University of Washington (United States)

Contributed by Luann Stokke

The University of Washington (LJW; is a public university located in Washington State that enrolls 54,000 students on its main campus in Seattle and two additional campuses. UW is internationally ranked for its excellence in research, with approximately $1.5 billion in external funding annually making it one of the top recipients of federal funds of any US public university. Deep cuts in state support during the late 2000s resulted in significant staff layoffs and low morale, particularly in the largest administrative unit on campus, Finance & Facilities, or “F2.” Leadership recognized that university success would not be accomplished by working the remaining employees (anxious over further reductions) even harder. In 2009, they implemented a Lean pilot program led by an external consultant who had worked with Toyota, extending the ongoing successful application of Lean in the LJW-affiliated Seattle Children’s Flospital to F2. Initial employee nervousness, including mid-level managers who were also anxious over what Lean might mean for them, was assuaged by the promise that the implementation of Lean would not lead to further layoffs. The pilot program, using the Shingo Model (, designed to build morale and discover efficiencies by deliberately engaging the remaining employees in improving their own work, proved very successful. The external consultant was retained for several years to guide the implementation of Lean, which is currently led by the University’s Strategic Consulting unit for all areas reporting to the Executive VP (i.e., Facilities and Capital Planning, Finance and Treasury, Human Resources, Health Sciences Administration, and Information Technology); Lean support is available to other university units on request.

Individuals at the manager/director level (who serve as the Executive Sponsors) identify Lean projects from pressing concerns, performance gaps, or employee suggestions. A simplified A3 model is used to appropriately scope the project, draft a problem statement, appoint the Team Leader (i.e., a person with technical knowledge or expertise regarding the problem), and assign both a Lean Coach (and a facilitator in training) and frontline staff familiar with the process as team members (with the inclusion of a beneficiary of the process). UW Lean projects use the following framework to help employees embrace the opportunity to devise improvements to their own work as a unit, creating commitment to the goals of their unit and the University, and develop options they will incorporate into their implementation plan:

Three-Day Lean Launch. Following the “learning by doing” model,

Day 1 begins with a brief 20-min overview of Lean thinking and principles. The Lean Team immediately begins creating a value-stream map of the current process, identifying wastes and acknowledging pain points, and underlying issues experienced in this process that they “own.”

Potential ideas for improvement are generated using root cause analysis. Facilitators help coach the Team Leader to step back from their traditional role as problem solver and allow team members to develop their problem-solving skills, demonstrating respect for team members. Day 2 continues with focusing objectives to create a future state value-stream map that meets the process goals identified by the Lean Team. Day 3 is used to finalize the value-stream map and future state, express the ideas for improvement into “focused objectives,” align these back to the goals, and Report Out on the implementation plan.

“Learning Lab:” 90-Day Improvement Cycle. Lean Team members, with continuing support from a Lean Coach assigned by Strategic Consulting, continue to learn and practice Lean focused on the discrete objectives aligned to their 90-day goals. In particular, team members learn and carry out visual management techniques, goal alignment and creating metrics of success, escalation protocols when gap analysis shows lagging performance, and formal problem-solving approaches to generate ideas for continuous, ongoing improvement. Lean Sponsors, department employees, and interested stakeholders attend 30/60/90-day “stepbacks” at the work site to acknowledge and support the ongoing work of the Lean Team.

At the end of the “Improvement Cycle” following demonstrable success improving this specific process, the team of frontline employees and their supervisor continue efforts to further develop a Lean culture that expands to other work processes. The team uses a set of standard practices, the “4 Key Systems” model (proprietary to the external consultant):

■ Alignment of goals from strategic and organizational level to daily targets at the team level.

■ Visual management of operational metrics.

■ The practice of daily kaizen and incremental improvement.

■ Daily huddles to review metrics and leader practices using standardized methods to follow-up, coach, teach, and train.

Grant and Contract Accounting (GCA) is an early example of the success of Lean at UW. GCA provides post-award financial management (setting up new awards in the University’s financial system, billing, reporting to Sponsors, compliance, and managing the closeout process) to a significant number of external awards. GCA faced numerous challenges, including significant increases in research volume (including extensive growth in global research), increasingly complex invoicing and reporting requirements as well as new compliance requirements, legacy financial systems not designed for grants management, and stagnant staffing levels. GCA’s application of traditional process improvement methods was insufficient for UW’s growing and diverse research enterprise, resulting in unacceptable backlogs. GCA needed radical change to build a foundation of strong business practices to support both employees and daily operations to remain successful.

