Achieving the biggest goals starts with getting the simplest things right

“To do those big, bold strategic things, we have to learn how to handle the simplest and most basic things extremely well,” said Dean Scott De Rossi of the Adams School of Dentistry. “And that is what Operational Excellence is all about."

The Adams School of Dentistry aspires to be the global model for oral health. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The Adams School of Dentistry, rated the No. 3 dental school in the world, has embarked on an aspirational journey to “move beyond excellence” and transform the school into the global model for oral health. 

But Dean Scott De Rossi understood from the moment he arrived in January 2017 that to achieve those ambitious goals, the school would need more than a bold vision, the best and brightest faculty and students, and a dedicated and caring staff.

It also would require a more efficient operating model that, bit by bit, process by process, would help the school achieve goals otherwise out of reach. And that is why, when De Rossi was asked to serve on the steering committee for Operational Excellence, he jumped at the chance.

“To do those big, bold strategic things, we have to learn how to handle the simplest and most basic things extremely well,” De Rossi said. “And that is what Operational Excellence is all about. This initiative has engaged the University unlike anything else I’ve ever seen at any other university I’ve been to.”

Starting simple

Scott De Rossi
(Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

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How do you get people excited about operational efficiency? De Rossi’s answer: By showing them how much more the University can achieve if it learns how to handle the simplest task better.

At the dentistry school, he said, the transformation began with something as simple and small as the P-card, similar to a corporate credit card.

When De Rossi arrived nearly three years ago, only three P-cards were in use at the school.

Instead, purchases were made with vouchers. Few people knew vouchers were far more expensive because of the hours of paperwork employees had to complete for every dollar spent. People also believed vouchers were the “safer” method of payment. But when evaluating the use of the P-card as part of Operational Excellence, the finance office determined that “fraud protections make P-card low risk.”

“The thought process was that P-cards were higher risk, and so we used tons of vouchers for smaller purchases of less than $250,” De Rossi said.  “We were doing exactly the wrong thing, but the mindset was, ‘We’re doing the right thing.’”

Today, De Rossi said, dozens of P-cards have been distributed to users throughout the schools, reducing employee time spent preparing vouchers, thus making the purchasing process more efficient.

This simple change is one of the most powerful examples of how getting a little thing right can make such a big difference, De Rossi said.

Early wins

“The early wins resonated with our faculty and staff,” he said. “People are seeing and feeling that change is happening. They are beginning to ask how we can focus on being agile enough to adapt to change – as a University, as a school and as an individual.”

To do things better, faculty and staff must be free to question not only how they are doing things now, but also why, De Rossi added.

“People now feel empowered by the process that they’ve been engaged in to solve the problems they experience every day,” De Rossi said. “We need to learn how to incentivize that behavior. We want to reward people who come up with these ideas that are winners.”

In an ever-changing world, he added, the school must graduate nimble professionals with an entrepreneurial mindset who can adapt to new technologies and translate research into professional, commercial and societal uses in North Carolina and throughout the world.

“At the end of the day, these are businesses,” De Rossi said. “We’re in the business of educating students, and we’re in the business of treating patients. Although we are a nonprofit, that doesn’t mean we should act as though we’re not trying to make one.”