University of Strathclyde: Sustainable continuous improvement five years on

Five years ago, the University of Strathclyde (SU) had an ambition to be recognised as a leading international technological university, but a number of market forces were making the business environment challenging. Implementing sustainable continuous improvement and focusing on Operational Excellence could lower the cost of developing SU’s world class services and provide a competitive advantage.

The challenge

SU set out with two main goals. Firstly, it wanted to improve the conversion rate of high quality Postgraduate Taught (PGT) classes from offer to enrolment. In addition, the University wanted to build sustainable continuous improvement skills and capability internally to provide a future proofed approach to operational excellence.

The University believed that establishing and training a central Business Improvement Team (BI Team) in the use of continuous improvement “tools and techniques” and embedding a culture of continuous improvement across the University would remove waste and deliver long term capability, improved student (customer) journey experiences and achieve operational excellence.

Unipart were selected for their historical track record of embedding continuous improvement skills and capability in Higher Education, as well as other industry sectors. Unipart have over 30 years’ experience of successfully embedding sustainable continuous improvement within the Unipart Group of companies, its customers and suppliers.

How we helped

PGT Process

Senior buy-in for the project was won by understanding what success would look like to our stakeholders and designing KPIs around these. Unipart engaged front line staff by coaching and training them, and later by providing a supporting or guiding role, to deliver the following:

  • Map the current state process
  • Identify issues and improvements within the current process
  • Define the customer needs
  • Define the process requirements
  • Design and map the future state processes
  • Put benefit measures in place and collect the baseline data
  • Produce standard operating procedures for the new process
  • Roll out of the new process with alignment to the Unipart Way

Business Improvement (BI) Team

The Unipart consulting practitioners developed an excellent working relationship with the Strathclyde BI Team. The teams saw each other as capable, engaging and credible colleagues for the project duration.

There were two major elements to the programme:

1. Joint implementation of a continuous improvement system based on Unipart’s Operational Excellence methodology, that included:

  • Standard operating procedures to ensure that robust process baselines were in place to support continuous improvement
  • Visual Management to highlight problems and opportunities, and to inspire improvement
  • Implementation of Communication Cells (daily stand-up meetings) to enable teams to understand and improve their performance
  • Identification and implementation of improvements to the business areas through creative problem solving
  • The use of key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive continuous improvement behaviours and performance management
  • A workplace assessment process to ensure adherence to set standards and desired behaviours

2. A ‘Train the trainer’ programme, delivered by the Unipart team, to develop the BI Team’s capability to train and coach their Finance, HR and Student Lifecycle Services colleagues in Unipart Way tools and techniques.

Benefits delivered

PGT Process

The process had been redesigned and was in the process of being rolled out across the University and benefit measures were in place. However early results were:

  • Reduced application turnaround time from 18 to just 6 working days
  • 106 training workshops delivered to PGT staff by · Unipart and the BI Team
  • Payback on the investment with Unipart and confidence in a strong ROI with the next intake of students

BI Team

The discipline and structure required to maintain and build continuous improvement capability had been effectively transferred to the Business Improvement Team (3 practitioners and 1 support). 11 projects were running across the University, with 167 staff across 15 teams trained by Unipart and the Business Improvement Team. Whilst not the objective of the project, tangible benefits were already starting to be seen from the BI Team’s new skills and capability, including 342 hours per month of additional capacity created.

Five years on...

In the second year of tracking the benefits from the Postgraduate Taught (PGT) process improvements, the BI Team could confirm:

  • 56% reduction in time to review applications and offers 
  • 80% reduction in application errors
  • 31% increase in international student income
  • The project delivered £4m, for an ROI of 10:1

The BI Team has grown in size and experience. A large and increasing body of knowledge is being published online, which evidences the impact and tangible benefits of individual projects across the University. Key headlines include:

  • £8m increase in revenue
  • £0.5m in efficiency savings each year
  • 15,000 hours of staffing capacity released each year
  • As of February 2018, the University of Strathclyde has engaged 21% of the University’s administrative population in continuous improvement activity
  • 50 Communication Cells are being used across the University
  • 35 Lean practitioners have trained through the University’s own ‘Lean for leaders’ training programme
  • 115 people have been through the University’s ‘Evidencing benefits’ training course
  • 24 other Universities have visited the BI Team showcase area

A number of awards validate the extent to which continuous improvement and operation excellence has become a part of SU’s culture. These awards include:

    • Outstanding Administrative Service Team, 2016 Times Higher Education Leadership & Management Awards
    • Business Effectiveness and Organisational Development, 2016 Universities Human Resources
    • Inaugural Workplace of the Year 2017 Times Higher Education Leadership & Management Awards
    • John Hogg, the University of Strathclyde’s Director of Continuous Improvement, was named by the Lean Management Journal as being one of the top 25 most inspirational individuals in Lean Management in 2015

The BI Team has published a report (“Evidencing benefits”) that has been widely recognised across the Higher Education sector and endorsed by the then Higher Education Funding Council for England (now renamed "Office for Students") and the British Universities Finance Directors Group. The approach outlined in the report is being adopted by a number of HE institutions, including Russell Group universities.

The BI Team’s report, and associated training materials have reached an audience of over 5,000 readers worldwide and, recently, has even been translated
into Norwegian.

The future

SU recognises that Continuous Improvement is strategically important and objectives have been set to:

  1. Improve and roll out continuous improvement and benefits training programmes to more staff. 
  2. Create a network of SU continuous improvement champions across the university
  3. Run masterclasses, workshops and showcasing events to strengthen and support the continuous improvement network
  4. Share their journey with other Higher Education providers
  5. Roll-out continuous improvement methodology across all professional service areas by 2025

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