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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

July 6, 2006

Sponsored programs teams map their plans for improvement

by Anne Krapfl

Jim Scott likened the outcomes of the three-day workshop to being directed to cross your arms -- the opposite way you normally do. It's not wrong; it just doesn't feel right quite yet.

Scott, vice president of the Phoenix-area Guidon Performance Solutions, last week led two teams of mostly ISU employees through a workshop aimed at improving processes used by the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration (OSPA) and Sponsored Programs Accounting (SPA). The teams took one day each to:

  • Map out an existing process, which included actually counting steps, decisions, delays, loopbacks in the process and value-added steps if they existed
  • Identify duplication and delays in it
  • Reconstruct a streamlined, improved process

The process they used and the principles they applied to their efforts come from the Lean Management System, which was developed at Toyota in Japan. The aim is to improve productivity by eliminating redundancies and waste. The Iowa Business Council (IBC) has embraced the Lean way and Iowa industrial companies have been practicing Lean principles for more than a decade. More recent arrivals are health care businesses and government agencies. IBC's 24 members include the top executives of 20 of the largest businesses in the state, the three regent university presidents and Iowa's largest banking association. Last fall, the IBC encouraged the three universities to select a process-driven office on their campuses and test it against Lean principles.

(This is not, however, the first mention of Lean management at Iowa State. Since 1997, Facilities Planning and Management employees have been guided by a 12-year improvement plan that includes tools and principles from several continuous improvement models. FPM has been recognized repeatedly for its achievements in this area, most recently a 2005 Iowa Recognition for Performance Excellence Award, which is aligned with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.)

Two teams

Sponsored programs at Iowa State brings about $285 million of external funding to the university each year. Researchers who bring in the funding and employees who comprise the two offices most likely would admit that the system as it exists leaves room for improvement. For example, one of the teams last week found in its process delays of from 23 to 250 days long.

"Waste exists in a lot of processes and in that sense, we're all after the same thing," observed David Corbin, Vermeer Corp. vice president for manufacturing, who led one of the teams during the workshop. "This process is a tough one to get through. We're afraid to give up some illusions of control. Specifically, we're worried about our jobs."

The Pella-based Vermeer has been practicing Lean principles for eight years. The production efficiency on one of its products, a baler, has improved 40 percent during that time, Corbin said.

One of the ISU teams, whose members included faculty, OSPA staff, industry representatives, staff from the ISU Research Foundation and led by Corbin, worked on the up-front, pre-award negotiations with companies, including intellectual property rights discussions and a review of the ISU proposal form (known as the "Gold Sheet") required for any externally funded project.

Industry funding of ISU research accounts for roughly 10 percent of all funding.

"From our viewpoint, it's not just about the money," said Chitra Rajan, assistant vice provost for research and since March, interim director of OSPA. "Iowa State's relationship with the company is very important to us, on many levels."

The other team's members included OSPA and SPA staff, faculty members, staff from research centers and was led by Louis Norton, who heads up Vermeer's continuous improvement efforts. The team looked at the post-award process of setting up a fund account and managing it through the life of the research award.

Making changes

Team members shared their recommendations at the end of the workshop -- as seemingly small as eliminating consecutive and duplicate "review" steps as paperwork transfers between OSPA and SPA, to as large as purchasing Web-based software for the process or physically locating OSPA and SPA employees in one location.

"At the end of the week, you want to be better, not perfect," Norton said. "That's why it's continuous improvement."

To get the implementation phase started, some of the recommendations will be piloted on a small scale to test their effectiveness. Rajan said her staff will choose those first steps.

"My job," she said, "is to find some time each day for them to make changes. This shouldn't get lost. Little investments daily will reap big dividends for the long term."

What's next

The week "was a great success, from my point of view," said John Brighton, vice provost for research, who observed the workshop. "The people who do this work at Iowa State are deciding how it should be done, and they showed a lot of passion."

Rajan said she, too, is pleased with the outcome.

"I didn't want my staff demoralized and beaten by this review process," she said. "They're energized and ready to go. Since they're the ones who have created the new plan, they're excited and enthused."

Rajan said she is especially appreciative of what she called the "creativity before capital" aspect of Lean management. "You collect the data and try it on a small scale. Then, if it works, you make the case for it on a large scale," she noted.


"I didn't want my staff demoralized and beaten by this review process. They're energized and ready to go. Since they're the ones who have created the new plan, they're excited and enthused."

Chitra Rajan, interim director of the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration