Initiatives and Priorities

Operational Excellence Listening Session Report


In fall 2011, President Kaler and a group of senior leaders began discussing ways to achieve operational excellence at the University. The goals are threefold:

  • Mitigating the impact of state budget reductions and keeping tuition increases low by reducing the University's operational costs, which will free up dollars to be reinvested in the core academic enterprise;
  • Improving operations and processes, resulting in a more efficient, better run, less redundant organization; and
  • Promoting entrepreneurship, intelligent risk-taking, cooperation, and engagement across our campuses and in our interactions with business and community partners.

In December 2011, these initial conversations expanded to include five, 90-minute listening sessions with a variety of internal constituents: chancellors, deans, administrators, faculty, department heads, managers, and staff. In all, more than 65 individuals participated in these conversations.

The primary goal of these sessions was to identify what operational excellence looks like and what barriers must be overcome to achieve it at the University of Minnesota. Specifically, participants discussed three questions designed to help identify opportunities for immediate improvement or long term change:

  1. Working smarter. How can we do a quality job with less effort, time, bureaucracy, and expense?
  2. Cost containment/reduction. Where can we simply cut costs?
  3. Increasing sustainable revenues. How can we generate new income?

Key Themes

While conversations were wide ranging, four primary themes developed, as follows:

Theme 1: The University is too risk averse and too regulatory, more mired in saying "no" than in finding ways to say "yes."

  • "There's a lot of opportunity to move from 'here's what you can't do' to 'here's where you can go to accomplish X.' We need to help people make decisions based on opportunities and not on what can't be done."
  • "Risk tolerance cannot be understood as simply a financial thing. The tenure process, for example, is far too detailed. There's a 29-page, single-spaced report for running a tenure meeting."

Theme 2: The University can do more to unleash entrepreneurialism, identifying best practices for achieving efficiencies and scaling them up where appropriate.

  • "The University needs to develop an innovation governance process that will empower entrepreneurship, not hinder it."
  • "We need an operational excellence incentive program and investment pool to encourage and reward individual and unit contributions and to institutionalize work moving forward."
  • "University Services effectively created a culture and set of values that rewards and emphasizes the sharing of solutions. This kind of approach is needed throughout the University."

Theme 3: The University needs to improve its change management and problem-solving skills, so we are better able to alter course and direction when needed. This necessitates understanding needs at the local level.

  • "The University struggles with determining what decisions need to be made at what levels . . . We've never been good at making decisions in our complex organization about what we need to do at what level."
  • "When we try to adopt uniform solutions, sometimes there are legitimate reasons why they won't work."
  • "People must be persuaded to accept change when necessary, but balance must also be achieved."

Theme 4: Consultation is important, but there are pitfalls to over-consulting, especially as it affects speed of innovation. Moreover, participants felt that the University does not always consult in the right ways.

  • "[Consultation] groups should be pulled together based on project needs; the University should not always go to the same leadership group."
  • "Committees are overlapping. They're built for discussion and not decisions. Nothing's done. Committees must do something."
  • "'Everybody gets a voice' becomes a real barrier."


In discussions about immediate opportunities to work smarter, reduce costs, and generate revenues, several ideas that arose most consistently:

  • Build operational excellence benchmarks into the budgeting process / create incentives for units to advance operational excellence.
  • Do a better job of assessing resource allocation, looking for excess capacity, and sharing resources across the organization. This is an ideal role for central administration.
  • Do a much better job allocating space and strive for less unused capacity. A Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) would help in this endeavor.
  • Continually assess the effectiveness and need for all existing programming.

    Specific operational excellence projects mentioned include:
    • Moving timecards and other paper forms to electronic solutions
    • Constituent Relationship Management
    • Business Intelligence
    • Workflow mapping
    • Span and layer analysis
    • Redesigning and expanding e-learning activities


Participants involved in the five listening sessions were committed to pursuing operational excellence at the University of Minnesota. Although the discussions were most lively when attendees assessed the underlying causes of inefficiency and redundancy at the University, only the first of the four primary themes that arose-the institution's risk-aversion-is a true barrier. The other three-the need to unleash entrepreneurialism, improve change management skills, and rethink approaches to consultation-provide opportunities for real change.

To this end, the key directions that came out of the sessions focused less on specific, identifiable problems and more on methodologies for achieving culture change that can advance operational excellence. Throughout, participants stressed the importance of:

  • clearly articulating problems faced;
  • analyzing them in a broadly consultative but succinct manner, and
  • implementing solutions that recognize local needs and concerns, and provide benchmarks and incentives for success.

While the University routinely engages in all of these components of problem solving, those attending the operational excellence listening sessions were clear in their belief that we can improve in all three.

This is the main take away from these sessions, mentioned by a majority in attendance: While solving specific problems is important in the short term, advancing the institution's overall problem-solving skills is essential in moving forward.