Total quality & academic practice: the idea we’ve been waiting for? – Total Quality Management – includes related articles

Total quality & academic practice: the idea we’ve been waiting for? – Total Quality Management – includes related articles – TQM: Will It Work on Campus?

Peter T. Ewell

In the academy, where doubt is a foundation of discourse, few things arouse more suspicion than the obviously fashionable. And when the fashionable is accompanied by demands to change time-honored practices, and those demands are delivered with a rhetoric of messianic conviction–as is often the case these days with Total Quality Management–instinctive distaste quickly rams to rejection.

Much of the academy’s initial reaction to Total Quality (TQ) has been gut-level and negative; until this stage is passed, what good will come of TQ is hard to determine. Yet, there is undoubtedly something to the movement. Beneath the hype, TQ does seem to contain new insights about how we can and should operate in higher education. Just as importantly, these insights seem tailored to the times. Hard as they may be to digest, TQ’s root concepts intrigue growing numbers of professionals in higher education, if only for their raw transformational power.

To those of us who, for the past eight years or so, have watched and pushed along the development of assessment with similar hopes of achieving real change, the dynamic is familiar. A novel set of reform-oriented concepts suddenly, against all expectations, takes off as a high visibility topic of discussion; at the same time, it engenders profound intellectual discomfort. Like assessment in its early years, many of the acrimonious debates about the merits of Total Quality occur among people who in fact know very little about it. And like assessment in its early days, the claims of both proponents and critics appear overblown.

Strikingly similar, too, are the attempts to limit domain. The commonly heard canard that Total Quality is “all right when applied to the administrative side of the house but it’s inappropriate for instruction,” for instance, echoes earlier assertions that while assessment techniques might fruitfully be applied to basic skills or professional study, they could hardly be used to examine the ineffable outcomes of traditional academic disciplines.

Equally familiar is the mad scramble to get started. Exponential growth occurred each year in the proportion of institutions reporting assessment activities on ACE’s Campus Trends survey (a proportion that topped 90 percent two years ago). The same appears to be happening now for claims of TQM efforts; a recent Business Week survey reported 61 percent of college presidents averting involvement in Total Quality–this compared with at best a dozen or so campus implementation efforts as recently as two years ago.

Both movements rest ultimately upon a similar image of knowledge-driven, continuous improvement. Unlike earlier management adventures such as MBO and Zero-Based Budgeting, which were applied to the academic enterprise, Total Quality–like assessment before it–demands fundamental change in academic structures and in the way the actual work is done.

But the two stories also show revealing differences. For one, the stimulus for involvement is different. Initial institutional reactions to assessment in the mid-’80s were decisively colored by the concept’s early (and partly coincidental) linkage with the issue of public accountability. Assessment thus evoked the attention of institutions but, apart from a vague appreciation that something ought to be done to improve undergraduate teaching and learning, assessment itself did not appear to most campus parties as a needed response to a visible problem.

The problems Total Quality presumes to address, in contrast, are palpable and urgent. The soaring attendance at “quality” conferences in higher education last year was motivated less by a general desire to improve than by institutional need to cope with an increasingly desperate set of fiscal circumstances. Partly as a result–and this is a second important difference–institutional involvement with Total Quality has often been stimulated from the top. Assessment in its early years only rarely enjoyed the active sponsorship of presidents and provosts, but those are the very people championing the TQ movement. Similarly, the institutions first identified with assessment were widely recognized as innovative but were otherwise not well known. In contrast, the Total Quality movement counts in its front ranks a large proportion of universities standing high on the reputational pecking order.

The most important difference, though, is that the reach of TQ is from the outset more comprehensive. While only a few engaged in assessment really felt its hidden potential to radically transform teaching and learning, TQ’s change agenda is up-front from the beginning. A major stumbling block to the effectiveness of assessment as actually implemented by most institutions, for instance, was the fact that the results of evidence-gathering often went nowhere because a structure of utilization was assumed, not created. But TQ claims to operate on all parts of the system simultaneously; in the compelling monosyllabic syntax of the Shewhart Cycle, “plan, do, check, act”–a scheme that not just welcomes but demands information about performance.

