Volume 29 - Number 15 - Thursday, April 24, 1997

Staff program gets pretty good grades

by Daniel McCabe
McGill 2000+ trainer Ernie Kinney and director Linda Christensen


Ask a group of people who work at McGill to name their least favourite phrase and chances are that "doing more with less" will crop up more than any other.

Faced with shriveling budgets and shrinking staff numbers, departments are hard-pressed to operate the way they did a few short years ago. Even managers who wholeheartedly accept the notion that they have to restructure their department's activities stumble over how to go about it. What's a unit to do?

Linda Christensen has some thoughts on the subject. In fact, she's anxious to share them with as many McGill staff as she can.

Christensen is the director of the McGill 2000+ Administrative Process Review Centre. Along with trainer Ernie Kinney, Christensen aims to help McGill departments take a fresh look at the way they go about their business--to see if things could be done in a more focused and efficient manner.

"There isn't an office in this University that hasn't had to deal with restructuring or losing staff," says Christensen. "Basically we want to give people some of the tools they'll need to survive in these times."

About five years ago, Vice-Principal (Planning and Resources) François Tavenas led a search for ways to assist McGill in maintaining the quality of its administrative services while enduring one budget cut after another. "The first thing we had to decide was did we want to ask an outside consultant to come in and streamline our processes for us or did we want to train our staff to be able to do it themselves?"

McGill opted for the latter approach and quickly became interested in Xerox Quality Services. In response to its own major crisis involving a substantial loss of market share and declining productivity, Xerox developed an in-house training program for its staff that focused on customer satisfaction, teamwork and streamlined processes. The training techniques worked so well, the company decided to market them to other organizations.

"We knew that Xerox had been used quite successfully by Harvard--and Harvard isn't exactly a bad model for other universities," says Tavenas.

"We tested them on a few pilot projects last March before we signed on completely--we wanted to see what kinds of goods we would be delivering up close." According to Tavenas, the majority of participants in the pilot projects "came out of the exercise absolutely enthusiastic."

McGill subsequently purchased three training modules and Xerox instructed Christensen, who has held a variety of positions, including human resources director, to use the Xerox methodology to train McGill staff.

"I don't think we could have found a better person than Linda Christensen to lead McGill 2000+," says Tavenas. "She knows this University exceptionally well and she brings a lot of energy to this project."

The vice-principal hopes the administrative process review centre will have a major impact on the University.

"I would like to see [McGill 2000+] go from small- scale projects to tackling broader issues involving several departments. A lot of our administrative processes could do with some streamlining."

The goal of McGill 2000+ is to train between 15% and 20% of McGill's administrative and academic staff over three years. The training involves three modules which each take up two full days--the entire course runs six days. After completing one module, staff go back to their jobs and try to put what they've learned into effect for two weeks or so before returning for another two days of training.

The three modules focus on different areas. The first deals with effective communications practices--how to run efficient meetings, for instance. The second looks at problem-solving techniques. The final module schools participants in process mapping--how to identify the work activities that are the most vital to a department.

Once the course is done, Christensen says she and Kinney stay in touch. "We do a lot of follow-up. Participants are always welcome to use our facilities and we're only a phone call away if somebody has a question.

"Many people who take part are a little sceptical at first," concedes Christensen. "They don't want something that's touchy-feely. I promise there won't be any group hugs--people walk out of here with practical skills."

Hugs might be a no-no, but Christensen and Kinney try to emphasize fun--puppets, slinkies and other toys are employed as study aids or as rewards for work well done. And the McGill 2000+ team gets high marks from past participants for the food they dish out--breakfast and lunch are part of the deal.

The course itself is offered free of charge at the McGill 2000+ Centre in 550 Sherbrooke, but there are limits on who can enroll. Individuals can't sign up--they have to be part of a team of employees who are either from the same department or who work together on joint projects.

"One of the major goals of McGill 2000+ is to work on team-building in the University," explains Christensen. "The way things have changed, I don't think individuals or even departments have the luxury to try to solve all their problems by themselves anymore. We have to work together to get anything done."

Participants are also encouraged to have a specific work-related problem in mind that they wish to deal with by the third module.

Christensen suggests that McGill 2000+ might prove particularly useful for staff from units who will have to collaborate more closely than they have before--in newly merged departments, for example.

So far, the course is earning mostly positive reviews. Participants are asked to grade their experience with McGill 2000+ on a scale of one to seven. The rating for overall satisfaction is 5.85.

Jennifer Towell, assistant to the Vice-Principal (Research), took the McGill 2000+ course during its pilot project stage. "I enjoyed what it had to say about brainstorming, but I found a lot of the stuff just wasn't relevant to what I do."

Towell wonders if the University isn't putting all of its staff development eggs into one basket. "Maybe McGill could have used [the money invested in McGill 2000+] to offer other forms of training instead. The seminars that Human Resources used to offer had reasonable rates, covered a range of topics and were never more than a day long. I thought they were valuable and I was sorry when they were no longer offered."

Joan Gross, manager of McGill's Conference Office, also took the course during its initial phase. "I was extremely happy with it. We gained a better understanding of how to re-engineer the way we do things."

Because the Conference Office has to cover the full costs of its operation, Gross says it's vital that her department functions in a lean and mean manner. "If we don't cover our costs, it's off with our heads."

After learning some techniques at McGill 2000+, Gross says she and her staff "mapped out everything we do in putting together a conference--from the first phone call from a prospective customer to the closing of the final book. It helped us see the trees and not just the forest. In one case, something that used to take us six days now takes one hour."

Gross credits McGill 2000+ for helping her office earn certification from the International Standards Organization--a European agency that issues standard of quality certificates to a range of businesses and groups after submitting them to a rigorous auditing process. "We're only the second conference office in the world to receive this and the first university department in North America."

Lise Lalonde, administration manager at McGill's Printing Service, also works in a department that is feeling pressure to cover its expenses. Fifteen staff from her unit have taken the McGill 2000+ course.

"They weren't used to dealing with problem-solving. It was a real eye-opener," relates Lalonde. "People came away with much more respect for decision makers."

In fact, the department's McGill 2000+ graduates are much keener about taking on greater responsibility themselves, says Lalonde. "When something happens now, you don't hear a lot of bitching about it. People get together to talk about it and they focus on finding a solution."

During a period in which the department has lost 17% of its staff, Lalonde says the unit has increased its productivity by 60%. "I encourage all areas on campus to take [McGill 2000+]."

Radu Juster, capital alterations manager in the Department of Facilities Development, says he wasn't overly impressed by his experience with McGill 2000+. He was sent to the course with staff from his department, from the Department of Facilities Management and some building directors to work on specific problems.

"I kept waiting for the moment when we would be able to concentrate on the issues we were there to focus on, but that moment never really came." Noting that McGill purchased three training modules from Xerox rather than the complete Xerox process, Juster adds, "It felt like a patchwork--the modules didn't flow naturally one to the other. There were parts that were useful--how to organize meetings, for instance. But I don't know if it was worth the six days we spent there--that's a lot of time to be away from your job."

Christensen says that staff interested in finding out more about McGill 2000+ can drop by for a visit and judge the workshops for themselves. And she's happy to meet with anyone seeking more information.

Those interested in finding out more, or in signing up, can contact the McGill 2000+ team at local--what else--2000.

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