University counting on efficiency program to save millions

For about 11 years, there was a classroom in Kansas University’s Wescoe Hall that had a water leak.

That was until one day this past year, when a KU facilities manager asked two of his workers to do something about it. By the end of the day, the leak finally was fixed.

KU official Diane Goddard pointed to this as an example of the way she says things are running more smoothly now at the university, about a year after the first changes in an ongoing efficiency effort went into place. While there may be some wrinkles or frustration to work out as changes happen, she and other KU officials say they’ll help the university save millions of dollars in the years to come.

“We’re at a point where truly every dollar must be leveraged to the fullest extent possible,” said Goddard, KU’s vice provost for administration and finance.

Goddard is in charge of implementing KU’s efficiency program, called “Changing For Excellence.”

The leaky-classroom example illustrates how things have changed because of a reorganization of KU’s facilities and maintenance departments, Goddard said.

Before 2012, facilities workers for most campus buildings worked separately from maintenance workers for Student Housing, and workers worked out of shops, meaning that plumbers worked with other plumbers, painters worked with other painters and so on. Each shop served the entire campus.

But the shift in the past year has been to a zone-based system, where each of six zones has workers equipped to handle plumbing, electricity, air-conditioning and more. And the housing and main-campus workers combined into one office, Facilities Services.

With workers and their supervisors now devoted to one area of campus each, they know their turf better, Goddard said.

“We’ve also tried really hard to change the approach to: ‘If you see it, fix it,'” Goddard said.

Hence the crew that fixed the leak in Wescoe.

“This never would have happened before,” Goddard said.

Along with the facilities reorganization came a change that has provided the biggest savings so far: a reduction in staff.

The reduction came mostly from the ranks of supervisors, Goddard said, after KU’s efficiency review (conducted by the Huron Consulting Group of Chicago) revealed that KU had two or three facilities workers for every supervisor, when the industry standard is about six to eight workers for each supervisor.

KU reduced its facilities staff by about 30 in 2012, with most coming from a voluntary early-retirement program. Only a few were layoffs, and all of those were upper-level supervisors, Goddard said.

KU spokesman Gavin Young said that KU had cut facilities costs by about $1 million during the program, and estimated annual savings after all changes are in place are about $2.4 million.

Another big change in the area of facilities during the first year of efficiency changes was the switch of most custodial staff to working overnight shifts, rather than early-morning shifts.

The idea behind the switch was to help custodians clean more efficiently, with other faculty, students and staff out of their buildings. But Goddard said she has kept a close eye on how the switch might affect the lives of KU’s custodians, many of whom have families and some of whom work additional jobs.

“That was probably the one change that I knew was going to impact people both in their work life as well as their personal life,” Goddard said.

Because of that, she said, KU is sending out a survey to judge the effect on its workers, and adjustments to the schedule may be made.

One change not yet producing savings, but that leaders say will cut costs in future years, is a move to “shared service centers”: a new way to organize the staffers who do administrative work such as accounting, purchasing, payroll and grant administration for KU’s many departments.

These will take staff members who perform a variety of tasks for a single department and move them to centralized areas where they’ll perform more specialized jobs for a number of departments.

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is forming KU’s first shared service center this year, and Dean Danny Anderson said that within about three years, the change should allow for a reduction in staff through attrition.

For now, though, he said it will take some time for departments to get comfortable with the new arrangement.

“People, I think, experience the expected frustration about change in process, the way things are done,” Anderson said. “We’re asking people to speak up so we work out the bumps.”

Cost savings from these and other parts of the efficiency plan cannot yet be calculated for the most part, Goddard said, as many of them involve startup costs.

But she said savings will come over time. And, she said, cost-cutting isn’t even the most important part of the plan; more important was helping the university and its staff work to its full potential, she said.

“I don’t think we’d all work this hard to get this done if (cutting costs) were the only thing we were doing,” Goddard said.