adequate resources to assure gains are sustained. 
  • Every unit operates with processes that have been inherited or created, often from only one unit’s perspective. Without documented process standards, processes cannot be improved. 
  • Process review also provides an opportunity to examine hidden biases and systemic unfairness and can provide a venue for all voices to contribute ideas for improvements. 
  • The best chance for success is if the collaboration or continuous improvement project is internally owned. 
  • Sincere commitment from senior leadership is critical. 
  • Up front investments in utility infrastructure result in lower costs long-term. 
  • Moving a form from paper to electronic does not necessarily improve the process.
  • Processes should be reviewed and analyzed for improvement before technology is applied. Technology is a necessary and valuable partner, but should not be the only driver for process improvements. 
National Trends and External Picture 

Optimization, including collaboration and efficiency, has been an overarching emphasis for the past decade in our cloud-based, global environment (Friedman, 2016). Our key stakeholders, including employees, students and the community, expect world-class service and instant gratification in all transactions and are frustrated when these expectations are not met. At SDSU, we ignore these trends at our peril. 

Collaboration initiatives in higher education have focused on industry partnerships, cross-institution partnerships and partnerships with funding agencies. Town and gown partnerships have also been crucial to university success depending on the complexities of the communities in which the universities are located. Distance education has necessitated partnerships like SARA. Further collaboration across sectors of the higher education market (two-year and four-year articulation agreements) are becoming commonplace as are degree-sharing programs with high schools. Collaboration with state and federal government entities have been on a trajectory of more mandates and less funding. With 4,700 higher education institutions in the U.S., there are many opportunities to benchmark against high performers and adopt collaboration best practices suited to our unique situation. 

Continuous improvement initiatives in the post-secondary environment are less widely applied than collaboration and are generally organized under the descriptor “Lean Higher Education.” Colleges and universities that have adopted LHE practices are driven by the need to strategically leverage resources to meet stakeholder expectations, reduce waste or costs and improve satisfaction with under-performing processes. Most LHE projects focus on operations such as financial transactions, facilities management, human resources and library services. Additionally, student support services such as admissions and registration, housing, financial aid or food services are prime targets for improvement projects. Based on documented results by early adopters in higher education, clear continuous improvement is part and parcel of organizational strategic planning and applied within daily operations at forward-thinking institutions. 

Balzer, et. al. (2016) provided a set of recommendations for implementing LHE based on best practices and lessons learned. First, continuous improvement initiatives must be understood by and fully supported by top-level administration. Second, respect for employees at all levels must be adopted as a philosophical tenet. Third, documenting and celebrating success serves to motivate, builds support and momentum and strengthens and sustains a culture of change. Last, improving the student experience is the ultimate goal, even though cost savings will be a natural outcome of successful projects. 

