An “enormous amount of waste” is still to be found in Australian Universities

Posted: 14/12/2018

In a recent Australian Financial Review article, University of Melbourne Management professor, Professor Danny Samson was quoted saying that compared to world-class organisations an “enormous amount of waste” is still to be found in Australian universities – and he is right.

The outcomes of improvement projects that DVE has undertaken during the last ten years have shown, that while process improvement activities have increased and the willingness to adopt Lean Thinking and other Business Process Improvement (BPI) methodology has delivered positive outcomes in certain areas, the results are patchy and the sector still has a long way to go to meet world-class efficiency standards.

Over the last ten years, we’ve heard and overcome the frustration of many staff members who are motivated to make improvements and changes in their work, but feel hamstrung, with no time, budget or authority to make the improvements that will create true transformation. So what is stopping ongoing change and efficiency improvements across many Australian universities?

The ‘silo’ method of operating

Universities are large bureaucratic organisations that have many faculties, departments, divisions and schools that often work independently of each other and undertake many of the same processes but in very different ways. There are many examples where teams from different areas who have a touch point with a particular process, will meet for the first time when we initiate an improvement project.

This silo method of operating is a barrier to working together to improve efficiency. Even now where more and more universities are centralising student services, HR, finance, IT and marketing, there is still a strong desire at the local level to modify processes because areas feel they are different or have special requirements. This just creates bottlenecks and inconsistencies for a university and negates many of the improvement efforts established with the initial centralisation activities.

A growing casual workforce

With a growing casual workforce across an organisation, universities, faculties and departments often lack consistency in processes, with many staff redesigning existing processes to suit their own needs and way of working.

Casualisation of the academic workforce has been investigated in depth by many researchers, but casualation of the professional staff workforce also has far reaching ramifications for universities. Lack of ongoing specialization, no consistent training and development activities, ‘just in time’ approach to solving problems all contribute to increased inefficiencies.

No time allocated to improvement efforts

There is a great desire for change and creating efficiency within universities, particularly from the professional staff at the lower levels who really are frustrated by the increasing bureaucracy and layers of approval for relatively mundane activities. The staff’s willingness to change is supported by middle and senior managers, but often not allowed in workload or role descriptions.

As a result of this, 30% of the respondents who took part in a recent DVE Solutions study identified that they had no time to undertake work or implement any projects to improve efficiencies. The main focus for getting students through their program of study to graduate successfully is intense, and with increased teaching periods throughout the year now there is minimal or no downtime to evaluate activities and innovate.

Staff feel as though they are stuck on a treadmill that never stops and there is no opportunity to improve where they see barriers and complex activities. Even where a university has established a business/service improvement office, the efficiency gains have still been far from ideal, and in several universities, these offices have even closed.

The key to change and improvement

It’s not all doom and gloom though. In the last several years, with the increased number of students, many areas have responded to the increase in growth by creating improved and efficient processes to manage increased student numbers.

There are many, many areas of opportunity in university administration where efficiencies can be found. Our study found that any university with eight faculties that were all undertaking a different way to complete a process, 80% of the work and workarounds were created within five key processes. Fix these five processes and large scale, sustainable efficiencies could be created.

Further to this, 21% of respondents identified problematic data or clunky systems and technology as the main frustration and a barrier to improving efficiency. To manage this over 90% of respondents said they had created manual workarounds to get things done.

From what we have witnessed in the sector over the past 10 years, for barriers to be overcome and positive, lasting change to be embedded within a university, it takes transformation efforts to really shift the mindset. An excellent example which DVE supported is the development of the HiQ at QUT last year. This innovative service centre for students had cut waiting times, provided a more seamless service delivery and is staffed by students at various times.  This has meant an entire transformation to the service delivery to QUT students. It has enabled the Faculties and student administration team to rethink their processes and to improve services to students providing positive outcomes to students and the university.

It only now remains to be seen how Australian universities can continue to improve and adopt changes that can be embedded in the long-term. The formative power of innovation and new technology will have a great impact on transactional processes and the automation of these, which will most definitely change jobs, and the way people work into the future

Need to overcome efficiency barriers, minimise waste and future-proof your institution? Call DVE Solutions today on 1800 870 677.