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UMD staff members Jill Strand and Katherine Morris in the student center atrium

Supportive Services director Jill Strand (left) and Health Services director Katherine Morris.

UMD continuous improvement

Improvement spotlight of the month

By Meredith Fox

From Brief, April 6, 2005

With 119 part- and full-time staff and faculty members, Academic Support and Student Life (ASSL) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD) provides enrollment services, academic support, and student life programs for more than 10,000 students each year. ASSL faces a wide variety of operational and service challenges, as all organizations do--an ever-changing marketplace, a decrease in financial resources, and a need to leverage existing resources and technology to meet increasing service expectations.

Under the leadership of vice chancellor Bruce Gildseth, ASSL developed a systematic approach to managing these challenges.

ASSL Learning Cycle

develop strategy and measures
Do: deliver your service, measure your results
Check: review your results
Act: adjust your plans accordingly

An ongoing learning cycle allows the organization to "plan, do, check, and act" (see box, left) on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Baldrige Criteria (below) provide the standard. The learning cycle allows ASSL to "identify what we have accomplished, what we did not accomplish, and what we will do to fill the gaps," says Health Services director Katherine Morris. "It forces us to follow through because we will have to answer for it six months down the road."

The system also allows ASSL to catch problems quickly and to learn from other units, says Jill Strand, director of the Supportive Services Program.

"It's easy to get into your own routine and not look at the big picture--your issues and your accomplishments," Strand says. "This system allows us to learn about how to move our unit and ASSL ahead."

As an organization and within individual units, ASSL uses the learning cycle to strategically plan for the future, develop work plans to accomplish that strategy, collect and review data around performance, and make operational and service-level adjustments in order to continuously improve work. Over the years, the system has allowed ASSL to make fact-based operational and service improvements even during challenging times.

Developing a system

What is Baldrige?

The U.S. Department of Commerce administers the Baldrige Quality Program and Award. The program is built on a set of criteria that organizations use on an ongoing basis for organizational self-assessment. The criteria are a set of interrelated concepts that help drive service improvement, organizational effectiveness, and learning.

* Visionary leadership
* Customer-driven excellence
* Organizational and personal learning
* Valuing employees and partners
* Agility
* Focus on the future
* Managing for innovation
* Management by fact
* Social responsibility
* Focus on results and creating value
* Systems perspective

According to the Baldrige program, these "values and concepts are embedded in beliefs and behaviors found in high-performing organizations."

In the early 1990s, the quest for quality and operational excellence came to higher education. UMD was at the forefront. In partnership with local industry leaders, UMD had brought a quality system to the campus, adopting the Baldrige Criteria as a standard for measuring selected parts of its operation beginning in the late 1980s. Because of this work, UMD was one of the first invited participants in a network of 16 higher education institutions that gathered quarterly to share their experiences of applying quality concepts to operations. These same institutions now gather under the umbrella of the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement (NCCI).

Today, ASSL tests its annual strategic plan against the Baldrige Criteria to ensure that it is aligned with the commonly accepted components of high-performing organizations. Once ASSL settles on an overall annual strategic plan, each ASSL unit creates an operational plan tied to the larger plan. The learning cycle used by ASSL allows its units to assess their progress quarterly and to make appropriate adjustments to operations.

In 1998, ASSL formalized its quality program by participating in an official Baldrige review using outside evaluators from the Minnesota Council for Quality. This assessment of planning and operations as measured against the Baldrige Criteria results in a feedback report, which ASSL uses to adjust its strategic plan and to make operational improvement. ASSL made the transition to an internal evaluation team in 2005; the preparation and reporting remain the same, but ASSL does not need to pay for evaluators, and the evaluation itself becomes a learning tool for the staff who carry it out.

Health Services: reducing wait time

UMD's Health Services are one example of how ASSL's quality system has made a huge impact. The Health Services mission is to address the health and emotional issues of students so they can perform well at UMD. Services include medical care, counseling, and education (public health).

