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Process Improvement: Getting into the Weeds

“Getting into the weeds” is often invoked in a pejorative context – especially in a work setting. Discuss too much detail and people tend to zone out!  
However, “getting into the weeds” is exactly what’s needed for the process improvement component of the Student Information System (SIS) project. Optimizing business practices, a key component of SIS, starts with detailed discussions of how the university currently operates, and how it could operate more efficiently.  
Project sponsor Elizabeth H. Simmons, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, emphasizes the importance of process improvement. She encourages staff to ask why we do things a certain way and consider how we can reach the same outcome in a manner that’s more efficient and better coordinated.
“This is exactly the right time to make such an assessment,” said EVC Simmons. “Our goal is to use the SIS project to design the new system so it will avoid putting unnecessary strain on staff. We need to use technology upgrades and process improvement to identify work that can be streamlined and automated to free up staff time to focus on functions that require human thought and ingenuity.” 
Sounds great! But how do we get there? 

Process Improvement Basics 

“If we do X today, can we do X minus 10 steps tomorrow?” asks Prachi Raheja, Continuous Improvement Lead and Lean Bench Manager. That sums up process improvement driven by Lean Six Sigma (LSS) principles – identifying efficiencies and cutting waste. The SIS change team leads process improvement alongside UC San Diego’s Lean Bench – a collection of staff with high-level LSS training.  
Work began in September 2019 to construct a detailed understanding of the current process landscape. “We need to be informed about what’s happening now before we can begin to make it more efficient or find steps to automate,” Raheja explained. Think hand-off points, process flows, time delays, and other factors that contribute to a process.  
Understanding the now informs the future. “We’re working toward constructing an ideal state of process flows irrespective of the technology platform,” said Raheja. “For example, if there’s no limitation set by technology, or we have the most powerful SIS in the world, how would we want our operations to run?” 
The entirety of process improvement work falls into three broad phases: 
  1. Understanding the current state – what do we do now and why do we do it? 
  2. Planning the ideal state – what would we do if anything was possible? 
  3. Implementing the future state – how should we configure the new SIS to achieve our goals? 

End Goal: Simple Processes, Strong Systems 

“Right now, we’re the opposite of where we want to be,” explained Raheja. “We have complex processes supported by weak, outdated systems. Our goal is to implement simple processes supported by strong systems.” 
Easier said than done, especially when working to reformulate processes and systems that have evolved symbiotically over three decades. Process improvement exercises strip everything away and arrive at foundational causes.  
“Re-examining how and why we do things is a luxury we don’t often engage in,” said Katie Frehafer, SIS Business Process Lead. “This project provides the opportunity to look at the big picture holistically, including re-envisioning how work happens on a person-to-person level.  
“Ultimately, we want to make sure we’re not just copying old processes and re-introducing them into new technology. We’re working on a sea change of process re-imagination.” 
Frehafer echoed EVC Simmons in describing the desired outcome, saying, “The goal is to make work and functions more efficient for students, staff and those using the systems. For staff especially, we want to eliminate manual tasks and free up their time to be creative in their role of assisting students, advancing research and everything else that makes UC San Diego great.”  

People-Driven Process Improvement  

The SIS change team relies on staff working in the processes to provide input and solutions. From January to July 2020, 67 process mapping sessions were conducted with 108 Subject Matter Experts participating. “We’re engaging people who understand the nuance and details,” Frehafer explained. “We need experts to guide us and describe why current processes exist, whether the reason be technological systems, a policy rule, a business need, or anything else.” 
Subject matter experts, or SMEs, will stay engaged. “We’ll definitely partner with SMEs to build our future state,” said Frehafer. “This is not about the project team collecting information then hiding out in a room to plan the future. The SMEs will be brainstorming right alongside us. We need to ensure that what seems like an improvement will actually be an improvement for those doing the work.”  

Merging Process and Platform 

Process improvement work will continue into Fall 2020. Process maps generated will be a foundational element of Conference Room Pilots when prospective vendors showcase how their products can handle our processes. “As the team evaluates solutions we’ll want a clear vision of what processes are in scope, how much variation we are dealing with, and where we have opportunities for process improvement,” said Raheja.

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