What should we make of these two stories? As historians habitually remind us, significant realignments require both new ideas and altered circumstances. For assessment, the ideas were surely there but too little in the structure of incentives facing institutions induced many of them to take new directions. Is the nascent “quality movement” in higher education fated to follow a similar path?

An adequate answer, I think, depends on our response to two related queries. First, are the times really different and if so, do they in fact require a new way of managing? Second, is the “it” of Total Quality really any different from the many ideas (including assessment) that have been advanced over the years to “fix” higher education–or indeed, from many of the academy’s current practices, whatever they may be called? If the answer to both of these complex questions is “yes,” Total Quality may indeed be the idea we’ve been waiting for.

Bad Times or Changing Times? Certainly there is little disagreement that colleges and universities face difficult times, perhaps the most difficult in five decades. But though everyone will agree that things are tough, not all concur that they are different. A great many academics believe that higher education’s current fiscal woes, however deep, are temporary, and can be managed by the usual combination of judicious belt-tightening and vigorous budgetary lobbying until the inevitable recovery occurs.

At least on the public side of higher education finance, much of the evidence now suggests otherwise. First, we appear to be up against a fundamental structural condition. In growing numbers of states, 80-85 percent of the budget is now tied up in entitlements, court-ordered spending, and restrictions of one kind or another; in this context, higher education has become the “budget balancer”–the last-in-line piece of discretionary spending remaining after mandatory expenditures are accounted for. A second element of the problem is that taxpayers simply will not support further increases, however worthy the cause–a fact demonstrated convincingly by a series of bleak state electoral results last November. These conditions, together with more general trends in the economy, suggest strongly that higher education will need to do what it does for less for the foreseeable future.

The logical cutback strategy of doing less by limiting access is increasingly unavailable. It rarely goes unnoticed in hard-hit states like California, for example, that attempts to reduce access in the name of financial exigency occur at precisely the time that large numbers of minorities are poised to enter higher education. Politicians have been unusually sensitive to the charge that “efficiency” or “belt-tightening” achieved this way is merely another name for discrimination.

Some people in public higher education maintain that while these fiscal conditions are real and permanent, they do not in fact require massive changes in the ways colleges and universities do business. Under their scenario, expected funding shortfalls can be made up for on the revenue side by shifting costs to students and by developing more vigorous alternative fundraising approaches. Inevitable threats to access can be addressed by funding protected classes of potential students directly–the so-called “high tuition/high aid” strategy now being visibly pursued as a policy option by many states.

But the evidence is equally unkind to this alternative, at least in the long run. The “high aid” component of this strategy is subject to the same dynamics of state budgeting noted earlier; its “high tuition” component will rapidly make public institutions aware of what the privates have known for years–that consumer choice in higher education is increasingly unpredictable but ever more demanding. Pursuing such a policy may mean accepting major changes in what public higher education offers and how it delivers it.

This combination–structurally induced fiscal stringency in the face of an increasingly demanding customer–recalls vividly, of course, the operating environment of U.S. industry over the past decade. Fundamental to this milieu is a demand for quality service delivered at reduced provider cost–a linkage that, for higher education, has been virtually unimaginable. But it was just such a linkage that spawned industry’s widespread engagement with Total Quality, less out of complete conviction than through a growing awareness that traditional alternatives would forever remain inadequate. Budget shortfalls in the 15-to-20-percent magnitude were the minimum required to get industry’s attention in the ’80s; we have them now and they will be increasingly hard to ignore.

New Ideas or Just New Words? Closely following the typical academic’s initial rejection of TQ’s language is a second-glance flash of recognition: when suitably translated, most of these things we appear to do already. If the first reaction moves us to righteousness, the second induces smugness; the rest of the world, after all, is only just now catching up. Smugness or no, there is more than a little truth to this contention. Many of the core ideas of Total Quality do have compelling academic counterparts. But things are also not that simple, as even a brief analysis of some of TQ’s ideas will attest. Consider, for instance, how some of these ideas fare when viewed in the context of traditional academic culture.

* Decentralized Management and Empowerment. Perhaps the most visible aspect of Total Quality is its call for a new kind of management. Instead of relying on traditional hierarchical structures that optimize regularity and control, TQ’s philosophy emphasizes management’s roles in setting broad direction and facilitating processes while decentralizing operational decisions to the level at which the work is done. Ideal managers become “coaches”–able to motivate concerted action by communicating the big picture while at the same time creating an atmosphere of openness that legitimizes new ideas and allows the creativity of all to come forward.

One of the appeals of this “new” philosophy to the academy, quite naturally, is that it appears on the surface to be quite close to what we do already. Participatory management is obligatory in academic settings, and faculty constitute what is arguably the most “empowered” workforce on earth.

But surface parallels can be deceiving. The “empowerment” of Total Quality is not about individuals but about work teams who for the most part are directly engaged in production–the people who cooperatively make a particular product or who own a specific process. Decentralized decision making in this context is not driven by any notions of right or entitlement but by the eminently practical insight that team members are the people who know best what’s wrong and who should have the ability to fix it. With this conceptual grounding, TQ’s seeming affirmation of traditional notions of individual faculty autonomy begins rapidly to fade.

How well does a focus on “teams” fit our own principal unit of academic organization, the disciplinary department? For some things, quite well. Departments do often function as work teams, and are given broad latitude to do so when it comes to such activities as the “production” of disciplinary majors or graduate degrees. With respect to research, though, despite a vague community of interest, they function more as administrative conveniences or holding companies. And with respect to such cross-cutting functions as undergraduate general education, they function politically, or not at all.

Hence the role of management. Beyond creating broad organizational vision, management explicitly comes into play in TQM organizations when an individual work team either lacks the resources to address on its own a local problem or, more significantly, when its process bumps into the interests and operations of another work team with a different agenda and mode of operation. In the latter case, a “cross-functional team” is created with authority to address the mutual problem.

At first glance again, this looks a lot like the way we handle topics like general education. But is it really? One major difference is that TQ’s “cross-functional work teams” never stray far from the operational level; unlike the rotating, generalist committees that nominally preside over collegiate functions, TQ teams are built around collaborative responsibility-taking among the doers of a function.

Another difference with teams is that they typically begin with data. Rather than conceptualizing general education from first principles and negotiating its consequences, as faculty committees are likely to do, they begin with a particular empirical problem and trace its implications upward through the system. Such an approach to general education, again, might start deep inside the curriculum with an analysis of how specific prerequisite skills are built, and how they do or do not transfer effectively into the contexts where they are later required. And it might rest heavily on a prior look at actual course-taking behavior and student performance.

In short, for Total Quality, organization follows processes and exists to serve them. Empowerment, though a basic value, is a means, not an end.

* Focus on Core Processes. As this discussion suggests, the “process” is TQ’s basic unit of the analysis. And many have seen in this an apparent reversal of assessment’s prior focus on outcomes–a perception reinforced by Total Quality’s vocal rejection of an “inspection” route to quality assurance. Yet Total Quality depends critically upon a knowledge of outcomes, whether at the end–the resulting market reaction and customer satisfaction–or on the “shop floor,” where results are continuously monitored by workers themselves at every step. Assessment occurs at all levels but is rooted in actual processes, for only there can you realize what’s needed for better outcomes.

What exactly is a process? Consistent with TQ’s industrial origins, its basic model is a production line consisting, in essence, of an ordered sequence of defined operations resulting in a specified product or service; critical features of a process are that it is replicable and can be documented. If it cannot be described, it by definition cannot be improved; hence a major preoccupation of TQ practitioners lies in identifying core processes and determining exactly how they work.

This notion of process surely fits many administrative operations in colleges and universities. The interesting question is whether the notion can help improve our central business of teaching and learning. Though loosely intended as “learning plans,” most curricula are not really specified as such. Few, in fact, meet TQ’s critical test of a process: the ability to flow-chart key events by noting the specific points in required course sequences at which particular skills will be acquired and reinforced. But the analogy is intriguing, and a number of campuses have found such attempts at “mapping” worth the effort–especially when they uncover places where presumed connections among courses are not happening as intended. Given typical curricular organizations in which faculty are dispersed across discrete classrooms with little incentive to cooperate, such an exercise at least provides a way to start conversations about improvement.

* Continuous Improvement. Arguably, a belief in “continuous improvement” lies at the core of all scholarship. And indeed, organized research practice in major university settings–especially in “big science”–seems at first glance to embody fully the pattern of ongoing critique and resulting refinement that TQ proponents call for. It often proves useful as a point of departure for faculty conversation to point out explicitly that TQ’s core philosophy (like assessment’s), in essence, is the principles of academic inquiry applied to ourselves and what we do.

But it is hardly research that needs fixing. Our central preoccupation with quality has instead been in undergraduate education, where the established core values appear quite different. Despite the occasional ripples of the “content of the canon” debate, these values remain for most faculty essentially, and often deliberately, conservative. For better or worse, instruction at the undergraduate level is viewed by most as the transmission of a delimited domain, whether this be conceived straightforwardly as a body of knowledge, or as has become more lately fashionable, as a set of outcomes to be achieved. Ironically, in fact, assessment may have helped to reinforce this conservatism by reifying the notion that teaching and learning should be viewed from the perspective of a fixed set of instructional goals rather than, as was the movement’s original intent, inducing ongoing examination of both goals and practices in the light of obtained results.

Applied to undergraduate education, therefore, TQ’s notion of “continuous improvement” can help open the door not only to an investigation of potential changes in instructional technique in pursuit of fixed outcomes, but also to the question of exactly what those outcomes should be. But while questioning of this kind is surely healthy–and is not entirely unknown to us–TQ provides a very definite picture of what “improvement” ought to look like: “quality is conformance to requirements.” In this context, “conformance” means reduction in variation, while “requirements,” of course, are principally shaped by customers. Both of these concepts have interesting academic implications.

* Reducing Variation. Often overshadowed by the more popular “empowerment” dimensions of Total Quality is its original grounding in the technology of statistical quality control. An important root concept here–and the principal object of this technology–is the distinction between “special” and “common” causes of variation. For proponents of Total Quality, processes are “in control” when outcome variations occur within pre-specified statistical limits, and a primary objective is to bring such systems in control through the gradual elimination of myriad “special causes” that are largely unrelated to one another. Until this occurs, improvement of the underlying process itself is impossible, because we are unable to determine systematically what is wrong.

This is a powerful insight, but in the context of improving teaching and learning, where exactly does it belong? Consider, for instance, the way we typically assign grades. Most current grading practices rest in essence upon the variation within a given non-random body of students around its own mean of performance. Instructors unconsciously reinforce the assignment of such variation to “special causes” outside the process of instruction itself. The ascribed special causes tend to be attributed to the student in the form of presumed variations in ability, motivation, and effort. Examination of the resulting grading pattern may tell us something about individual students–as indeed, it was designed to do–but it is virtually useless for informing the instructional process.

Together with a more general view of the negative consequences of evaluating individual performance, this is a reason why Deming, for one, would have us eliminate grading entirely. It is also a major reason why assessment arose initially–because current academic evaluation practices provided no good way to obtain needed data for the improvement of group performance. Criterion-based assessment schemes like those proposed by assessment are of value precisely because they can be used to identify and address common causes of variation.

But is reduced variation really what we want? In the development of a wide variety of basic, prerequisite, or professional skills, the answer surely is “yes”: we want all students to learn fully what needs to be learned. But in the realm of higher-order thinking and the traditional domains of liberal education–where the development of individual voice and style becomes a paramount value–the answer is far from clear. What is important is to sort out these issues from the beginning, before we automatically attempt to apply TQ technology.

* Serving Customers. At few points in the Total Quality conversation does discussion become so heated as around the word “customer.” Partly, of course, this is because the term itself vividly signals TQ’s commercial origins. More subtly, it is because knowledge “in service” to anyone–whatever their label–directly threatens the academy’s core myth of independent inquiry, conducted on its own terms and for its own sake. Particularly when applied to instruction, the term also suggests a surrender of expertise and authority by those assumed to have both, to parties who by definition are unaware of what they do not know.

