Process Improvement for the Millennial Generation: PEX in Higher Education

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Marc Gray


Digitally savvy millennials – the cohort of people born sometime in the 80’s up until about 2000s – have come of age in the time of Apple, apps and the Internet. They expect things to be fast, on demand and easy to use. So as this generation enters the workforce and higher education, what are the new demands being placed on processes and technological systems?

Marc Gray, program director for Operational Excellence at London’s Imperial College, says that expectations are higher now and it’s critical to ensure that systems and processes are joined up to work efficiently both for customers and for employees.

PEX Network:  You moved from working in industry to Imperial College about 10 months ago.  What are you doing at Imperial?

Marc Gray: I am helping to lead a program of change where we are introducing operational excellence methods, primarily in our support services organization. The overall aim is to help ensure that we deliver a good student and staff experience while removing the waste, the inefficiencies and the issues that people endure on a day to day basis in getting their work done. Whether the work is teaching students or doing research or serving internal customers, we recognize there are many things we can do better to make the services we offer more integrated and personalized so that things just flow rather than people getting frustrated: why hasn’t that person returned my email? why am I being handed off to another person? why aren’t they respecting my time?

PEX Network:  We often think of working in industry or a corporate environment as being quite different from the academic setting.  How have you found the transition, what are the similarities and differences?

Marc Gray: I think there are many similarities. I have been around a number of organizations and they all share similar problems.  The context may be slightly different and the history of the organization may be different but at the end of the day, process excellence is all about people and how you work with them to find appropriate solutions in the context of your organization and the specific challenges it may face. Higher education does have certain nuances but I think, ultimately, we all face the challenge of embracing technological changes and working with the emerging millennials and generation X and Y and the new demands that they are placing on employers. I think that these are issues that are all pretty relevant for any organization really. 

PEX Network:  I have also heard increasing talk about applying continuous improvement to higher education. You mentioned the influence of millennials;  I am wondering if that is one of the contributing factors and what do you  think is really driving that need for continuous improvement in higher education?

Marc Gray: We all experience, in our daily lives, exceptionally good services.  When a bank releases a new app for customers you don’t training to learn how to use it, it just works.  In organizations, however, when you are releasing technology or new ways of working within the internal environment, sometimes these systems are quite difficult to engage with. I think we need to embrace that and rise to that challenge of making sure that, you know, as we change, we are thinking about how change can be integrated as seamlessly as possible into your organization.

PEX Network:  So perhaps giving the same amount of thought to internal change as we do to changes that will, perhaps, affect clients?

Marc Gray: Absolutely.  And this is no different for teaching and research, particularly teaching students at under graduate or post graduate level.  They are experiencing services on a daily basis that work really well, whether it is their feeds from Facebook or Linkedin or whatever other applications they might be.  If we have apps or services that they engage in through mobile channels and they are clearly not competing at that kind of level, then it distracts from the overall experience. Students will ask why can’t this organization deliver services in the same way as Amazon or Apple?  That may be a big ask, but people have high expectations now. Things don’t have to be complex; they just need to work and to feel like the customer is at the heart of that service.

PEX Network:  Why do you think it is so difficult to get these things right? 

Marc Gray: I think a critical component is making sure that you have the right talent with the right experience in the first place.  It is one thing to be working in a traditional environment but another to suddenly decide to dabble in developing a low code or more sophisticated applications.  You have to ensure that you have invested in developing the right capability to be able to embrace technology.  Maybe organizations need to partner now with those that do have those skills rather than trying to grow that capability from a fairly low base.  I think there has also been, potentially, a lack of investment in terms of focusing on what’s it like for employees. So many organization focus on the customer but I think a lot of the current thinking now is to also get it right for your employees. That then translates to the customers in terms of the experience they receive. If your employees are equipped and enabled with the right tools, the right training, the right attitude and the right behaviors are demonstrated by managers and leaders, then that impacts the customer.  So I think it is about making sure you get it right for your people as much as the customers, really.

PEX Network:  In the ten months you’ve been there, what do you see as the key opportunities and challenges for continuous improvement in higher education?

Marc Gray: The program that I am supporting is looking at the academic and professional support services, so it is HR, finance, the registry function, the library services and so on. The opportunity here is to ensure that these services are designed to ensure that Academics, Students and Staff have the time and resources need to deliver their best research, work or services. Examples of this are better utilization of College Space to enable the best learning experience possible or improving the student experience of interacting with College systems and processes. 

A key opportunity is making sure that we are integrating information about students and their experiences and how well they are progressing on their programs. Improving the quality of information academics have at their fingertips so that analytics can be applied to help them inform students of their progress or intervene when a student is struggling.  What are the indicators?  We could, through data, use early indicators that predict when students are at risk of withdrawing from a course. Ultimately, we want to make sure that all students finish their program. Joined up systems that provide reliable information and analytics is to improve the student experience is an area of focus.

PEX Network:  A more general question: what’s the best piece of advice you have ever received about process excellence?

Marc Gray: My current thinking  is it doesn’t need to be perfect. Whether it’s software or a business process, identify the minimal viable product, capture the process if it is not documented to a reasonable level and get that communicated and understood and work from there.  Get that in place and understood, and then continuously improve from there. It doesn’t have to be perfect, otherwise all you end up doing is admiring the problem and never really implementing.  I think the term is fail fast. If something is not going to work, kill that project, move onto the next one and try and compress the timescales in which you’re spending time on any one particular project. 

PEX Network:  Looking into the future, where do you think the process profession is headed or perhaps needs to head next?

Marc Gray: I think the rate of change around technology is undeniable. Process automation and the associated skills are needed to help organizations transition from manual ways of working to one where digital services and automation are in place. That means moving from paper to electronic forms and introducing automated workflow. That’s one reason I think we will see the need for closer alignment between Operations, ICT and System Developers. These will influence Lean Six Sigma approaches too. All of these approaches will need to come closer together and start to merge because I think that is where the opportunity really lies, in joining up systems, automating processes and freeing up people’s time to focus on value added stuff that they can do as people rather than duplicating what machines can do.