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Sick of “catching up” and “keeping up” with your campus facilities? Turn your challenges into bright spots.

Sightlines, which helps colleges and universities better manage their facilities operations and capital investments through strategic planning, analyzing and benchmarking, published its State of Facilities in Higher Education: 2016 Benchmarks, Best Practices, & Trends report in December, 2016. The annual report indicates that college and university campuses continue to grapple with renovating generally poorly constructed mid- to late-century buildings, the need for more advanced and therefore more complex new buildings, and the combined demand for “catching up” in old spaces and “keeping up” in new spaces — and all with level budgets. In addition, student enrollment levels, increasing facility age, suboptimal facility use, and funding all significantly impact the current state of facilities.

Demographic shifts and the rising cost of higher education have made the competition for students even more intense. This drives the facilities arms race most campuses are participating in — state of the art laboratories and athletic facilities and dining halls and residence halls. And the list goes on. As more money is put into new construction and capital renewal, there is less money for maintenance and operations, whether preventive, deferred, or emergency. Facilities teams are all too familiar with these conditions and the conditions are here to stay.

There are some bright spots in the future of facilities, however. The Sightlines report indicates that “campus leaders” have enacted integrated strategies to respond to daily challenges and still change the campus age profile, keep the facilities backlog in check, and use limited capital and staff resources more strategically.” Sightlines found the most successful campuses focus on taking a “whole systems approach” to reducing facilities demand, categorizing and prioritizing needs, and optimizing capital and operational resources. Sounds easy, right? Not so fast. There is a reason there is no widespread adoption of a solid systematic approach to overcoming campus facilities challenges. And that’s because it is harder than it looks. People may know what to do, but they don’t know how. And, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach — what works for one campus doesn’t necessarily work at another. Every campus, faculty, student body and mission is unique.  

Some common impediments to systematically and effectively tackle facilities challenges include:

  • Incomplete understanding of current facilities conditions, which makes it difficult to see relationships between plans and actual needs.
  • Complex network of organizational groups and departments each engaged in their own planning, with no mechanism to pull them all together.
  • People at different levels of the organization have different perspectives on “the problem.”
  • Lack of understanding criteria to prioritize decision-making for investments and renewal.
  • Lack of existing planning and execution systems for managing and investing beyond the near-term.
  • Operational practices that are not optimized and consume tremendous resources to keep up with putting out today’s “fires.”

So what can you do? One approach to consider is to use Lean thinking. Lean is an approach that leverages the skills of people to help expose, understand and eliminate problems and rapidly improve processes while balancing both long- and short-term philosophy.  Systematically engaging the potential of your people – whether they are leaders, managers, or front-line staff – and innovating to find solutions, regardless of your organization’s culture or unique challenges, is the hidden power of Lean. And it can help you address your facilities challenges.  

The mantra we hear from campus leaders is “do more with less” – perhaps we need to go beyond that and simply focus on getting the right things done. Even for campuses that are relatively well funded, spending your way out of problems may not be the right approach. For example, consider spending less money maintaining buildings that don’t support your mission; they can be repurposed, sold or demolished instead. Some campus leaders have found that changing their maintenance priorities and processes can give them the same results or better for less cost.

Here are some things you can do using Lean to get you into the bright spots Sightlines has identified:

  • Understand your facilities conditions: While you may have documented your conditions, the documentation may not be at a level that provides actionable information. Don’t have a facility condition assessment? The one you have is not current? Don’t know what to do with it? Don’t let that stop you. Your frontline workforce often knows enough to generate a working qualitative data set. Engage them to co-develop their list of needs. With the right engagement, you can dramatically improve the quality and consistency of information. One southern California campus with a 660-acre footprint used a systematic approach to gather input from a cross-functional team including asset managers, facilities staff and vendors. Once the input was collected, synthesized and prioritized, they each understood and had a common understanding of the conditions of their facilities. They then used that information to identify specific needs and develop a long-term capital improvement plan. What was different about this? A facilitated setting where shared goals were identified and everyone’s perspective was heard.
  • Work across departmental silos: Everyone doing their own thing? Start doing it together. Gathering key stakeholders from multiple departments together to first understand the scope and breadth of each department’s needs helps all leaders understand needs and projects beyond their own lens into the system. At UCSF, four major departments – Capital Projects, Procurement, Contracting and Facilities – came together to consider work processes in their capital projects. As the different departments considered these processes, they realized there were obstacles preventing them from working together most effectively, both at the individual and departmental levels. Making this visible to everyone allowed the group to face these challenges and make change together.
  • Develop shared priorities with ranked criteria: Working together and using (or developing) your vision and strategic operating goals, you can quickly identify shared criteria for assessing projects. Not all criteria are created equal, and ranking the relative importance of the criteria is often missed. These steps may appear painful and initially slow but later facilitate rapid decision making as the shared criteria are applied across the organization. It is eye opening for leaders to see the whole system of needs all together, and helps to identify blind spots. With criteria and prioritization determined together, reaching consensus about what to tackle, and what to defer, can be much easier and your focus becomes much more strategic. These shared decisions can be developed into a plan that moves you toward your goals. For example, at Brown University, staff from Operations, Engineering, and Planning, Design & Construction jointly developed a prioritization approach for their preventive maintenance strategy. They focused on work with the greatest impact and least difficulty, and by looking at processes and typical behaviors together, the team found hidden resources in more than 55,000 hours of staff time that could be reallocated from reactive emergency maintenance to proactive preventive maintenance.
  • Get going – tackle the problems: Once you have identified priorities for either problems to solve or improvements to make on campus, it’s time to implement. It’s also important to take “baby steps” and be realistic about what’s possible in the short- and long-term. The long-term goal can be daunting, and by focusing on incremental improvement – identifying the next step you want to get to – you can make systematic progress towards your goals. We’ve found organizations achieve the best results when they quickly implement day-to-day improvements that connect with their long-term strategy.

Facilities management and capital planning are often treated as maintenance and custodial, data collection and budgeting activities – but it can be so much more. Imagine the benefits of approaching it as an opportunity for engagement and collaboration. Using Lean to help staff at all levels and across departments to deeply understand what the plans and objectives are gives all participants purpose and direction. Lean principles and systematic processes give people a way to reach consensus about why they need to make change, what to do, and how to do it. When put into action, Lean gives you a way to convert frustrating facilities challenges into opportunities that create alignment across your campus and better facilities performance to achieve your mission.

Interested in learning more? Contact Liz Fennessy to see how your team can start using Lean.

Published: 1/31/2017


Lizetta Fennessy

General Manager, Buildings and Infrastructure Business Unit