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Backaches, ballpoint pens, scholarships and the Quality Fair

So often it comes down to the ballpoint pen

By Adam Overland

Quality Fair 2009
A view from above the Quality Fair.
Photos by Patrick O'Leary

February 18, 2009

So often it comes down to the ballpoint pen. There is no greater measure of quality than the trusty ballpoint, but there is no greater irritation--no more frustrating an exercise in futility to be performed--than scribbling furiously on paper only to see an indecipherable indentation. And so, a single doubt arose about the U's Quality Fair when the free pen made from recycled materials didn't make a mark. After all, a writer has to take notes, and the writer had forgotten his pen.

Unlike the ink of the faulty pen, quality was obvious on Feb. 5 at the McNamara Alumni Center during the U's 3rd Annual Quality Fair. The fair itself practically bled ink--ink that in business is known as the good ink--black ink.

In defining quality, an easy measure might be as simple as asking whether it improves a process--in convenience, efficiency, customer service, or any other number of metrics--or whether it saves a buck without a loss of service. Many of the Quality Fair presentations showed ways to do exactly that, and some of the improvements--and in many cases the sheer amount of money that was or could be saved by these ideas--were astounding.

Black and white

Take the aforementioned Copier/Printer Processes. What the presentation's title lacks in marketing savvy is more than made up for with results. During the project, collaborators, including the School of Dentistry (SOD) and the Office of Service and Continuous Improvement, worked together to find ways to reduce SOD's printing costs.

The team identified all output devices (printers, copiers) and analyzed them for three months, measuring the costs. "We came up with some no-brainers and some more sophisticated answers," says Jeffrey Ogden, chief administrative officer in the School of Dentistry. Results showed that the school could conservatively save $1,300 per month. Scaling that across the U, says Ogden, could lead to tremendous long-term savings. "Just by going to high-yield printing cartridges, which cost more initially, we could save 100,000 per month. Even if that's off by a factor of two we could save 50,000 a month," says Ogden. One of the reasons he cites is the flexibility at the U in purchasing. "We go to the catalog, and want to spend 100 bucks, and we buy something at that level. But if you spend a little more upfront and think long-term, operating costs can be significantly lower," says Ogden. Further details of the project are available at Printing Services.

Backaches and office chairs

Balance ball chairs. You've seen them in the your coworkers' offices, but are they good for you? The U's Department of Environmental Health and Safety (DEHS) knows the answer. They annually receive between 800 and 1,000 requests for office ergonomic evaluations at the U, having done about 10,000 since 1994. They even do outreach to the community, most recently at the Ronald McDonald house.

Nevertheless, their main customers are U employees, but the amount of time they could find to do ergonomic evaluations was limited. It could take 3-4 weeks before an evaluator could perform an assessment in person, says Neil Carlson, an industrial hygienist with DEHS. "We wanted people to be able to help themselves out quicker. We wanted them to be able to perform a self-evaluation," says Carlson. So they developed a Web-based self-assessment tool to help employees adjust their own workstations. "It covers about 80 percent of the problems we've typically seen over 20 years of doing evaluations," he says. In three months, more than 1,200 people have visited the Web site.

DEHS also offers office ergonomics training for employees and supervisors on office ergonomics, free of charge. Libraries and Disability Services have begun to do their own ergonomic assessments. And all their innovation is paying off in human health and real dollars, too. "Workers compensation reimbursement has gone down after our initial investment over a period of years, and our muscle-skeletal disorders, after being initially fairly high, have really dropped off," says Carlson. And the ball balance chair? Carlson says a person should be physically fit before using these chairs because of the core muscles necessary to maintain posture. "It is an option as a secondary chair for sitting a brief time. We do not recommend it as a primary chair because of inadequate support and lack of adjustability," says Carlson.

For more information, sit up straight and take the office ergonomics self-assessment test or see Ergonomic Resources.

Money in the bank

All of these issues, of course, come back not only to quality, but to the economy and the University. With a suffering economy comes stress on endowments, philanthropy, sliding state funding, and rising tuition, all of which make maintaining and funding a high-quality education that much more challenging.

Santiago Fernandez-Gimenez (left) explains the 'opportunity engine'
Santiago Fernandez-Gimenez (left) explains the 'opportunity engine'

Last year, the Twin Cities campus administered $36 million in scholarships from 850 programs supporting 11,000 undergraduate students. It's a vast sea of eligibility criteria, application materials, and scattered offices where scholarship opportunities are found, so in 2006, the Office of Student Finance set out to make things easier.

The 2008 result was the UMTC Undergraduate Scholarship Search. It matches student records with program eligibility to give students a personalized list of scholarships for which to apply. The same logic is used to help scholarship administrators find the best-qualified applicants. "By spending donor money more effectively, the tool enables us to raise more money for scholarships and make better connections," says Santiago Fernandez-Gimenez, one of the architects of the project. "We call it the opportunity engine," he says. "So far, it's had over 10,000 student users." With more than 1,000 scholarships now in the database, it's estimated the search tool provides a window to about 80 to 85 percent of scholarships at the U. The site is available through OneStop.

So, while quality may be difficult to define, we do indeed know it when we see it, and the whole University benefits from its implementation. Luckily, the writer was able to take good notes with the second pen. The first one will have to go back to the recycle bin.

The Office of Service and Continuous Improvement sponsored the event. For more information, see OSCI.

Further reading

A year ago, at the second Quality Fair, nearly 1,000 faculty, staff, and students from the University's five campuses attended a day of networking and collaboration to discover ways to innovate, improve, and inspire. Read Doing things better.

2009 QUALITY FAIR POSTER WINNERS Quality Fair 2009 featured 36 poster exhibits representing projects that promoted the goals of Transforming the U: exceptional students, exceptional faculty and staff, exceptional organization, exceptional innovation. Projects were judged on productivity and service improvements, cost reduction, revenue enhancement, broadness of impact, replicability, innovation, data-driven decisions, measurable outcomes, and viability. Posters were judged on clarity and visual appeal.

First Place-Blue Ribbon

Upgrading Course Scheduling and Management with Point-in-Cycle Registration Data

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

Second Place-Red Ribbon

Scholarship Search and Management

Academic Support Resources

Third Place-White Ribbon

The Upper Midwest Higher Education Recruitment Consortium

Office of Human Resources

Yellow Ribbon-Innovation

Providing and Teaching Students Sustainable Living

University Services, Housing & Residential Life

Yellow Ribbon-Measurable Outcomes

Evaluator Training and Online Ergonomics Self Assessment

Environmental Health and Safety

Yellow Ribbon-Data Driven

Universally Unique: Unifier (Enterprise Project Management Information System) Capital Planning and Project Management