Practice Area Column
International Education Leadership

Energy Efficient: Saving Staff Time and Effort

Learning and applying lean management principles can help international offices improve processes, save money, and create a better experience for students.
Applying aspects of lean processing can help international educators during a time when more is being asked of them—and, in many cases, with fewer resources than ever. Photo: Shutterstock
 

While higher education has not historically had to focus on efficiency, recent budget cuts and enrollment pressures increasingly require colleges and universities to streamline their operations. Applying certain aspects of the corporate world to international education can help institutions use their best resource—staff members and their time and efforts—more efficiently, says David Di Maria, EdD, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC).

Drawing on principles from industries such as manufacturing and healthcare, lean processing is a management approach that improves efficiency. “Lean process improvement is about increasing value while eliminating wastes,” says Di Maria, the author of a forthcoming NAFSA book about using lean process principles in international education, Achieving More with Less: Lean Management in the International Student Office. For example, hospitals identify how to shepherd patients more quickly through emergency rooms while improving the quality of care, and factories look for ways to move products more efficiently along the assembly line.

In an international office, this might look like prospective student applications being reviewed more efficiently, allowing institutions to evaluate more applications and respond to applicants in a timely manner. Applying aspects of lean processing can help international educators during a time when more is being asked of them—and, in many cases, with fewer resources than ever.

Doing More with Less

Di Maria has used a lean management approach in the international offices at several institutions. While completing a management certificate program 10 years ago, he realized how manufacturing principles might be applied to higher education, particularly within areas such as international admissions.

“With international offices, there’s always this feeling that we’re understaffed,” he says. “So, is there a way to do more with less? We’ve got to find efficiencies. And that’s what this is all about. It’s not about cutting your resources where you can’t do anything. But it’s identifying, ‘Where are we wasting our time? Where are we not being the most efficient so we can reclaim hours in the day and redeploy them somewhere else?’”

“With international offices, there’s always this feeling that we’re understaffed. So, is there a way to do more with less? We’ve got to find efficiencies.” —David Di Maria

And that can have an impact on outcomes. When he took a lean processing approach while overseeing the international admissions office at a large public university, Di Maria streamlined the admissions process from 33 steps to 22 and trimmed staff time by only having one person handle this process instead of five. His team saw concrete results in terms of shorter application processing times and increased enrollment.

Mapping Processes: Where to Start

One of the first stages in implementing a lean management approach is an exercise known as value stream mapping, which tracks all of the specific steps in a particular process. The ultimate goal of this exercise is to lay out the entire process to identify who does what and what adds value to the student—then eliminate the steps that are taken just because that is the way it has always been done.

Oftentimes, staff do not realize how many steps and people are involved until they see the process in its entirety, according to Di Maria. “Unless you map it out, you don’t know, because each office thinks they only have a handful of things they have to do,” he says.

After the process is mapped out, staff can brainstorm ways to improve or propose steps that can be eliminated.

Value Stream Mapping in Action

Several years ago, Megan Prettyman, MA, implemented value stream mapping with the international admissions and recruitment process at an institution where she and Di Maria previously worked together. 

Prettyman, now UniQuest's vice president for partner success in North America, says that the admissions process was cumbersome when she first joined the international office there. The way applications were processed likely had an impact on yield. “We didn’t have a huge recruitment budget, and we were trying to think of ways that we could more quickly process applications to assign admissions decisions to students,” she says.

“Implementing a lot of these lean concepts into your admissions flow process is a great way to improve your yield and admit more students without actually having to spend more money on recruitment or buying names.” —Megan Prettyman

She held a three-hour brainstorming session with all of the staff involved to identify potential bottlenecks that were slowing down the process—multiple handoffs, duplicative efforts, or other points where people were waiting for somebody else to complete a task. Each step of the admissions process was listed on a sticky note on a wall, and the notes were eventually used to create a type of flowchart.

The staff identified delays such as the time spent walking to FedEx to send out packets when FedEx would do pickups, or having one office print out forms that then had to be picked up. By identifying even the smallest inefficiencies, the office was able to cut the time spent processing applications from 5 days to 1 day.

“This was a great approach in a situation where we didn’t have a big budget to go out recruiting more students,” Prettyman says. “Implementing a lot of these lean concepts into your admissions flow process is a great way to improve your yield and admit more students without actually having to spend more money on recruitment or buying names.”

Di Maria points to an example at another institution where he worked: improving airport pickups for international students. To remedy the inefficiency and cost of staff renting vans and hiring student workers to pick up new international students from the airport, the university signed a contract with a local transportation service to pick up students during specific windows of time.

“This change freed up the staff time associated with airport pickups and moved most of the liability from the institution to the travel company,” Di Maria says. “Because the service was only offered on specific days and times, the cost was less than what we previously paid for the drivers and van rentals.”

Improving the Student Experience

Though many of the inefficiencies Di Maria and Prettyman identified in mapping exercises may seem too small or insignificant to make a difference, when added up, they accounted for surprisingly large amounts of staff time and resources—time and resources that could be spent elsewhere to do the work international educators are uniquely positioned to do: improve the student experience.

Value stream mapping is a low-cost activity that any international office can do, Di Maria says. He adds that many institutions already have faculty in schools of business or engineering who might be experts on lean management and can present the concepts to the international office staff.

“We want to be good stewards of our resources, but we also have limited hours in the day. We want to be focused on where we can have the greatest impact.” —David Di Maria

Unlike in manufacturing, identifying processes that might be automated or eliminated in higher education does not mean that people lose their jobs. “Then we can focus on some of the other things that we could never get to before, which might be increasing yield, more personal interaction with students, or retention initiatives,” Di Maria says.

Streamlining processes also translates into increased revenue. As part of a value stream mapping exercise for the admissions process, Di Maria’s team at UMBC identified a point where they were losing prospective international students—“a black hole,” he says. Many students who began the application process failed to submit financial documentation at that particular step, and the office did not have a strong follow-up process in place. Consequently, those students ended up never completing the admissions process or stepping for on campus—which translated into a loss of tuition dollars.

Identifying gaps and reviewing applications more efficiently with the help of lean processing leads to more students who can be admitted to an institution—and who are more likely to enroll, given the quick, easy process—without hiring additional staff or third-party support.

The idea of running an international office like a business might initially meet some resistance, Di Maria says. He suggests that leaders frame any attempt to implement lean management as a way to improve the student experience.

“We want to be good stewards of our resources, but we also have limited hours in the day,” he says. “We want to be focused on where we can have the greatest impact.”  • 


Coming spring 2021! In his forthcoming NAFSA book, Achieving More with Less: Lean Management in the International Student Office, David Di Maria expands on value stream mapping and an array of other lean processing techniques to help international offices make the most of their resources. Look for it in the NAFSA Shop!

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.

About NAFSA

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.