With the help of an external consultant, the Senior VP for F2 introduced Lean to the area, focusing first on GCA’s budget closing process.18 At that time, teams of three to five employees performed four major functions and customer service for a designated group of academic units. Unclosed, partially closed, or unreconciled budgets filled GCA’s work area in the face of higher priorities, creating a backlog of 5,478 expired budgets (some that had expired years earlier). A cross-functional team of GCA staff, along with additional fiscal staff providing direct support to researchers, mapped the current state of the process. They identified areas of poor flow and waste and used Lean tools and practices to create an intentionally “low tech” new and streamlined process for closing budgets that reinforced cross-functional collaboration, standardized work steps based on best practices, and immediate feedback that signaled process problems that needed to be addressed.

For example, GCA established six clustered workstations, each dedicated to one of the key steps in closing a budget, using a standardized physical workspace layout to minimize distractions and competing priorities. A visual management system allowed GCA staff to monitor the performance metrics of each workstation in real time and immediately resolve errors or accumulating work in process. The Lean team kept careful track of progress in the closing process at the end of each day and used feedback from the staff to implement continuous improvements to the process before the next day began. The results of the Lean project were positive: Within the first 90 days, GCA saw a 50% decrease in the backlog of unclosed budgets without adding staff. Customer involvement in designing the new closing process proved to be instrumental to its success, providing a process that met their needs and gave them insight into GCA’s work. Other process backlogs have been successfully addressed, based on success with improving the closing process. The earlier backlog of 1,129 budget setups is now at zero; fed era 1-Sponsor reporting backlogs have been reduced by 90%; the backlog of unbilled research is down from a high of $8.5iM to $3-7M; and the backlog of budget closings has dropped 87% (from 5,478 to 476). By using Lean to increase throughput and eliminate waste and poor flow, GCA is able to handle more active budgets than the prior year without a proportional increase in staff, resulting in more than $350K in savings. GCA used Lean to redesign other key processes. Overall, GCA reduced backlogs an average of 80% and saw a marked increase in customer satisfaction with no decline in timeliness or quality even as demands for service grew. Lean provides the team with a renewed sense of purpose toward the common goal: serving UW researchers and enabling amazing science.

Other successful LJW Lean projects include:

■ Carpet Cleaning: A Lean event was launched to improve the labor- and time-intensive process for scheduling carpet cleanings for 2M sq. ft. of carpet across campus, based on customer complaints about the length and unpredictable cleaning cycle. Redesigns to the process, including reconfiguration of the service truck and providing card access to buildings to eliminate wasted key retrieval time, significantly reduced customer complaints and savings of 1 hour in staff time per shift.

■ The construction of UW-Bothell's $68M science and academic building uses Lean construction techniques and tools. Managed by the Capital Planning & Development organization, a collaborative team streamlined traditional design/construction processes and nearly eliminated RFIs (the back-and-forth formal requests for information). “Pull-planning” integrated the work plans of contractors and subcontractors, and a 3D, color-coded “federated model” (BIM) replaced flat drawings. The model resulted in very few field fixes and no rework. Change orders were one- third that of similar LJW projects. Intake process improvements changed the requirements for documents submitted by contractors at the close of construction projects, saving campus customers approximately $110,000 to date. The streamlined process is expected to save about $2,000 on each future project or some $60,000 per year.

The UW Lean Team, with a full-time permanent staff of five employees, currently coordinates three to four Lean projects monthly, visits each of 185 active teams monthly, hosts tours of its Lean Center and permanent teams, and conducts an internal Lean training program for current and future Lean Coaches and team leaders. Approximately 30 Lean Coaches facilitate Lean project teams. Since Lean implementation in 2009, over 1,000 employees have participated on more than 185 Lean project teams for estimated annual savings (predominantly cost avoidance) of $2.2M. The average return (across a 9-year average) on Lean program dollars invested has been at least 400%. The UW Lean initiative continues to be a university priority following its third University presidential transition since the program began.

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