Tiny departmental steps to cutting costs without the axe's dread fall

Business technique reduces spending and boosts efficiency, advocates claim. Hannah Fearn writes

May 13, 2010

A Japanese business technique is being used by a growing number of universities to improve their processes and cut costs as belt-tightening continues across the sector.

Business schools and university departments have called in consultants to teach them the "Lean Kaizen" system, which aims to deliver lots of small efficiency gains that in combination cut costs significantly. Using the system, Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University has cut turnaround times for marking assignments by almost 70 per cent.

Elsewhere, the University of Aberdeen has used the approach to give its librarians more time for duties such as managing its rare books collection and setting up an in-house repository while still cutting the time it takes to order books.

The Association of Business Schools (ABS) is now running seminars to help universities employ the same strategy, and business schools at Aston, Cardiff, Manchester Metropolitan and Warwick universities are investigating how Lean methods could help them to work more efficiently.

Julie Davies, head of research and executive development at the ABS, said: "In the face of swingeing public sector cuts, the Lean philosophy is an increasingly attractive proposition."

Baback Yazdani, dean of Nottingham Business School, came from the automotive industry to introduce the system at Nottingham Trent. He said the process improved the way universities worked, and cost savings were an added bonus.

"We don't do it because it's going to reduce costs, although it has that impact, too. It helps us to do the right thing better," he added.

UK-based consultancy Exceed helped Aberdeen implement the strategy in its library.

Pat Brown, Lean consultant with the firm, said: "We start by getting staff together from different parts of a department or organisation and get them talking so they realise what they actually do, step by step.

"They can then see where it is possible to cut out unnecessary steps along the way, or find more common-sense ways of going about a procedure that they have to carry out regularly."

Chris Banks, director of library and historic collections at Aberdeen, said the library had reduced the time its staff spent on routine tasks.

"We looked at it from the point of view of an individual item going through the system. We talked to everybody that might handle something from when the order is put into the library system to when the book is taken away," she said.

As a result of the system, librarians at Aberdeen no longer double-check each other's cataloguing and an automated ordering process has been introduced online.

Zoe Radnor, associate professor at Warwick Business School, said the process could be easily sold to sceptical academics.

"It goes down well if you convince them you are aiming to take tedious tasks off them," she said.


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