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Thursday, December, 04, 2008

Continuous Process Improvement in Higher Education

Note that this essay is one of twenty (20) New Directions in Planning essays, which are an online part of and a companion to the SCUP book, A Guide to Planning for Change (Norris and Poulton, 2008). The essays will eventually be available in their own Web home, but we are sharing them here, now, because we want you to have access to them sooner and because this blog environment will let you post comments, if you wish. Please do!

Continuous Process Improvement in Higher Education is written by Ruth Johnston of the University of Washington.

A Guide to Planning for
Change can be ordered in SCUP's online bookstore or via the order form you can download here (PDF). Why don't you purchase a copy (for yourself or a colleague) and spend the down time over the holidays refreshing your perspective on higher education planning?

Copyright SCUP, 2008, all rights reserved.

Continuous Process Improvement in Higher Education

by Ruth Johnston, University of Washington

The growing sophistication of continuous improvement, process reinvention, and outsourcing of services mirrors the growing salience of these practices to campus success. Many institutions have made strategic commitments to continuous improvement through participation in the Baldrige program, AQIP program, and others. Regional and programmatic improvement processes often mandate process reinventions to eliminate deficiencies. However, on many campuses, process improvement has focused narrowly on single-owner processes and has taken a conservative, “good enough” approach. In the future, colleges and universities are likely to engage more aggressively in continuous process improvement and reinvention. Selective outsourcing will continue to grow in sophistication as a key institutional strategy.

I. What Are the Forces Driving Continuous Improvement in Higher Education?

As demands increase for higher education leadership to demonstrate accountability and transparency to their funding sources, some universities and colleges are using principles and practices of what is known as continuous process improvement (CPI), quality improvement (QI), continuous quality improvement (CQI) or total quality management (TQM). This approach can be viewed as a form of organizational development, or as a set of tools that assist with organizational development.

In the early 1990s, as published in the Chronicle for Higher Education, major companies like IBM issued a challenge to higher education to adopt this approach as a way to manage the business of higher education. The sponsoring companies offered to help. This was met with some willingness – early among them University of Arizona under former president Manuel Pacheco’s leadership with partner Intel. However, there was considerable skepticism from many who didn’t see how corporate practices could be applied to the academy.

As the years progressed, the academy began to dabble with various methods for improving its business practices. Names of these methods included reengineering, LEAN, and Six Sigma. Quality improvement offices arose centrally or in pockets of higher education and supporting associations formed.

Early among higher education organizations supporting this approach was the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) who sponsored the TQM academy. This featured a weeklong institute for teams embarking on improvement to the academic or administrative parts of their institutions. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) supported the formation of a new group, the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement (NCCI), chartered in 1999. NCCI's mission today is to “advance academic and administrative excellence in higher education by identifying, promoting, supporting and sharing effective organizational practices among member institutions.” Other associations, including Society for College and University Planning, EDUCAUSE, Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQUIP) and the Institute for Student Services Professionals (ISSP) include articles in their publications and offer classes or workshops on improvement methodologies at their conferences and workshops.

Industry Support

Several national organizations support these efforts – strong among them is the Association Society for Quality (ASQ). ASQ offers training, tools, support and research on how to do quality improvement, measure success, improve work processes, etc. Six Sigma is a current focus, a method of measuring variance and reducing it.

The Palladium Group owns the training and consulting arm of Norton and Kaplan’s Balanced Scorecard approach to planning and measurement. State and federal agencies, along with health care, were early adopters of this approach to quality improvement. However, over the last decade, increasing numbers of higher education institutions have engaged with and found this methodology valuable.

II. What Are New Directions in Continuous Process Improvement?

Continuous process improvement is an intentional approach to strategic change – focused on planning for a determined future by improving business processes to get there. To be effective, CPI must look for improvement in a myriad of areas, including managing people, reducing waste or delays, understanding and meeting customer needs, and stewarding financial assets. Elements of effective CPI programs resonate with Balanced Scorecard principles (Kaplan and Norton), Baldrige, Deming and others. Each approach is best tailored to the needs and culture of the institution – with some approaches being university wide, others within the central business function or in auxiliaries. Faculty have been slower to adopt this approach; defining a student as customer is often problematic for some, and department chairs so often quickly rotate assignments precluding focus on this type of management.

Ideally, CPI includes participants from all aspects of the institution to work on improvement. Faculty, departmental staff, central administration and even students can work together effectively, with proper structure and training.

