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A new way of doing business

University transforms Facilities Management

By Rick Moore

Two Facilities Managment workers discuss steam trap training.
Steam trap training is one of the many functions under the domain of Facilities Management, which has reorganized to become more customer focused, cost effective, and accountable.

April 29, 2008

It's not all about academics here at the University of Minnesota. Or research. Or outreach. Sometimes it just seems that way, since those aspects of the U's mission are the most visible to the public.

Rather, as the U continues to transform itself into one of the world's top public research universities, it is working to elevate all aspects of its operation, including one critical, though not always as visible, function: facilities management--the department responsible for keeping the U's buildings and grounds in good shape.

Over the past two years, the University has transformed Facilities Management (FM) into an operation that is more customer-focused, cost effective, and accountable, according to Brad Hoff, chief administrative officer for FM.

The idea for the transformation didn't occur overnight, or even two years ago. President Bob Bruininks hinted at it during his inaugural address in 2002. "The University of Minnesota will be known as much for its service and business innovation as for its high-quality research, education, and outreach," he said.

It's also an aspiration embraced by Kathleen O'Brien, vice president for University Services. "In support of the U of M's academic mission, our administrative operations will be the best among our peers--focused on service to faculty, students, staff, and units, and driven by performance objectives and defined results," O'Brien announced.

The old and the new

"Before, to get service from Facilities Management, you needed a Rolodex," jokes Hoff, who was the transformation project manager, "and the people who received good service, from a customer standpoint, were adept at building those relationships."

After bringing on an outside consultant and conducting an assessment of FM and its employees (including 14 different focus groups), two main issues emerged: communication and accountability. Then came the process of identifying recommendations and implementing solutions.

"The response that we're getting back from customers has been phenomenal," Hoff says. "We've gotten real positive feedback."

The result is a new department model based on three "C's": "customer-focused," "culture of accountability," and "cost effective."

In the old model, there were five zones on the Twin Cities campus, and once customers made contact with a zone they still had to get in touch with the proper service person: painter, custodian, electrician, etc. The various groups tended to work apart from each other and less in cooperation, Hoff says.

And, partially stemming from positions lost following the budget cuts from a few years ago, too many responsibilities were flowing through supervisors.

In the new model, which went into effect on January 1, there are four districts, and each district comprises up to four teams of cross-functional employees who work closely with each other and can solve problems with a more holistic approach. Best of all for customers, there is just one contact number: 624-2900.

The FM Web site sums it up well: "Need paint? Got a leaky sink? Is your building entrance dirty? How many numbers do you need to call? One. You now have a multidisciplinary team led by a team manager focused on solving your needs."

The team manager is responsible for making sure the request is filled, and also is the liaison for "building contacts"--the people in various campus buildings responsible for routine and seasonal maintenance.

FM added new positions to lessen the strain on team managers, who are now able to spend more time with their customers and with their crews, says Hoff, "which will improve both communication and accountability."

As with any transition, the transformation shook up the notion of "business as usual" in Facilities Management. Virtually all of the approximately 85 managers and supervisors in FM had to reapply for their jobs to make sure that the best people were in the right positions, Hoff says, and a small number either didn't get their old job back or were reassigned to a different position.

Accountability has been stepped up, too. Whereas only about 30 percent of FM employees received annual reviews two years ago, that number grew to 95 percent last year, and now "performance management is an ongoing, year-round discussion," Hoff says.

If being more cost effective is one of the benefits of the new-look FM, customer satisfaction appears to be another. "The response that we're getting back from customers has been phenomenal," Hoff says. "We've gotten real positive feedback."

One such comment came from Maggie Towle, director of student unions and activities. "I want to let you know how impressed and excited I am about the new FM structure," said Towle. "You and your staff have truly transformed the system. I'm sure what you are doing will be a national model and it's definitely what a 'top 3' needs to be doing. Way to go!"