As the latter point suggests, it is when the term “customer” gets applied to students that things get sticky. In some cases, certainly, the label applies perfectly. Students are the direct customers of such campus services as parking, food services, registration, or the library. As consumers with particular wants and means, they (and their parents) also make the initial “purchase decision” about which college to attend or whether to attend at all, and they will continue to make such choices as long as they are enrolled. In both these areas, TQ logic seems to fit, and its admonition to know and meet customer needs is good advice. In cases where the student “customer” may be badly informed about what he or she actually needs and how best to get it, such TQ notions as “leading” or “delighting” the customer can come into play–the objective being less to react blindly to customer demands than to shape or anticipate them.

But once inside instruction, the “customer” label no longer fits. From the perspective of traditional instruction, the student then becomes the “raw material” of a specified process of production (a point that recalls the earlier “value-added” metaphor of assessment). In cases such as basic skills instruction or technical training where the “raw material” analogy does apply, TQ practices such as mapping the process, determining its connections and how they fail, and bringing it into control make considerable sense. And because a college can apply TQ concepts in the presence of what production engineers term an “intelligent product”–one able to provide us with ongoing data about its own condition while remaining a pan of the process–these techniques can in fact work even better for us than in industry. An obvious application of this logic is classroom research.

In most instructional settings, however, students are more than just raw materials. Cooperative learning settings, active learning strategies, and independent work outside the classroom render them a part of the “workforce” as well, “constructors” of their own knowledge who participate decisively in the “management” of their own learning. Though advised by college personnel, they typically make most of their own curricular choices and remain free to allocate their own time and level of engagement.

So what exactly is a student from the Total Quality perspective? On the one hand, lack of a straightforward answer suggests that TQ concepts don’t fit well. More compellingly, it suggests that any “answer” depends upon the particular student role and piece of the process that we are talking about.

If students are not in all cases “customers,” then who are our customers? Again the answers depend upon the level at which the question is posed. At the highest level, for public institutions especially, one viable answer is society itself. More particularly, it is the taxpayers who pay the bills and who increasingly expect a demonstrable return on their investment. Much of the escalating accountability debate in higher education can usefully be seen in this light. Arguably, our accountability agenda might be better served by a proactive perspective on our part that consciously recognizes society’s rights as a customer.

Internally, at the operational level, our customers are one another–whether exchange occurs among entire institutions, as in the case of articulation and transfer, among academic units within institutions, as in the case of service course instruction and prerequisite policies, or among individual faculty as teaching colleagues. Indeed, it is often surprising when talking with faculty how quickly brick-wall resistance to the term “customer” evaporates when the term is applied not to students, to potential employers, or to society in general, but to themselves and one another in a network of customer-supplier relationships across a curriculum.

As these brief musings may suggest, a number of core elements in TQ practice indeed have echoes in things we do. But by celebrating these echoes too loudly, or by picking and choosing among them, we run the risk of unknowingly making of Total Quality something that it is not. Evidence of this kind of transmutation is visible in some specific syndromes of early implementation that I’ve recently observed, and that can put the institutions that exhibit them badly off track.

One is a “Planning as Usual” syndrome that confuses Total Quality with old-fashioned linear goal-setting and strategic planning. Though this approach effectively picks up TQ’s emphasis on strong leadership and the creation of organizational vision, it fails to appreciate TQ’s essential link with operational processes and the empowerment of work teams that own them. The danger here is familiar: effective things happen in the short term through the constant intervention of committed dynamic leadership, but TQ’s critical “infrastructure” of cross-functional teams never gets created at the level where the work gets done. The result is also familiar: institutional “planning” at the top never connects to the dozens of operational decisions made daily across campus.

A second trap is what might be called the “Touchy-Feely Ownership Syndrome.” Here TQ’s insistence upon decentralization and empowerment is confused with sixties-style participatory management–using such mechanisms as Quality Circles, T-Groups, and the like to directly foster a sense of organizational membership and empowerment. The difficulty here is a failure to recognize that TQ’s notion of empowerment is intended less to serve the worker than the process–and its customers. As a result, institutions pursuing this path fail to connect these attempts to create organizational loyalty to the bottom line of actually acting on data or suggestions for change. We’ve seen this syndrome before in things such as program review: people feel good about the process for a while, but soon cease to invest their time when it fails to deliver.

