Higher Education: The Benefits of Continuous Improvement

Posted by SPOL on Aug 27, 2018 3:00:34 PM

If your experience is anything like mine, convincing your colleagues to embrace continuous improvement feels like an uphill battle. It feels like more work, “one more thing the college is asking us to do.” While I have rarely had someone ask me point-blank, the question in people’s minds is “What’s in it for me?” I don’t mind this question. I’m not an economist, but I’ve taken enough economics courses in my time to appreciate the model of humans as rational decision makers. If a course of action has no benefit for us, we shouldn’t take that action.

A famous quote from Peter Drucker states that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The implicit norms and values of an organization have a powerful influence on our behavior, beyond any directive, we may receive from the top. Unless continuous improvement is already embedded in the culture (and let’s be honest, how many of us can really say that?), it’s inevitable that you will meet at least some resistance.

So, how can we answer our colleagues when they want to know what’s in it for them?

Please don’t make the mistake I did and justify the need for continuous improvement by pointing at accreditation requirements. While pointing to the accrediting agencies as the “800-pound gorilla in the room” can often motivate speedy compliance, once you've submitted your accreditation report, you lose your leverage for keeping the process going. We need to find intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, reasons to pursue continuous improvement.

So, what are some intrinsic reasons to pursue continuous improvement? Let me share three reasons with you here. 

First, we should embrace continuous improvement for the sake of our students. Just about everyone in higher education has chosen that field as a calling, and they enjoy working with students and helping students to be successful. If we can improve processes to make things easier for students or improve curricula so students get more out of their classes, well, isn’t that the whole reason we chose to work in higher education in the first place? 

Second, we should embrace continuous improvement to better serve our external constituents. Besides the revenue that institutions receive from students in the form of tuition and fees, most institutions also depend on other sources of funding. Public institutions receive funding from taxpayers (taxpayers which include, the faculty and staff that work at the institution). Private institutions often receive some funds from private donors. Being able to explain to these constituents how you have used their money effectively is critical. Even better if you can show them how well you used their money last year and are making even better use of their money this year. I can’t think of a legislator or private donor that wouldn’t like to hear that kind of story.

Last but not least, we should embrace continuous improvement for our own sake. That’s right, continuous improvement actually benefits us! How’s that, you ask? Because continuous improvement is not about adding more tasks to our to-do list. Continuous improvement is about improving processes. It is not about expending more effort. And improved processes make the job easier! When we improve a process, we can either get better results with the same effort or equivalent results with less effort. (That’s right, “trying harder” is not continuous improvement!)

It’s true that the core concepts of continuous improvement come from a manufacturing environment, but that just means that we need to be a little more creative to get over the hump of “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Yes, it takes some creativity to think of realistic and meaningful ways we can improve our processes, but this work is an investment that will pay dividends in the future: dividends to our students, to our external constituents, and to ourselves.

Can you think of other intrinsic reasons to pursue continuous improvement? Let me know in the comments

Joe Baumann, M.S.

Topics: Continuous Improvement