To improve quality, various tools are used, including:

• Strategic planning
• Project management
• Process improvement
• Flow charts and process maps
• Documentation
• Facilitation (for teams, meetings, conflict)
• Best practice sharing/benchmarking with others
• Change leadership and management
• Teamwork

To learn how to do continuous quality improvement, extensive training in these tools needs to be offered to staff, leaders, and teams.

W. Edwards Deming

W. Edwards Deming is viewed by many to be the founder of the quality improvement movement. Unsuccessful in having his ideas adopted by the US, he did much of his work in Japan. He believed in the use of statistical process control, employee involvement, and lessened management control. After achieving success in Japan, he finally began to receive credibility in his later years when he returned to the US to work with Ford. Other theorists, like Joseph Juran and Walter Shewart had complementary approaches.

“Deming offered fourteen key principles for management for transforming business effectiveness. The points were first presented in his book Out of the Crisis. (This is taken from

1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and stay in business, and to provide jobs.

2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.

3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease cost.

6. Institute training on the job.

7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.

8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.

10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

11. (a) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership. (b) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

12. (a) Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality. (b) Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.

13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.

14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s work.”

Guiding principles for quality improvement used by Financial Management, University of Washington, since 1990, and written by V’Ella Warren, Vice President.

What are the goals?

• Customer Focus
Actions are measured through the eyes of the customer. Anything which does not add value for the customer should be considered for elimination.

Each of us has both immediate and ultimate customers. The immediate customer is the person for whom you are providing a service, such as a report or a transaction. The ultimate customers of Financial Management are students and research faculty.

The opposite of customer focus is internal focus. This results in an individual assuming to understand customer needs without communications or involvement by the customer. Work processes may be developed which benefit the individual or his coworkers.

• Continuous Improvement
Continuous improvement is constant, gradual and incremental improvement. It is undramatic, involves small steps, is a group effort, focuses on processes, and is driven by people. Eighty percent of improvements in an organization come from continuous improvement.

The opposite of continuous improvement is dramatic change, which is visible, involves big steps, is abrupt and sudden, is based on individual work and ideas, and is driven by technology. This kind of change, while not bad, happens infrequently. It moves us to a new level of performance from which continuous improvement begins again. An example is a new financial accounting or personnel/payroll system.

How is it done?

• Quality Definition
Financial Management's quality definition articulates the goals that we all share as employees. This definition provides us with a common direction and focus, even though our individual work and customers vary.

If we do not know where we are going, it is hard to set off for the same destination. It is hard to measure and celebrate success if our intentions are not clear. To manage, we must all understand and commit to the quality standard.

The opposite of quality definition is an ad hoc set of standards which change from time to time and person to person. In such an environment, one often hears managers say: "I know quality when I see it."

• Work Process Focus
All work, in fact almost everything we do, is a process. A process is a group of logically related activities which utilize the resource of the organization to produce results. If you manage the process, the results will follow. Most problems come from process issues; people are not the problem.

A work process focus is characterized by a long term orientation, training and skills development, a supportive environment, understanding the broader context of the job and process, and team recognition.

The opposite of work process focus is to focus on the end result. This produces a short term orientation, rules, regulations, and managerial control, penalties for errors, and individual performance measurement and reward.

• Prevention
It is important to anticipate and plan for change. With good planning, communication, review, and quality improvement initiatives, most potential problems in meeting our customers' needs can be foreseen and prevented. In addition, we create a more productive, stress-free environment.

Among the results sought are reduced failures, rework and backlogs, more accurate scheduling, shorter lead times, better use of resources, and a better office climate.

The opposite of prevention is reaction. Lack of prevention dooms us to repeating our past mistakes and engaging in never-ending fire drills.

• Error-Free Attitude
If a commitment to a customer is not met, this is an "error." The work that each of us does is very important. If we each "do it right the first time," the customer will get better service, and we will have more efficient processes. This saves time for us and the customer. In the process of trying something new, there will be mistakes. This usually happens when we are trying to improve a process. An error-free attitude should not stop us from trying something new. It should, however, keep us from delivering poor or incomplete service.

The opposite of error-free attitude is the traditional attitude. "That's good enough. It meets the minimum standard."

• Manage by Facts
We must start from the beginning, asking what is the problem. How do we know? What are the facts? In this way, we avoid jumping to the obvious solution, which often does not completely address the problem.

Measuring the problem and the resulting solution are both part of managing by fact. If we can measure something, we can do something about it. Among the things we can measure are cost, cycle time, errors, steps in a process, customer satisfaction, savings, and hours.