A third difficulty can be labelled the “MBO Syndrome”: an institution adopts Total Quality’s statistical tools whole hog, but falls into the trap of using them to create fixed targets of performance. Techniques such as “benchmarking”–intended to guide continuous improvement–are instead rolled out as high-stakes, hard-point objectives against which unit and individual performance will be judged. The result is a predictable return to control-oriented management, countered by statistical gamesmanship on the part of those assigned to attain such targets. Instead, TQ proponents remind us that statistical variation is natural and that individuals cannot be held responsible and sanctioned for things over which they have no control.

A final trap is the “Pleasing the Customer Syndrome,” which fabricates a strict constructionist version of TQ’s core injunction about customer service and applies it directly to students. The result is a narrowly reactive approach where the recognized bottom line is immediate student satisfaction or, as one horrified faculty member recently put it, “where the inmates are running the asylum.” While we surely do need improvements in service to students, this approach neglects the key TQ concept of actively shaping customer reaction by anticipating and exceeding current requirements. It also fails to recognize and develop the multiple roles of students in the learning process as a guide to improvement.

Each of these scenarios suggests the folly of direct translation and fragmentary application. The key to avoiding them, of course, is to recognize that Total Quality is total–its pieces must fit together. Many of the pieces are familiar; the “total” is what’s new.

Making such varied pieces in fact fit together as part of a transformed philosophy of practice and a new organizational vision is something that will not come easily to the academy. If we are serious, we can neither adapt TQ practices piecemeal nor import them wholesale from others. As every industry has learned before us, the challenge will be to grow our own version of quality management–a task that involves a far more comprehensive process of conceptual development than has up to now marked our engagement.

But are we serious? Certainly the stimulus for change is present, and Total Quality ideas seem rich in potential insight. But an uncertain track record with innovation in the past makes it far too early for us to declare this one, at last, to be the one.

Why, Jimmy, Why?

Jimmy had never been a great student, but he did try. He usually got C’s, sometimes a B, and occasionally a D. Still, as he looked down at the grades he’d just received for the last semester, he was shocked–one C and the two F’s. “What do I do now?” he asked himself.

He had loans and grants. They wouldn’t pay for F’s and he had no money himself. He would have to take some time off, drop out, and hope that he could come back in a few semesters. He looked again at the grade card. Two F’s?

Why?

He knew why. Because he didn’t have time to study. He was working four nights a week at a local motel and waiting tables on the weekends. Every extra moment he spent studying. He was bleary-eyed most of the time. Exhausted.

Why?

Because his school workload this semester was much tougher than before. The one class was pretty much what he had expected. But the other two had overwhelmed him. They were both courses in his major. Unfortunately, he wasn’t prepared for either of them. From the very beginning the professors were discussing things that had not been covered in the prerequisite courses the semester before. Jimmy found himself doing extra reading, asking other students for help, or just trying to figure stuff out for himself. He just wasn’t prepared.

Why?

Because the professors of those prerequisite courses were recently hired part-timers. They had been given a time slot, a classroom, a textbook–and a hardy “welcome aboard.” That was it. They worked hard to develop a syllabus that covered the textbook and allowed them to discuss issues that they, through their own work experiences, felt were important. Unfortunately none of their quick-study preparation involved meeting with other professors. The part-timers didn’t know what the teachers of the next-in-line courses expected their students to know.

Why?

Because the department didn’t have an orientation session for new hires. The part-timers were never acquainted with the curriculum or program objectives or the mission of the department. They didn’t know where they fit in.

Because policy did not allow part-timers to attend department meetings. That was just for the professors.

Because the part-timers taught mostly night classes and the professors mostly day. There wasn’t even much of a chance that they would bump into each other in the hallway.

Sometimes a single “why” is not enough to really explain things. One “why” suggests that Jimmy failed, two and three “whys” suggest that the teachers failed. Four “whys” make it clear that the system failed them all.

* When we have a problem, what do we often think of first? Solutions? What might be more useful?

