Four Steps to Effective Process Improvement

October 18, 2021

Are your employees and faculty members spending a lot of time on repetitive and manual tasks that divert them from value-add activities?

For example, are student advisors spending most of their time working with students? Or are they plowing through stacks of paper forms or transferring information from one spreadsheet to another?

Higher education institutions are hampered by inefficient processes. Requirements and technologies change over time, but most people plug along without questioning whether they can perform the tasks more cost-efficiently.

This is where process improvement comes in. Let's look at the 4 key steps to effective process improvement that can help you shine a light on efficiencies and eliminate wastes:

1. Identify Subject Matter Experts

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are the people performing the tasks day-in and day-out. They are your first stop in process improvement — talking to them will help you understand a workflow.

People involved in a process change over time, so don't worry about finding every person at the start. You'll uncover these stakeholders in the next step. Instead, identify SMEs who work closely with the project sponsor. This can help you align day-to-day activities with high-level strategy, so you can avoid reworking the process further down the road.

2. Map the Process

Next, you need to get the information out of the SMEs' heads and turn it into a visual representation of the process so everyone can review it. You can use a whiteboard or digital mapping tools such as Lucidchart.

First, identify the start and end of a process. Then, map out every action involved along the way. By visualizing the workflow, stakeholders can step back and examine it. You'd likely discover more steps and people involved. The map will expand, and you'll see the full scope of the process.

You should understand every step in the workflow, especially if you plan to improve efficiency with automation. If you're automating an inefficient process, you're multiplying waste!

3. Improve the Process

After you have visualized a workflow, ask SMEs to share their pain points. You can ask them what they don't like doing: this question often leads people to talk about the waste pieces they assume to be part of the process (e.g., manually moving data from one spreadsheet to another,) but in fact, an inefficiency that can be improved.

Next, identify waste using TIMWOODS (transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overprocessing, overproduction, defects, and skills) according to Lean Six Sigma:

  • Transportation: Moving items around, including information. For example, paper processes often involve transferring stacks of forms from one area to another.
  • Inventory: "Work in progress" items stuck in limbo, such as paperwork piling up on someone's desk or PDF forms getting buried in an email inbox.
  • Motion: Going to different systems, either physically or digitally, to gather all the information needed to make a decision.
  • Waiting: Tasks getting batched and "parked" somewhere pending the next step (e.g., waiting for information to arrive.)
  • Overprocessing: Doing more work than necessary. Redundancy is common when information isn't shared among stakeholders in real-time.
  • Overproduction: Doing work before it's needed. For example, reports that are generated but never used.
  • Defects: These require rework, which often means going through all the wastes listed above all over again and multiplying the inefficiencies
  • Skills: Not using workers to their fullest capacities in value-add activities, like spending too much time on repetitive and manual tasks such as moving data between spreadsheets.

4. Iterate Improvements

Process improvements rarely happen all at once. We can look at it as a spectrum that ranges from "micro wins" to "custom solution."

"Micro wins" often show up during process review meetings. For example, SMEs would realize inefficiencies in their day-to-day tasks and make improvements immediately. These problems won't show up in future process reviews or measurements.

The key to making these "micro wins" happen is to empower stakeholders to take action right away. For example, you can use low-code automation software to enable administrators to build forms and automate workflows in minutes without waiting for IT support.

At the other end of the spectrum is "custom solutions." It requires a substantial amount of time and resources to implement and maintain. Meanwhile, the middle area offers opportunities to identify low-hanging fruits for which incremental and iterative improvements can bring a lot of value with minimal input.

Improving Process Improvement

Last but not least, you should be improving process improvement constantly. Let's revisit the example above where administrators can build forms using a low-code platform.

You can invest in building the software from scratch (which puts you in the "custom solution" end of the spectrum,) but that would take a lot of time and money. On the other hand, you can leverage existing solutions, such as Kuali Build, with robust API integrations that will allow you to achieve the same outcomes at a fraction of the cost and see results almost instantaneously.

Take a product tour to see how Kuali Build can make process improvement more efficient.

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