The opposite of management by fact is management by intuition or gut feeling. This is a disease which tends to inflict experienced staff, particularly managers, because they base their decisions on what they assume they know rather than fact.

Who does it?

• Employee Participation
People are our greatest resource. By involving the right people in decision-making, better solutions are generated. Customer concerns are more quickly resolved. The individuals who will implement the solutions are already committed to the necessary changes. The amount of time needed for sponsor approval is reduced due to common goals, vocabulary and problem-solving tools.

This approach is more efficient than the traditional one. This is sometimes misunderstood by teams or individuals frustrated with the amount of time spent initially in team-building, problem identification and solution generation. The efficiencies come at the end of the process during review and implementation. In addition, inclusion of knowledgeable employees on process improvement teams produces changes that are 2 to 10 times more effective than management-only teams.

Critical to employee participation is education and training, teamwork, empowerment, open communication, and recognition. Benefits of the approach include higher morale and productivity, better solutions, better educated work force, and more satisfied customers.

The opposite of employee participation is decision-making by senior management. It is enforced by regulations and inspection. Employees pass all problems to managers for handling.

• Total Involvement
In Financial Management, quality is everybody's business, from the new employee to the Vice President. If we are to deal with our rapidly changing environment in positive ways, we must all be externally focused on our customer's needs. We must learn to work in teams to solve problems and improve processes. We must learn to communicate openly in all directions. We must all become perpetual learners, realizing that no individual is knowledgeable about all problems.

The opposite of total involvement is the assumption that quality is someone else's problem. Leaders assume that bad quality is a result of bad employees. Close controls and lots of rules result. Employees assume that they are powerless to suggest changes, that process partners don't do it right. Communication is kept at a minimum due to lack of trust between leaders and staff. There is not a sense of ownership for the day-to-day problems with customer service.

Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award:
Public Law 100-107 was written to create an incentive for American businesses to improve quality. It was named after Malcolm Baldrige who was viewed as an exemplary leader in the federal government.

There are three versions of the Baldrige award, and higher education may apply to two or even three if the institution has a hospital. For general business evaluation criteria, an institution would use the Business Nonprofit Criteria. However, if the organization wishes to focus on the educational mission including focus on faculty and students, then that version would be used. In addition, many states have their version of this award and use similar criteria. Below lists the overall categories that need to be addressed in the application, normally about 50 pages, and sharing of results and best practices is expected. To date, there have been only a few higher education institutions who have won: University of Wisconsin, Stout, Richland College, and Kenneth W. Monfort College of Business. Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton won in the health care division in 2004. Here are the criteria:

• Organizational Profile
• Leadership
• Strategic Planning
• Customer Focus
• Measurement, Analysis and Knowledge Management
• Staff Development
• Process Management
• Organizational Performance Results

III. How Do These New Directions Affect Integrated, Strategic, Aligned Planning?

Continuous process improvement is an important element in the execution of strategy and building organizational capacity. Chapter 2: Integrated, Strategic, Aligned Planning deals with the alignment of continuous process improvement with institutional strategic planning, accreditation, and performance measurement. The section of this chapter on “Aligned Planning” (pages 23-32) is especially illuminating.

IV. Resources and Links

Representative Institutions Practicing Continuous Quality Improvement:
Supporting Organizations:
  • National Consortium for Continuous Improvement,
  • American Council for Education,
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (manages Baldrige Award),
  • National Association of College and University Business Officers,
  • Academic Quality Improvement Program (Pew funded), Midwest Community Colleges and Universities are members,
  • Society for College and University Planning,
  • State Quality Awards (many states have them, go to your state’s website and search for quality award)
Relevant Readings:
  • “Change Agents,” article in April, 2008 NACUBO magazine, Art Rickard.
  • “Measuring Effectiveness in Student Fiscal Services at the University of Washington,” by Ruth A Johnston, in Student-Centered Financial Services: Innovations That Succeed. Edited by Nancy Sinsabaugh, NACUBO, 2007.
  • “IBM’s Higher Education Point of View – 2012: Executing to Lead in the Emerging Learning Ecosystem,” Patrick F Carey, 2006,
  • Continuous Quality Improvement in Higher Education, John Dew, Greenwood Publishing, 2004.
  • Pursuing Excellence in Higher Education: Eight Fundamental Challenges, Jossey-Bass, 2003, and Strategic Planning in Higher Education: A Guide for Leaders, NACUBO, 2004, Brent Ruben.
Article compiled by Ruth A. Johnston, Ph.D., Associate Vice President, Finance and Facilities, University of Washington. Ruth can be reached at, 206 685 9838.


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