Roberto Priolo speaks with Professor Christopher Smith, Director of the British School at Rome, about his experience with implementing lean in a small research institution.

Roberto Priolo: Can you tell the readers about the British School at Rome?

Christopher Smith: We are Britain’s leading humanities research institute abroad and represent a nexus for Commonwealth scholars of Italy and contemporary artists. We are a small charity institution, with less than 30 employees.

On an annual basis, around 600 people come through BSR. Some stay for up to nine months, others as little as a couple of days. We have rooms that we let, and ours is a very fast-moving environment. This is one of our main challenges: we need to be flexible enough to cope with a quick turnaround. It’s not like a university residence here, where you get most people from October to June and you can fill the place because you know how many people you are going to welcome and how many beds you have available. We are much more like a hotel in terms of processes, but need to maintain a very close relation with residents since they also form our membership base.

RP: How did BSR’s experience with lean start?

CS: Before moving to Italy I used to be vice principal for student services at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where I also worked with the LEAN team – including Steve Yorkstone, Shannon Denison and Eric Gillespie. What I learned from working with them is that you can make huge progress just by looking collectively at processes and thinking as a team.

When I came here I realised that there had not been much investigation of how things were done. People didn’t spend much time worrying about processes and there was a sense that things had always been done and would always be done in the same way. I knew implementing lean would be challenging: the school staff felt under a lot of pressure, saying there were not enough hours in the day and that there was a need for more staff. I didn’t think we needed more people. More importantly, I knew there was no money to hire more people. In 2009 we were told our budget would be cut – part of our funds comes from the British government. We had to get better, and that realisation created a common desire to analyse our current situation.

RP: Was there any knowledge of lean in the school that you could build on?

CS: No, at BSR it was a completely new concept which nobody had ever heard of. Lean is making its way in Italy, but it is not massively well known. There was a lot of excitement in doing something new, and the fact that nobody knew what it was ended up being an advantage: it didn’t come with any baggage or the bad connotations it often has in universities.

RP: What was the first step?

CS: I brought the LEAN team from St Andrews over for an intensive three-day workshop that would look at writing a brief for IT renovation, working on financial processes and on processes related to accommodation booking and residence management.

During the workshop, we broke out in various ways. The IT expert came to many of the meetings to see where we were getting to with IT-driven process change.

We had a very big session on accommodation, bringing everyone together. How we get people into the building, charge them and make sure everybody knows about it is critical to us. That all used to fall onto one member of staff, who felt she was terribly overworked. By having a new system we eased the pressure.

RP: How long did it take you to adopt all these changes?

CS: We started in early 2010. In all, it took us about two years – there were a couple of issues that came up and delayed progress. Within 12 months, however, we had the basic tools. We almost immediately changed a lot of our financial processes, and that saved some time.

We had the residential management system in place in late 2010, and fully functional in 2011. We changed our IT platform (although this task is virtually never finished), moving everybody to the new cloud-based system within a year.

Most of the work was done in the first 12 months, and that’s interesting, because small institutions are usually very dependent on one person. At an early stage there is often an issue in transition: you change the system and train a new person and you only have that one person who knows and has to teach others. But our new system is now embedded: it’s simple and we trained several people in it.

RP: Would you say that the small size of the institution allowed for an easier transition to lean?

CS: Yes and no. I think there are two sides to that. In small institutions people know each other, and you can do some things quite quickly. But, besides the limited resources you have access to, there is also a problem with resistance: smaller institutions create their own inertia and you have to work even harder to create team spirit. It still astonishes me how difficult it is sometimes to make communication work in small environments.

RP: Can you share some figures on the progress you saw?

CS: The amount of time spent on residential booking has gone down by 60%, saving two thirds of a person’s time. We took 20% of the work off our financial system, because data that once had to be rekeyed as it arrived from the residential system is now already in good shape. Our new financial process has in effect allowed us to save 75% of a FTE.

The IT system has not saved any hours, but has allowed for more effective communication and experiences less downtime than the previous one: for example, Outlook is up in the cloud, which means we always get our emails. We also have a much better website that we can run ourselves – saving us the £3,000 a year we used to spend when we outsourced this activity.

We have saved more than one FTE at a high level of pay in terms of freeing time up and have also made five figure cost savings per annum.

RP: Why is lean struggling to take roots in higher education compared to other sectors?

CS: In universities there is little sense of corporate culture and of shared obligation to manage issues. Additionally, these institutions – both at an administrative and academic level – tend to overcomplicate matters (take marking schemes as an example) whereas they should concentrate on manageable problems, which can be fixed with a limited investment in time, get the improvement and then build on it incrementally.