Wake Technical Community College, in North Carolina, has taken an innovative approach to fostering continuous improvement by requiring all employees to come up with at least one new idea for improving how they do their job each year.
Wake Tech President Stephen Scott says he would frequently reach out to colleagues at other colleges to exchange ideas and look for new approaches he could apply at his own institution.
“My ‘aha’ moment was when I realized: There’s just one of me,” he says. “What if I got all 900 employees to look for better ways of doing things as well?”
Scott’s idea has blossomed into an initiative he calls Applied Benchmarking. “I want the emphasis to be on the ‘applied’ part,” he says, noting that he’s looking to turn promising ideas into action.
The program has resulted in a number of benefits for the college and its students — from saving $50,000 per year by making a simple change in how it processes financial-aid requests to increasing the percentage of students who complete online courses.
Examples of success
To try out his idea, Scott initially tested it among vice presidents and supervisors. By year three, the program was extended across the entire college. To encourage participation, Scott offered employees a 1 percent raise.
“One percent of 2,000 hours per year is 20 hours,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone spending more than 20 hours on this.”
To ensure that the best ideas would be put into practice, Wake Tech’s board approved $75,000 for grants of up to $5,000 to implement the most promising proposals.
One of those grants has saved $50,000 in annual postage costs for the college by eliminating the mailing of financial-aid checks to students. Instead, students receive debit cards tied to their financial-aid account; the college has installed campus ATMs that students can use to withdraw funds as needed.
Another staff-generated idea for improvement has boosted the success of students who take courses online. About 25 percent of Wake Tech students are enrolled in online courses; online students’ performance had been about 5 percent worse than their peers in face-to-face courses. Based on suggestions from faculty, Wake Tech has taken a two-pronged approach to solving this problem.
On the faculty side, the college formed a committee to identify the skills and competencies that make an instructor successful in teaching an online course — and then created a certification program to ensure online instructors learn those skills and competencies. “Just because you’re a good lecturer doesn’t mean you can automatically teach well online,” Scott says.
On the student side, Wake Tech created a free course that prepares students to learn more effectively in an online environment and requires students to take this short course before enrolling in online courses. About 93 percent of the students who take this e-learning introduction course successfully complete it, Scott says.
One early challenge was that employees weren’t talking to each other as they were generating ideas. As a result, “we had people in the same department or even the same office working independently to solve pretty much the same problems,” Scott says.
To remedy this, Wake Tech created a database of Applied Benchmarking project ideas. This searchable online database, which is available only to college employees, fostered more staff collaboration. “We’re trying to create conversations among employees,” Scott says. “We’re empowering our people to do structured problem solving.”
Asking employees to come up with their own ideas for improvement helps ensure buy-in. “If it’s their idea, they have ownership of it,” Scott says. And one key to success is that, from the start, Scott has emphasized that it’s OK to try something that fails.
“Sometimes it’s just as good to know what doesn’t work as it is to know what does work,” he notes.