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How to Manage Bottlenecks in Higher Education Processes

January 7, 2021

With the start of the new year, it may be a goal within your institution to streamline processes and reduce costs wherever possible. Finding and managing bottlenecks is excellent as a common practice in all industries including higher education.

Higher education may be on the slower side of modernizing processes in comparison to other industries. As a result, you may not be aware of the inefficiencies certain departments are experiencing or what exactly is preventing prospective students from submitting an application.

In this article, we dive into the different types of bottlenecks present in higher education institutions, what kind of impact this has if unresolved, and three helpful tips for how to manage bottlenecks in your department. 

Types of Bottlenecks in Higher Education

  • Short-term bottlenecks - This is typically a temporary issue that will resolve itself quickly. An example of a short-term bottleneck can be when a team member who is in charge of manually approving purchase orders is out of the office. They did not sign the purchase order prior to leaving, therefore, the purchase order cannot be submitted until they return and the shipment of supplies may be delayed.
  • Long-term bottlenecks - This form of a bottleneck is an indicator of a deeper process issue, such as limited resources. Are your IT requests getting backlogged because there are too many projects in the pipeline? IT department struggling to keep up due to understaffing? Resolving long-term bottlenecks may take more time and resources than short-term bottlenecks.

Why are bottlenecks in a workflow an issue?

If bottlenecks are not resolved, this can cause numerous problems for a department or the whole institution if the issues escalate. Common issues as a result of a workflow bottleneck include:

  1. Increased delays in project completion
  2. Reduced efficiency within teams or across departments
  3. A potential increase in costs and resources spent on completing projects 
  4. The risk of a negative end-user experience (this can vary depending on if students are the end-user or a staff member in your department)
  5. Increase in burnout and turnover within teams (often present within IT departments)

What are the signs of a bottleneck in a workflow?

It’s important to spot the signs of a bottleneck in a workflow early on to reduce the negative impact as much as possible. Here are some common bottlenecks you may come across:

1. Projects are getting backlogged

You may start noticing that some projects are not finished on time and pile up as the weeks or months pass by. This can be a short-term bottleneck when it occurs around the holidays and departments consisting of a skeleton crew or team members are mentally checked out. Or it can be a more complex bottleneck, such as an influx in IT support tickets from the Admissions department requesting that new fields be added into student application forms. What may seem like a simple addition is actually a time-consuming project that the IT department is having trouble fulfilling due to fewer resources or manpower.

2. Increase in errors 

Some manual processes, like data entry, are more likely to generate errors versus automated processes. Or, it can be the result of cutting corners to complete a project that’s already behind schedule. Whatever the circumstance, an increase in errors is a major red flag that there’s a bottleneck or another issue present in your workflow.

3. Unhappy team members

If you are a department lead, make sure to engage with the teams in your department and ask them about their experiences. Gauge their reactions - do they seem happy or upset with current processes? Are they showing signs of burnout? Consistent communication with the individuals that are in the weeds of a project can help you identify bottlenecks you weren’t aware of and can be addressed sooner.

4. Poor user experience

Who is the end-user in higher education? This can vary depending on what the process is or who is engaging with the final outcome - a student or a department member. At a student level, this can take the shape of time-consuming forms that need to be manually submitted for a work-study program or additional financial aid assistance. Automating certain fields in that form can save students a significant amount of time, but according to the current IT workflow, this is at least four months out from being implemented.

From a department level, this could entail a poor vacation/time-off request process. The institution you work for may encourage a work-life balance, but it’s hard to achieve when the approval processing is so slow that it discourages people from requesting vacation days.

2 Simple Steps for Finding a Bottleneck in a Process 

1. What’s the problem?

The first part of this step is to identify the issue (refer to the list above if needed). Is it a project backlog issue or are you finding that your department is experiencing high turnover? Once you identify the issue, break it down further by figuring out potential reasons as to why the issue is present.

The second part is to determine whether it’s a short-term or long-term bottleneck. Is it something that has a quick solution or will it take more thought and resources to resolve?

2. Map out your processes

Once step 1 is complete, move on to mapping out your departmental processes. Where do they begin and end? Who do they begin with and who is the end-user? By mapping out each step in the process, it can provide clarity on details like project requirements and project ownership. It helps to visualize the process by creating a workflow diagram so you can clearly isolate the bottleneck.

a map of a workflow

You may also find it helpful to assign the approximate time it takes to complete a project (only if this makes sense to do so, some departments have this more clearly defined than others). 

Now That You’ve Found Them, How Do You Manage Bottlenecks?

Decrease the number of requests

Sometimes it’s as easy as pausing on certain requests for a short period of time so the ones in the pipeline can be addressed. It can help to organize the requests based on priority - what’s the most pressing and what can wait?

When you don’t have the luxury of waiting, invest in a no-code solution designed to address common Higher Education needs, like a form builder. Some departments need to create customized forms to speed up certain processes like approval requests. When the IT department is perpetually backlogged and can’t get to your request for another month or two, a no-code form builder is an ideal solution. The drag-and-drop interface allows you to create a form to fulfill the need your department is experiencing without a web developer.

Automate your workflow

Bottlenecks tend to pop-up within manual processes more than automated processes, so automate your workflows whenever possible! Leverage tools, like Kuali Build’s form and workflow automation software, to help save you valuable time and resources, reduce errors, and also improve efficiency.  

Increase workflow visibility

Another way to manage bottlenecks is to increase visibility across teams and departments. This is one of the many benefits workflow automation software can provide to a higher education institution. When there are more eyes on a process, the faster a bottleneck or issue can be detected and resolved.

Measure Your Progress & Repeat

Now that you’ve taken the steps to identify and manage bottlenecks, measure the outcome of the progress. Are projects being completed on time or is the completion rate improving steadily? Has the approval process sped up over the last quarter? It’s important to analyze and repeat the steps until you get the desired results. Improving processes in higher education requires continuous effort from every department and team member. 

The outcome can be great! It can save your institution valuable time, and even better, money. See how Kuali Build helped Southern Connecticut State University save $675,000 by providing a workflow automation solution.

Southern Connecticut State Case Study
Forms and workflow vs. Esign Blog
How to create a workflow diagram blog
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