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Master of Process Improvement

The University of Tennessee at Martin set up a new process improvement facilitator position and gave the person who holds it no authority, no budget, and no staff. Yet that's the way he likes it, and he's managing to make the institution more effective, one process at a time.

The process of dual enrollment at the University of Tennessee at Martin was an absolute mess. It began with a signature authorization form. Parents had to give the students consent to take a college course while they were still in high school. So that involved a high school counselor providing a form to a student, who would take it to the parent, who would sign it and return it to the student, who would return it to the counselor, who would then sign off on it. Then it would go the university's dual-enrollment office, which would frequently find something wrong with it, so it would have to go back to the counselor, and then back again. The authorization would go off, in sequence, to the records office to get the student registered, to the admissions office for admission, and the business office for getting fees billed and paid. The state of Tennessee might get involved if there were some kind of state help for attending the course. That back and forth shuffle added up to potentially 41 steps and two weeks' worth of effort involving people in four departments at the university, along with parents, counselors, students, and teachers.

That was before Process Improvement Facilitator Mike Abney and his colleagues on the Off Campus Admissions and Registration task force wrestled the process into submission. Now dual enrollment takes about two hours of processing time and has four steps.

This kind of success story is happening all over the campus, and Abney said he gives much of the credit to the existence of three vital components: support for process improvement from top administrators; a simple process improvement cycle protocol Abney developed; and PerfectForms, a workflow tool he adopted that's now being used by multiple people on campus.

A Simple Protocol for Improving Processes
When Abney joined the office of Finance and Administration in 2007 after a role as director of Technical Services in the IT organization, he feared his new role as process improvement facilitator would be viewed as a "hatchet man" focused on reducing positions. "I had to make sure this was not the perception," he said.

The dual enrollment issue was a hot button place to start his work because the program was having trouble getting students through the myriad steps to have them fully registered and paid up in time for the start of each new school term.

Abney looked around for an approach to fit the needs of the university. Nothing he could find online was simple enough for wide adoption, so he developed his own protocol, which involves a grass roots approach: talking with the people doing the work to find out how the process can be improved. The protocol he ultimately developed has five steps:

  1. Define scope, encompassing the name, purpose, and start, and end points of the process to improve.
  2. Map out how the process works now.
  3. Set measurable targets to identify crucial issues, and set targets that will be used to evaluate improvements.
  4. Map out how it might work better by brainstorming how to achieve targets, including minimizing or eliminating bottlenecks and non-value added steps.
  5. Evaluate. Have the measurable targets been met? If not, pilot and adjust the process until targets are met. If so, implement the new process.

In the case of a university setting, the process improvement may extend over multiple terms or semesters since that's the usual cycle for an institution. Details--stakeholders, the current steps in the process, the ideas generated in brainstorming, and the like--are maintained in a custom database.

In the case of the dual enrollment work, the chancellor held a kickoff meeting, encompassing stakeholders--representatives from all of the affected departments--and Abney as facilitator. The chancellor declared to those in attendance, "We're asking you folks to take care of this," Abney recalled. "Then he along with other leaders, stepped out, and we got to work. That provided incentive to get started."

From there, Abney helped the working group define the scope of the process, documented the existing workflow, and did some brainstorming to come up with potential changes. The final draft of a revised process went back to the chancellor's staff for approval.

The current process for dual enrollment is now completely paperless--the first in the State of Tennessee to be so, Abney said. The form that's used "never hits a sheet of paper and nobody ever signs their name using a pen," he explained. It goes all the way through the process from one e-mail inbox to the next via a workflow stage that's pre-defined in PerfectForms. Parents simply type in their name and click on a box that verifies they're the parent or guardian and that says they provide consent for the student to attend a college course.

Since it's not actually a legal document, the university decided it had no liability, and therefore no actual handwritten signature was necessary. "If the parents don't want to pay for it, they don't, and the student is dropped from the course," he explained.

A Simple Tool That Fits the Work
Abney discovered PerfectForms while he was doing a massive online search for a tool that would help U Tennessee Martin automate its paper processes. He looked at a roster of products that included Singularity and Hyland Software's OnBase, as well as PerfectForms. "I remember the moment that I discovered that PerfectForms was going to be a great process improvement program," he recalled. "It was almost like going from the dark into the daylight."

Describing other tools he evaluated as requiring an "act of Congress and a large appropriation in funds to get started with," PerfectForms had a simple buy-in. For $360 he could subscribe to the hosted version of the application for a year.

Plus, it allowed him to set up a workflow that could involve people not directly related to the university--such as those high school students, parents, and counselors. "Other tools I had looked at required you to set up sign-ins. When you're talking about 45 high schools and growing, it's an administrative nightmare," he said. "The ability to create the form, to determine its workflow, and for that workflow to go through a person's e-mail inbox--a tool they use every day--is the secret of PerfectForms."

The application allows a user to build a form using point and click tools and design a workflow in a drag-and-drop interface. The user can add "intelligence" to the form, such as calculations, validations, and conditional skipping of questions and pages. Once the form is submitted, it follows the workflow as predefined. That workflow can include notifications, reminders, or escalation. The application includes reporting, can pull data to pre-populate forms, and can display dashboards to keep users informed about the status of forms.

Abney also appreciates how users don't have to be programmers to work with the application. "If you're analytical in any way, then you can use this tool," he said.

That's an advantage because success has bred success. The processes for reviewing vendor contracts or handling purchasing, for example, traditionally has received only part-time attention at the campus. Both processes have been automated with PerfectForms, including set-up of dashboards for reporting. Now, rather than the individuals in charge of those functions spending their limited time saddled with paperwork or responding to requests for updates on the status of a given contract or purchase, they can focus on talking with vendors and finding best buys. As a result, Abney said, customer satisfaction with those shared services on campus has gone up, since people who have put in requests are automatically notified by e-mail at each step of the newly designed processes.

Now, as a department wants to rework its processes, Abney trains its designated representatives, who go back and hold their own process improvement sessions. He plans to set up a user group to get interested people together regularly to learn more about refining their processes or using the software. His has evolved into a mentoring role. "I'm involved to help in implementing the protocol that defines the process, but not so much the development of that process within PerfectForms," he said.

The successful outcome of process improvements has inspired the university to hire a person on a one-year term using federal stimulus funding specifically to focus on improving a multitude of processes within Student Affairs, ranging from Higher Education Opportunity Act tracking to converting all paper-based processes in Campus Recreations to paperless. "The successes are snowballing into a possible enterprise approach," noted Abney, who is mentoring that temp person but offering little to no help beyond that.

Although many business process changes frequently face resistance from users who don't want to change how they work, that hasn't been a problem at U Tennessee Martin. In fact, the only challenge Abney continues to have is getting colleagues to think "outside the box." As he explained, "I tell them, 'Of course, this is not true, but it's so close to being true, consider this statement when thinking of improving your processes: If you can dream it, we can do it with PerfectForms.' The only problem is that now when they make a request, they write to me, 'I'm dreaming that I can ...' and fill in the blank. So we're challenged to make their dreams come true."

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