Like all ASSL units, Health Services must develop an annual strategic matrix that addresses service levels, financial management, human capital (staff) management, and organizational effectiveness. These themes allow units to organize their most important operational indicators. For each theme, Health Services define specific measures for success. Managers monitor key customer service measures weekly, and each quarter they review the strategy together and make course corrections as necessary. The Health Services director accounts to the vice chancellor quarterly on the four matrix themes.

UMD's Academic Support and Student Life (ASSL)

* Admissions
* Career Services
* Disability Services & Resources
* Health Services
* Kirby Student Center
* Multicultural Programs/GLBT
* Office of Financial Aid & Registrar
* Recreational Sports & Outdoor Program
* Student Life, First-Year Experience
* Supportive Services Program

A key measure for Health Services within the organizational effectiveness and customer service matrixes is the amount of time patients need to wait for service. Monitoring had revealed that student wait times for same-day appointments were exceeding acceptable standards. Further investigation found that nurses were working through lunch and late to catch up with the backlog.

By using the ASSL learning cycle, the nurses were able to document the problem, analyze potential causes, develop a plan to address the issues, and measure their progress. Over the past year-and-a-half, Health Services tested three possible solutions using the learning cycle (plan, do, check, act) and finally settled on a plan that appears to address the root causes. Now, more same-day appointments are made available by partnering with other providers, and the front desk, rather than students, is given the power to determine the appropriate source of care for the patient. This solution will be evaluated later this spring and, if improvements hold, all aspects of the current process will be standardized. Ongoing monitoring of appointment use will continue weekly to ensure that an efficient balance is maintained.

"The experience of having an improvement cycle in place puts my unit in a position to make changes in a more systematic way," says Morris. "The ongoing monitoring system allows us to change more quickly when an issue arises." The ASSL learning cycle facilitates the process.

Supportive Services Program: responding quickly to change

Supportive Services Program director Jill Strand reports a similarly positive experience with the ASSL learning cycle. She has also found that the process allows her unit to catch problems and make adjustments very quickly.

Academic tutoring is one of the services her unit provides. Before implementing the full ASSL learning cycle, Supportive Services measured student satisfaction with the tutoring program twice a year. But the measurement wasn't particularly useful because the information wasn't timely enough. The learning cycle compelled the unit to look at performance on an ongoing basis. The staff now measures use and satisfaction rates weekly. This allows them to immediately identify issues, such as a decrease in demand for a particular type of tutoring; then do the research, determining the cause for a drop in visits (a change in curriculum or timing of assignment, for example); and make service adjustments, if necessary.

"The market for students is more and more competitive," says Strand. "We must look at how we are performing, where there are gaps, and where we are exceeding expectations so that we can keep it going."

The equivalent of a management degree

Office of Service and Continuous Improvement (OSCI)

This "improvement spotlight" is part of a monthly series presented by OSCI, which was established by President Bruininks in June 2004. Each month in Brief, OSCI turns the spotlight on a University improvement success story. For more information, please visit the OSCI Web site,

Using Baldrige Criteria and a learning cycle have moved UMD's Academic Support and Student Life group forward in ways large and small. The strategy has improved the effectiveness of processes, service levels, and even managers' ability to manage. It has given managers the equivalent of a management degree just by participating, says Morris. It gives units a way to remain aware of their processes and the people they serve.

This spring, ASSL will pilot a software package that will refine and automate its quality process. ASSL will be able to automatically map goals and initiatives to its strategy. If the software is successful at ASSL, the Office of Service and Continuous Improvement will sponsor a broader roll-out of the system across the University.

Learn more about Academic Support and Student Life at UMD on the Web at Contact Bruce Gildseth, vice chancellor, at 218-726-8501 or

Do you have an improvement success story to tell? E-mail Meredith Fox at

Meredith Fox is community relations coordinator for the Office of Service and Continuous Improvement.

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