Strategic Themes 
  • As the new strategic plan is developed and finalized, continuous improvement and collaboration will contribute to the success of our future plan’s implementation. 
  • The goal of optimization activities needs to be focused on the primary user/customer. Ideally, SDSU will adopt a culture of inquiry that asks, “What are the benefits of this project from the perspective of the primary stakeholder?”, “How does this advance our university mission and the strategic plan?” and “Have we been inclusive during the process, assuring underrepresented stakeholders are consulted and included?”. 
  • Optimization efforts via CI projects and improved collaborations will serve to meet "customer" expectations, including respect, empowerment and acceptance. This environment will enhance recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff. 
  • From the listening sessions, employees have expressed a strong desire to reduce frustration and improve collaboration via optimized processes and services. 
  • There is a need to more clearly define our expectations of and relationships with BOR staff. In addition, we need to invest in mutually beneficial collaborations with all Regental institutions. 
  • We need to determine how we will measure the success of our optimization efforts in the areas of collaboration and continuous improvement. Pro: We will better understand the impact of our work if we measure the outcomes. Con: There is time involved with compiling and analyzing measures. 
  • Technology and infrastructure improvement investment requests will be a natural outcome of new collaborations and improved processes. Consider asking stakeholders, in particular marginalized groups, to engage in process improvement before requesting investments of time or money. Pro: It will increase the probability of a well-placed strategic investment. Con: It could slow down implementing the improvement project and may frustrate requesters. 
  • There are situations when we need to determine if a poorly designed policy is creating a problem rather than a broken process or a failed collaboration. We need to also consider policies that may be biased, increase disparities or create unequitable outcomes. Pro: Review of policies or rules prevents an investment of time in a project that would be thwarted from achieving the best solution. Con: Policies may not be under the jurisdiction of SDSU so updating them may not be easily achieved. 
  • We should review and strategically invest in mutually beneficial partnerships within the state. Pro: Collaborations could improve the post-secondary environment for SDSU particularly when considering the changing landscape for state technical colleges; there may be a missed opportunity if we don’t collaborate. Con: Building alliances requires mutual trust and common purpose which take time and energy to develop.
  • We should provide cross-campus activities to communicate what it means to have a culture of CI. This could be as small as a video clip featuring the Jackrabbit performing a lean process or as extensive as hosting a “Kaizen Breakfast” for each department. Pro: These forms of communication would help share basic information about lean in a light-hearted and appealing way. Con: It would require an investment of time and resources.
  • We should consider transitioning the Office of CI from taking any and all CI projects (tactical) to project selection based on mission and unit operational goals (strategic). Pro: This would focus time and energy on the highest priority items based on the new strategic plan. Con: It would result in turning down some CI projects until the Lean Champion program is at critical mass. 
  • We could cease our organized lean activities. Pro: There would be short-term cost savings of one employee salary. Con: We would lose the goodwill we have grown over the past five years from regional industry partners, Brookings city government, Bureau of Information and Telecommunications (where we have provided expertise), the Board of Regents and the South Dakota Legislature. We would lose momentum with our benchmark peers and slow the pace of future improvements and efficiencies. 
  • Ask deans, directors and department heads to encourage and recognize collaborations within their units, and the president and vice presidents to sponsor university-wide collaborations. Pro: This places the emphasis on cross-unit collaboration and inclusion where it would be most effective. Con: Some opportunities may be missed depending on the time and expertise of the unit. 
  • SDSU should consider taking a leadership role in spreading lean concepts to the rest of the BOR including the office in Pierre. Pro: The work could improve statewide processes that impact SDSU students and employees and could further strengthen SDSU’s position as the flagship institution in the system. Con: This body of work could be expected to take a significant amount of time, energy, political currency and personnel resources. 
Projected Costs 

Collaboration and continuous improvement efforts take time. This primarily will be the time of existing employees as we attempt to develop strategic collaborations and infuse a culture of continuous improvement across SDSU. 

If we expect to continue to move paper processes to electronic formats, we may need the investment of additional IT employees. 

We should continue to support the Lean Champion cohort program to grow continuous improvement process expertise across campus. Departments and units would have to be willing to provide release time for the participants with the expectation of recouping the investment in improved unit performance and new efficiencies. 

If we decide we want to work within the BOR system or state governmental agencies to provide lean expertise, we would need to seek funding from BOR/Legislature for a position. 

We should benchmark our investments in campus optimization, communications and collaborations against stretch goal institutions. 

Short- and Long-term Plans 
  • Celebrate and reward collaborations and continuous improvement projects to raise awareness. [Could begin immediately.] 
  • Benchmark other institutions who have been successful in optimization, communication and collaboration projects, for example, Miami University – Ohio. [Could begin immediately.] 
  • Modify the DBM to incentivize continuous improvement and collaboration. [Review in coming year.] 
  • Staff continuous improvement efforts at a level that meets demand. [Review demand and determine need and if financial resources can be prioritized.] 
  • Investigate BOR-wide lean leadership possibilities. [Begin conversations next year.] 
  • Develop a list of collaboration strategies and prioritize them based on our mission and strategic plan. [Outcome of the strategic planning process.] 
  • Document standards and engage the key stakeholders to discuss opportunities for improvements to better serve our students and the community. [In process and could be expanded.] 
Works Cited