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Applying academic strategies for administrative success

by David Gobby, Coordinator of Quality Programs

My view of most conferences is that they are jargon-infested, coffee-polluted pits where hungry consultant wannabes throw business cards at "quality" gurus hoping to get copies of their PowerPoint slides.

However, a quality management conference I attended recently discussed ideas to improve performance that parallel what academia has applied to teaching and research for centuries.

Among them were the following, outlined by keynote speaker Thomas Pyzdek:

* Create time for innovation and creativity. People can gain significant improvements in productivity if they are allowed to schedule time for innovation, and not just obliged to work on routine tasks. We already know this works in academia. Sabbaticals and professional development are not perks, but necessary methods to achieve improvement in teaching and research. Pyzdek's own company instituted a policy freeing employees from their regular tasks for one hour every day to work on improvement. The company's sales more than doubled. As Pyzdek says, "Not bad for an investment of 12.5 per cent of payroll."

* Conduct experiments. We need to spend more time conducting experiments designed for improvements. This means we must create an atmosphere where we are not afraid of failure. Failure, defined as results other than those hoped for, are an inevitable consequence of experimentation. Great innovation, however, often does not occur without many failures. How often, when we fail in administration, do we look for someone to blame rather than reviewing the process to see what we can learn?

* Reduce procedure. (Oops, maybe this one is not so compatible with traditional academia.) It is very difficult to improve when stifled by procedure and protocol.

Pzydek is a proponent of Six Sigma, a methodology developed by Motorola Corp that strives for almost perfect quality: 3.4 defects per million. The Six Sigma management paradox states: "To attain Six Sigma performance, we must minimize variability, slack and redundancy by building variability, slack and redundancy into our organizations." As Pyzdek says, "This paradox exists because we employ people for their minds, and minds work best under conditions precisely the opposite of those under which processes work best."

The point is that the conditions that we know foster good performance in teaching and research can produce similar results in the day-to-day operation of the university. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, administrators were able to reduce the average time a graduate student had to wait for an admissions decision from 100 days to 33. They were able not only to save administrative time and costs, but reduce the number of good students they were losing to other schools simply because they had been taking far too long to send them an acceptance.

In order to achieve this, however, they had to 1) free up time in their employees' schedules to work on improvement and innovation, 2) conduct experiments to test their admissions processes and not lay blame for poor system performance, and 3) eliminate procedures, controls and protocols that no longer had any relevance to an admissions decision.

Look at all the administrative processes in the university where people have to wait for something. Can you think of some processes where these ideas just might work?

David Gobby, Coordinator of Quality Programs at Concordia, can be reached at dbgobby@alcor.concordia.ca


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