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Quality of service, efficiency improved through team approach

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - December 12, 2005

How long does it take to get a doorstop fixed on campus? A couple of pictures hung? A paper towel dispenser installed?

Maintenance supervisor Doug Racicot says it shouldn’t take much more than a day.

Not too long ago, such chores could take more than a week at the Storrs campus, causing frustration about what should be minor tasks.

Now the facilities department has reduced the wait time for minor maintenance from an average of 7.5 days to a maximum of 1.25.

They did it through a program designed to improve the efficiency of a wide range of administrative processes based on a detailed understanding of how they work and where and why problems arise. Teams of people with a stake in a particular process – both providers and users – collaborate to develop a long-term solution that works for all involved.

The program, known as “BEST” (Breakthroughs, Excellence, and Success through Teamwork), was launched at both Storrs and the Health Center in fall 2004 under the leadership of Linda Flaherty-Goldsmith, vice president and chief operating officer.

The first step was to invite members of the University community to identify administrative bottlenecks.

The issues tackled initially at Storrs have been: expediting the search and hiring processes; ensuring timely payment of temporary employees on the University’s “special payroll;” reducing the time it takes to complete minor maintenance tasks; and developing an application that sends vendors purchase orders electronically.

Racicot was the leader of the minor maintenance team at Storrs. Following the BEST model, he selected front-line staff as well as managers and “customers” as members of his team.

After receiving training, the team began by clearly stating the problem, taking into account the different perspectives of all those involved. In this case, routine chores were taking too long.

“Often people within the process do only a piece of it,” says Pam Heath-Johnston, coordinator of the BEST program.

“Everybody has a different definition of a problem and different ideas about the solution. Working as a team helps them understand the whole process.”

The next step is to gather information, quantify the problem, and set targets for improvement.

“The BEST program is data driven,” Heath-Johnston says. “It’s very pragmatic.”

Members of the maintenance team, for example, discovered that delays were caused not by the length of time the technicians took, as they had thought initially, but by the time taken to process a work order and get a crew on site.

The solution they developed included buying several additional trucks, and enhancing the existing zone system, with groups of about five people – including a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber, a specialist in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, and a general tradesperson – assigned to specific clusters of buildings.

A new Web-based work order process will allow customers to enter job requests and follow their status online. A policy statement will be posted on the same website, clarifying the definitions of emergency, routine, and minor maintenance.

Mike Pronicki, on ladder, and John Rodriguez, both general trades workers, fix a light at the Chemistry Building.
Mike Pronicki, on ladder, and John Rodriguez, both general trades workers, fix a light at the Chemistry Building.
Photo by Peter Morenus

“An emergency – like a whole lab flooding – has to get an immediate response,” says Racicot. “But many customers didn’t realize what constituted an emergency, so even minor maintenance was considered an emergency, and that added to their frustration.”

The team also designed a card to leave at the worksite if the customer is not there when the technicians arrive.

A team working on improving the timeliness of payments to approximately 2,000 adjunct faculty on the Storrs-based special payroll focused on four areas of improvement: providing more documentation on the Human Resources website; offering more training to departments that handle special payroll; carrying over information about individuals employed on special payroll from one semester to another; and upgrading the application process to reduce paperwork and accomplish more steps online.

A human resources team at Storrs is working to reduce the length of time for hiring faculty and staff from an average of nine months to a target of three by streamlining the procedures for approving a search, identifying funding, preparing job ads, and selecting and interviewing candidates through a search committee.

The BEST program includes implementation, oversight, and evaluation, to ensure that the improvements are lasting. Team members who have completed their tasks help train – and in some cases serve on – new teams, so the system perpetuates itself.

At the Health Center, the BEST program has been coupled with a more comprehensive program for clinical activities. There, BEST teams tackled a range of issues aimed at reducing hiring time, reducing capital purchase requisition time, improving patient appointment scheduling, reducing late charges, and reducing grant closeout processing delays.

Hospital director Dr. Steven Strongwater, who specializes in quality improvement programs, co-chairs the Health Center’s BEST steering committee. He says prior to the BEST program, a group of faculty raised issues and concerns about administrative support services, including delays in getting a grant closed out.

“The BEST program helped us look at the different processes that could help us reduce the time to close out grants,” says Jeff Small, leader of the BEST grant closeout team. “We quantified the problem, came up with workable solutions, and have seen remarkable improvements.”

Strongwater is now building on the activities of the Health Center’s BEST teams to prepare to seek a national quality improvement award – the Baldrige Award.

Flaherty-Goldsmith hopes to embed the BEST approach throughout the University’s administrative structure.

“We still have a long way to go,” she says. “Many administrative processes are so complex, we can only tackle little pieces at a time. But what this program has started to do is to break down the silos, get people working collaboratively, and provide an objective framework for assessing progress. It is teaching a new way to approach every problem.”

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