January 12, 2012

MBOE program helps school district save money

Students and faculty members of the Master of Business Operational Excellence Evansville cohort

A school district might not have many similarities to a shop floor, but one Indiana school district is taking lessons from manufacturing principles in an effort to overhaul its operations.

In December, 11 administrators from southern Indiana’s Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. graduated from Fisher’s Master of Business Operational Excellence cohort, a one-year program supported by the Center for Operational Excellence and designed to cultivate process improvement leaders in a range of industries.

The Evansville Vanderburgh school district is an early adopter of lean thinking in education.

Betty Ziskovsky, a senior lecturer at Fisher and coach for the Evansville MBOE cohort, said that while education might be new territory for lean principles, it is fertile ground.

Evansville superintendent and recent MBOE grad David Smith said the school sought out Fisher for its strong focus on operational excellence, knowing the benefits a no-waste, problem-solving culture could bring to the education sector.

“Any waste you wring out of the district amounts to savings, and you can reallocate those resources into the classroom,” he said.
 Evansville’s one-year journey with Fisher was a gambit for the college and the district. Putting 11 students through the program represented an investment of more than $500,000 for Evansville, the third-largest district in Indiana. 

“The K-12 experience is inefficient with so much waste,” Ziskovsky said. “It has operated on a blank-check mentality with no sense of quality. Fisher has the opportunity to be the nation’s leader in this.”

In addition to several weeks spent at Fisher, each Evansville student in the cohort took on a specific problem in Evansville Vanderburgh with the goal of pinpointing its root cause and finding solutions that help the 23,000-student district flow smoother. Projects ran the gamut, from finding stability in a transportation budget gutted by $1.3 million, tracking IT service calls and sorting out gaffes in paperwork.

 “These projects weren’t just exercises,” Smith said. They were essential in a district wrangling with an $18 million shortfall over a two-year period that already had made all the cuts it could by swinging for low-hanging fruit.

 Smith’s own project focused on processing errors in funds for professional development in the district, a complex system made only more confounding with the introduction of new technology. Just by getting everyone involved around the table and digging deep for the root cause, Smith was able to streamline the process and save work hours equivalent to one part-time employee.

That solution, along with 10 others, has reaped millions of dollars in savings for the district – and more than returned the investment.

 “We’ve seen that savings and then some,” Smith said.

 With a successful year of education behind them, the Evansville administrators are now equipped to do business and solve problems not unlike lean pioneer Toyota Motor Corp., with its razor-sharp focus on operating more efficiently by consuming fewer resources.  “A child’s education is no engine block, but many lessons can be learned,” said Ziskovsky of Fisher.

“The business end of a school district is no different than any other business,” she said. “Where it differs is it’s not as easy to measure as a manufacturing process where you can count how many things went through a line. It’s challenging and if anybody needs this it’s because of that challenge.”