Release Date: August 10, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. – When Serena Starr was initially recruited to help fix a complicated personnel form at The College at Brockport, she was skeptical.
The human resources/payroll associate director was involved in past attempts to simplify it and reduce the extra work it often caused. Her first reaction to the new project was, “I don’t want to waste my time. Why do we need to go down this road?”
But this instance would prove different. The distinguishing factor: A deliberate process, guided by a fellow State University of New York (SUNY) entity.
The University at Buffalo Center for Industrial Effectiveness (UB TCIE) – part of the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences – worked with “an exceptional team” of Brockport colleagues, as Starr describes, to develop the right solution. Training, paired with assistance in implementing the Lean business methodology of reducing waste, is resulting in less time expended by HR and less confusion across the campus.
It was the college’s first venture into harnessing Lean. It won’t be the last if Brockport Vice President for Administration and Finance James Wall prevails.
Devising a user-friendly form
Wall spent 40 years at Xerox before joining Brockport two years ago. Well acquainted with total quality management and Lean Six Sigma philosophies, he recognized the opportunities for improvement upon realizing that Brockport’s many paper-intensive processes haven’t changed in decades.
He gained approval from the president and cabinet to undertake a Lean pilot project with an external facilitator. The choice was UB TCIE for its SUNY affiliation, relative proximity, and experience with serving public and private institutions.
A cross-functional team of employees from the HR, information technology and financial aid departments was assembled. They were introduced to Lean through an online-based overview and in-person training before diving into project work guided by UB TCIE Director of Operational Excellence Peter Baumgartner.
“That saved a lot of time, rather than us trying to figure the pieces out,” Wall says of UB TCIE’s plan. “It was a good approach in terms of grounding everyone on the problem-solving model. Each week, the enthusiasm of the team kept building and building.”
Their focus was the appointment form, which is handled primarily by a department’s administrative assistant when a change in personnel arises. The form captures everything from renewals and separations to salary increases.
Susan Clase, human resources associate, frequently detected errors like incorrect dates or missing information. Sometimes it was difficult to decipher the reason for the form submittal. The mistakes consumed about 20% of her time.
“A lot of it is phone calls and emails to people saying, ‘Did you mean this? What was supposed to be here?’” Clase shares.
At worst, one inaccuracy can translate to a payment delay or overpayment. The team’s investigation of a batch of 30 recent submissions revealed that 85% contained at least one error.
Baumgartner directed the team and Clase served as the process owner managing efforts. Initiatives including value stream mapping and a Pareto analysis culminated in a distinct understanding of the situation and causes of the problem.
Starr explains that over time, periodic form alterations caused more complications instead of clarity. “We added more fields and made it less user friendly,” she says.
Different versions were in use. Very few people understood how to fill them out properly.
The team decided to abandon the paper form and migrate to an electronic one. They identified nearly 30 types of possible employee changes and the information required for each.
Patricia Maxwell, information technology solutions project manager, transformed the matrix into an electronic form. A user starts by selecting the required change; thereafter, the software displays only relevant fields. A number of administrative assistants participated in extensive testing to offer the feedback necessary for modifications. A routing system for approvals was also added to eliminate printing and improve the workflow process.
The system enables a visibility never afforded with paper versions. An automatic notification about a separation, for example, serves as an alert so the outgoing employee does not receive undue payment. It also helps in easily determining where a document is stalled in the process. The paper form required Clase to make phone calls in her hunt for such information.
The software was demonstrated to the president’s cabinet in April, which gave permission to implement the solution campus-wide. Clase introduced the digital form – which is largely self-explanatory – through remote training sessions.
So far, errors have been extinguished. Turnaround time has declined drastically, with pauses attributed only to electronic signature delays.
“The biggest thing that helped was having someone to slow us down,” Clase says about UB TCIE’s assistance, mentioning how Baumgartner halted the team from formulating a solution prematurely.
“Pete also knew what questions to ask,” Starr says. “I think his questions made us think a little more and map out the process more clearly. He also steered us to bring in people who weren’t necessarily on the Lean team, but involved in the appointment form.”
The path forward
Clase, Starr and Maxwell agree that the Lean method has power to cure glitches and improve the flow of many different HR processes.
Maxwell says the support of a champion like Wall – who allowed the team to dedicate enough time to the project – is tremendous. She appreciates the thorough and thoughtful process, and credits it for her level of confidence in the solution.
“It was painful at times because it seemed like it was so slow,” she admits. “But it really has reaped rewards.”
Wall supports the continuation of Lean at Brockport, even amid constraints imposed by the coronavirus.
Conceding there are “serious budget constraints going forward,” he believes Lean presents a “big opportunity to help reengineer workflows and take out waste in the organization.”