Campus News

Optimizing the University’s operations

The work of this strategic initiative facilitates the success of the other seven Carolina Next initiatives and their high-impact opportunities across the University.

Rick Wernoski at Old Well
Rick Wernoski is working to optimize the University’s operations in finance, administration and business operations to create a more effective organization. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The eighth strategic initiative in Carolina Next: Innovations for Public GoodOptimize Operations — serves as an underpinning for the seven other initiatives and the University’s operations.

Optimizing the University’s operations in finance, administration and business operations will help create a more effective organization. Making these changes will give Carolina the ability to appropriately scale operations and allow for adequate funding for strategic priorities.

Carolina’s current administrative operating environment is decentralized and overemphasizes individual and historical preferences, making decision-making on a whole-University perspective difficult, said Rick Wernoski, senior vice provost for business operations. Wernoski is the captain of this initiative.

For an overview of the efforts to update Carolina Next, which Provost Bob Blouin calls Carolina’s “living, breathing, evolving strategic plan,” read Updating Carolina Next, a Q&A with Blouin and Assistant Provost for Institutional Research and Assessment Lynn Williford.

“When appropriate, leveraging Operational Excellence, a multifaceted initiative to transform the University’s administrative and business functions, lets us create high functioning collaborative administration operations that empower individuals and drive change to support our key mission of teaching, learning and research,” he said. “This will allow us to pivot at any time to meet the current needs and challenges.”

Wernoski recently updated The Well on this strategic initiative.

In what ways did the pandemic impact the planning for Strategic Initiative 8: Optimize Operations? 

Like countless other teams around the University, we had to adapt to new ways of working and respond to high-priority efforts at the University. Some opportunities are now integrated with the University’s pandemic response, and other opportunities will be increasingly important as the long-term institutional challenges stemming from COVID-19 become clearer. The work of Optimize Operations is more relevant than ever. The pandemic highlighted the importance of efficient administrative operations, data-driven decision-making and physical facilities that can adapt to serve evolving methods of working, teaching and learning.

How will optimizing the University’s operations help us?

Optimizing the University’s operations will help us create an effective and sustainable organization that is on par or exceeding the gold standard for higher education institutions, with scalable operations and adequate funding for strategic priorities. This is especially crucial now as the impact of COVID-19 will linger even after we are all back in the classroom, lab or office, with a lasting impact on the businesses and finance of higher education. The work of this initiative also facilitates the success of the other seven Carolina Next strategic initiatives and their high-impact opportunities across the University.

The types of operational challenges we are experiencing are not unique to Carolina. Pursuing — and achieving — operational excellence can set us apart as an institution. We must be innovative and transformative in how we operate, even in the day-to-day work that is the backbone of our institution, with an ability to be nimble in response to changing needs and challenges. The Operational Excellence team has ongoing engagements focused on transforming clinical operations in the Adams School of Dentistry, undergraduate student registration and public/private partnerships. The team is doing pre-work for other design teams launching this year as well as a new Lean Management Training to provide to the University.

Part of your work has been to develop and implement a new budget model for the University. Can you give us an update? How will this impact Carolina’s finances? 

University leadership has spent the good part of the last year engaging with many constituents across the University. In doing so, they have shared budget challenges in a highly transparent manner while charting a path forward with a more sustainable financial model. With a focus on reducing personnel and operating expenses, the goal is to have a balanced budget by June 30, 2022, the end of fiscal year 2022 — something that the University hasn’t had in over a decade. Schools and units have submitted their budget plans and senior leadership is finalizing decisions for inclusion in upcoming fiscal year budgets.

What are your top priorities to optimize Carolina’s operations?

While all 15 of the opportunities under Strategic Initiative 8 are priorities that contribute to Carolina’s operations in different and important ways, several have been immediately relevant to the University’s pandemic response. A few opportunities from objective 8.1 focusing on continuous improvement of the University’s administrative operations have been highly impactful over the last several months. For example, Information Technology Services’ engagement on the opportunity to “reduce costs and increase research flexibility by adopting a multi-cloud systems and services strategy” has included mission-critical work by the ITS cloud team to help realize the Carolina Together Testing Program and create a foundation for advanced research opportunities. To “advance and expand the Operational Excellence initiative,” the OE team supported the University’s COVID-19 response with engagement on high-priority efforts, including the UNC-Chapel Hill COVID-19 Dashboard, Carolina Together Testing Program, Carolina Together Ambassadors and classroom operations. The importance of “leveraging the automation of student support services” has been highlighted by the pandemic as well, with programs like HeelLife facilitating virtual exploration of opportunities for student engagement at Carolina.

How will we use data to make better decisions about our operations? 

Being able to access, understand and share data empowers decision-makers. To support institutional planning and decision-making, the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, which is in the process of becoming the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment (IRPA), has restructured its existing resources to increase delivery of analytics and reporting. We are already seeing the impact of improving IRPA’s support of campus decision-making with the success of projects like the Operational Excellence Data Use and Literacy project. Through a successful partnership between OE, ITS, Human Resources and IRPA, the project produced a comprehensive dashboard designed by IRPA using ITS historical data to help HR managers analyze salaries and the Carolina Analytics Portal, a one-stop source of institutional data on a variety of topics.

Efforts to improve agility in data delivery also enabled IRPA to quickly develop and continuously maintain the COVID-19 Dashboard that has been used to support University planning during the pandemic. The site has received over a million views. The reconfigured Assessment and Evaluation team responded to an urgent request to survey students sent home for remote learning. In days, they read 11,000 responses, triaged hundreds of requests for help and built a dashboard to share results with senior leadership.

How will you create a plan to implement the 2019 Campus Master Plan? Will deferred maintenance be part of that? 

Maintaining our physical facilities and infrastructure is integral to carrying out our institutional mission. The 2019 Campus Master Plan focuses on renovation and renewal, and operationalizing that plan requires a structured approach. Facilities Services developed a framework for identifying and prioritizing facilities to be renovated or replaced based on several factors, such as condition and utilization. Deferred maintenance is a significant financial challenge. Implementation of the budget plan announced by the chancellor, provost and vice chancellor for finance and operations in January will better position the University to address deferred maintenance.

How can employees get involved in this work and contribute to its success?

Employees play a critical role in any change that happens at the University. As we have seen in Operational Excellence design team projects, user representation is especially important when working to optimize operations, where the employees driving these processes every day are involved in transforming them and helping implement changes successfully. This has been a key factor in the success of work even from the very beginning when we first convened design teams to improve operations in finance and HR.

Optimize Operations is structured with representation from across campus, as we know each department, school and unit has its own needs and challenges. We have six objective leads, 13 opportunity owners and a cohort of more than 30 individuals identified as school and unit representatives for their respective areas. We will depend on these relationships for feedback and new ideas. The Operational Excellence team is another gateway to engagement. Since September 2018, we have been working with functional units to collaboratively identify problems, design solutions and facilitate efforts to improve operations. Employees can reach out to OE and learn more on our website.

Many employees will see their ongoing work already reflected in the specific opportunities of this initiative. Ultimately, this initiative is about being innovative in support of the University’s key mission of teaching, learning and research. By showing up each day and aiming for effectiveness, efficiency and excellence in our work, we are a part of that.

To read other stories in The Well’s ongoing series about the eight strategic initiatives, visit Updating Carolina Next.