* What problems are you facing?

* What do you really know about the situation? Hunches or facts? What are the root causes?

* You may want to ask “why” several times until you get deep into the problem.

Source: Daniel Seymour, Once Upon a Campus: Stories about Quality Concepts in Higher Education (Palm Springs, CA: Avalon Press), 1993.

220 Sullivan Hall

Rhonda loved her work in the grants and contracts office. It was exciting, challenging, and rewarding. As an administrator she worked with professors throughout the university in developing proposals–from a $2 million grant for AIDS research to $5,000 for studying the costs and benefits of debeeking poultry chickens.

But today, Thursday, it was anything but exciting. Instead, it was draining and debilitating. She had been working with Professor Joseph DiBello for the last six months on a major grant proposal for the National Cancer Institute. Professor DiBello, a cytopathologist, was the principal investigator, but there were five other professors intimately involved in the research study from three other departments. The research methodology was extremely complex and it had taken them two months just to work through the details of the final draft.

The problem was the deadline: it was Friday.

In spite of working almost around the clock for three weeks, it had come down to the last few days. On Tuesday morning Rhonda ran a quick mental inventory of the people who had to approve the proposal. There were the four department chairs and two deans. There were also the vice presidents: her boss (the vice president for research and graduate studies), the vice president for academic affairs, and finally, the vice president for administration.

Nine signatures.

Campus mail was completely out of the question. It would take three weeks. The pony express could do better.

There was a work study student in the office on Tuesday, so Rhonda sent him on a mission: track down the department chairs and get signatures. On Wednesday another work study student had gotten one dean’s signature, the other dean insisted on taking the materials home with him on Wednesday night.

Rhonda made it a point to come in early on Thursday and met the dean before he went into a meeting. That left the vice presidents. She got her boss’s signature before 10 a.m., then swung by the vice president for academic affairs’ office just before lunch.

There was only one stop left–220 Sullivan Hall. The vice president for administation’s office.

Esther had worked in the housing office for 15 years. When she had started, there were only three dormitories. Now there were six. They began working on the final one in January of this year.

The contractor had assured everyone that the dorm would be ready in July. Well, here it was September–one week before freshman and new student orientation–and there were still dozens of details needing attention. In some cases doors still needed to be hung and in others touch-up paint was needed.

For Esther, though, the biggest problem was the keys. Last week the contractor had dropped off the room keys–four sets for 85 rooms. She had called up university stores to get another key rack but had been told they were out of stock. That meant she would have to requisition one from a local office supply warehouse.

The real problem, unfortunately, wasn’t the requisition, it was the cost–$27. Everything over $25 had to go through the requisition process, and that meant five signatures and probably two weeks’ worth of time.

She didn’t have two weeks.

So Esther did the only thing she could do–“walk it around.” She managed to get three signatures quickly. But the last one had been a problem: the person had been in marathon meetings.

Now there was just one more stop–220 Sullivan Hall.

Jody came back from lunch a little after 1 p.m. She turned the corner to walk into her office and bumped into a tired-looking Rhonda, the woman who worked in Grants and Contracts. In addition to Rhonda, there were three other people. She recognized one–Esther from housing–in the hallway. Esther and one of the women were seated in chairs, the others stood.

As Jody pushed open the door labeled “220,” she knew exactly what to expect–people seated in the two chairs inside the office.

It had really become a problem. All these people trying to “beat the system” by walking around papers and reqs to be signed. Her boss, Kathy Jurasky, hated a cluttered office area and had mentioned it to her on two or three occasions during the last few weeks.

Jody decided to take action. On a notepad she scribbled a reminder to herself to order two more chairs for the hallway. That should just about do it.

* How and why do systems and processes become more complex over time?

* What are the costs of complexity in terms of efficiency? What about the human costs?

* Do you have processes that can be simplified and streamlined?

* How can you identify them?

Source: Daniel Seymour, Once Upon a Campus: Stories about Quality Concepts in Higher Education (Palm Springs, CA: Avalon Press), 1993.

PETER T. EWELL is senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) in Boulder, Colorado.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Heldref Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group