Dick See, Human Resources
Doing more with less is a reality in many work environments, and The University of Iowa’s is no exception. Fortunately, Dick See and his colleagues in Human Resources’ Organizational Effectiveness department are teaching Lean methodology to UI personnel.
See offers consultations on Lean, the efficiency philosophy that originated in automotive manufacturing and has made its way into myriad workplaces. His work has helped University personnel better organize information and streamline time-consuming processes in hiring, tuition assistance, and research.
See spoke with fyi about how Lean works in a higher education setting, the definition of CAVE people, and how his own hoarding habits left him with a lot of Time on his hands.
Let’s start with some basics: what is Lean?
First, it’s not an acronym. People sometimes ask what the letters stand for. It’s simply a concept of working as lean as possible, eliminating waste from our individual or collective processes. It’s a change in culture.
The concept comes from Toyota, dating back to postwar Japan. The company started from scratch and needed to create something out of nothing. The Japanese came to the United States to observe what we were doing—they learned as much about what not to do, as they saw the inefficiencies along with the positives. Of course, there’s a lot of negative banter about Toyota’s problems right now, essentially saying the company stopped walking the talk.
What principles guide Lean?
Lean methodology has five principles: value, value stream, pull, flow, and perfection. Value is self-explanatory. Value stream looks at the interconnectivity of a process. Pull means demand, that the customer pulls the product from you—a stark contrast from the “push” of marketing. A part of “pull” is the “just in time” inventory system, which means that production mirrors demand, cutting down on the expenses that go into maintaining inventory. Flow looks at the movement through all levels of a process, making sure no one’s waiting downstream. And perfection comes from always looking at the cycle, looking for and eliminating inefficiencies.
How well does Lean, with its roots in manufacturing, translate in higher education?
Globally, there has been resistance as Lean moved from a manufacturing environment to service entities and higher education settings: “We don’t manufacture anything, so this won’t work for us.” But it does apply. Doing anything—educating a student, paying an invoice, assigning parking spots—requires a process, which should be open to scrutiny and improvement. We’re dealing with shrinking state appropriations, being asked to do more with less. It is imperative that we perform at our peak with the assets at hand.
What goes into a consultation?
First thing’s first: the department, particularly leadership, has to be ready to embrace Lean as a culture. The way it’s always been done is not always the best way. I need to know that leadership is willing to devote resources to implement a future state. Secondly, we need a group of 10 to 15 individuals, who are stakeholders in the process, to spend two to three days looking at the current process and finding ways to improve it and then dedicating the time necessary to help implement the improvements. We go through a document called Case for Change, a step-by-step process where leadership establishes the need for the consultation. If we as a group feel the reasons are compelling, we go through the logistics of setting up a kaizen (Japanese for “continuous improvement”) event. This structured event tracks people as they go from current state through ideal state to future state. It could last two or three days. It’s a grueling process, but we’ve received a lot of positive feedback.
Let’s say a department can’t dedicate that level of commitment—are there alternatives?
A burst event is shorter in time and in scope—we look at a slice of a process that might be extremely broken. That could be done in an afternoon or two. Another option is what’s called 5S: sorting, simplifying, systematic cleaning, standardization, and sustaining. This structured approach could help a person who “files by pile.” Many folks feel overwhelmed by their jobs, and they become even less productive because they’re constantly thinking, “How can I climb this mountain to get the job done?” Through better organization and time management, that person can become a more efficient cog in the wheel of the whole process.
How do people react to your consultations?
Like people themselves, reactions vary. Some 20 percent of people are radicals when it comes to change—they love it, always. Another 60 percent take a “wait and see” approach. The other 20 percent are CAVE people: Citizens Against Virtually Everything. [laughs] We try to have a CAVE person in every Lean event, because when we have improvement, a CAVE person could do a 180 and embrace change wholeheartedly. And whose opinion resonates in the workplace: the radicals always looking for change, or the CAVE person who suddenly is behind the change? People will see the CAVE person’s reaction and say, “There might be something to this.”
Did your position blaze the trail for Lean on the UI campus?
Not at all. Sabi Singh, who once worked at Toyota and now is in UI Health Care administration, brought Lean methodology to UI Health Care several years ago. He and his department improve patient and internal processes throughout UI Health Care. Senior Vice President and University Treasurer Doug True and Vice President for Human Resources Susan Buckley recognized the need to provide the service to the rest of campus. They created this position in 2006. I was hired to fill it in January 2007.
What attracted you to this position?
I’ve been on campus for 15 years—I worked as an internal auditor for the first 12 years. In that capacity, I saw opportunities where processes could be improved, but my ability to work with departments was limited due to my professional obligation to remain independent. In my current job, people ask me to come to their departments and help out. Something people are less inclined to do with auditors! Now I have the opportunity to work closely with clients from the beginning and make sure momentum is maintained to attain remarkable improvements.
I have to ask: As a kid, was your room always clean?
No! During my presentations, I stand before everyone and say, “I’m Dick See, and I’m a hoarder.” Not too long ago, my wife and I decided to convert my home office into another bedroom. This meant I had to go through my Time magazine collection. I have subscribed to Time since 1966, with very few interruptions. It’s a weekly magazine—you do the math. The magazines had companions: 30-some years’ worth of tax returns, and bank statements for the past 24 years.
I decided it was time to walk the Lean talk. I spent days shredding documents—I learned it takes 22 minutes for my shredder to overheat. I put the Time magazines on the curb. A guardian angel took them all to sell to ad collectors at a flea market. Now my office has color-coded files, everything’s properly labeled, and the desk is cleaned off when I’m done with projects.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to fly my airplane. My father flew for a few years when I was very young. My father-in-law had a plane that was available to me; he gave me the opportunity to get my license in 1993. It’s been great—I get a different perspective of the world up there.
by Christopher Clair