One of the quickest ways for university leaders to understand the effectiveness of their services is to study demand. When done right, such studies will provide a student perspective that can act as a sophisticated way to reframe student services.
Studying demand in a university
As a consultant I conducted a demand analysis (adapted to meet constraints and to fit within organisational norms) in a range of services areas and departments in a university. These studies have provided a very different perspective on student services, with considerable implications for method, design of services and management.
Demand – where to study
To study demand you have to go to the places where students make contact with the organisation (the points of transaction). In universities these are contact centres, accommodation offices, tutorial venues etc.
Understanding student purpose
Studying demand helps to identify the purpose of student contact and what matters about how services are delivered (for example, ‘quickly’ or ‘at a time of my choice’).
My studies identified the purpose as:
‘Help me to easily establish eligibility, choose, register and pay/finance my study with the University and then provide me with all of the necessary services, support, advice, information and guidance for me to study successfully’
The emphasis upon ‘me’ is to focus attention upon the student and their particular needs. This is important for universities with high numbers of disabled students as these support needs can be considerable. Establishing clarity of purpose is a critical step that provides a basis for the following stages of a demand analysis.
Two types of demand – Value and failure
There are two types of demand in all organisations, value demand and failure demand. Value demand is the type of demand that organisations want. It is normally an initial demand for a product or service. A good example is ‘I want to pay for a module’. Failure demand is the ‘failure to do something, or do something right for the customer’. Professor John Seddon (originator of the concept) indicates that failure demand is ‘a signal of ineffectiveness’. In services organisations failure demand typically runs at between 40-60% of all demand. The one published academic study of a demand analysis in a university, indicated failure demand running at 61%. In a Some organisations it can be as low as 14% and in others it can run much higher (as high as 95% discovered in one organisation). The purpose here is not about ranking or comparisons but learning about what is effective.
Traditional approaches to meeting demand
In many organisations the normal response to increased demand is met in one of two ways. As a signal to recruit new staff to meet demand. Or to introduce measures to make workers work harder. Sometimes both.
More recent responses have included attempts to ‘flatten’ demand or adding tech. These rarely work well and usually lead to customers calling in again (more failure demand). Understanding allows organisations the opportunity to breakout of this cul-de-sac.
Mapping processes and missing the point
Many organisations expend huge amounts of time and effort mapping processes (often away from the work in meeting rooms), and attempting to cut out waste. If they haven’t understood their services from the customers’ point of view, then they won’t have understood value. And if they don’t understand value, how can they understand waste? Some assume that removing waste creates more value. It is therefore unsurprising that these attempts are self-defeating and actually drive more failure demand. Mostly because they are applying the same thinking, tactics and strategies that caused it in the first place.
To remove failure demand leaders need to understand the causes and then change the system to remove them. By studying the service from the customer’s point of view and then following these demand through to completion the real causes of performance surface. Often what is learnt is counterintuitive to conventional wisdom and organisational norms. The implications are far-reaching (including for the design of digital services and systems).
This is not a people problem
I have written about the problem with focusing upon worker activity before. The management thinker W. H. Deming understood that the majority of performance (up to 95%) is caused by how the system has been designed. Only 5% of performance is down to workers. It is called the 95-5 rule. Trying to improve the 5% is to tackle the wrong problem. It is worth watching Deming running his famous red bead experiment to understand the impact that the system has.
Measures of effectiveness
Most organisations do not measure achievement of purpose. Instead they measure worker activity. In call centres these tend to be average handling time AHT (a measure that originated in manufacturing) or the time it takes to close service requests logged onto the IT system within target times. What leaders learn when they dig-up cases is that whilst individual contact has met the activity measure, the customer has had to contact many times to get a service. It should come as no surprise then, that students who complain and even some who withdraw are often found to have higher levels of failure demand. Leaders learn that measuring people’s activity is not the same as measuring achievement of purpose. Studying demand provides the basis for new more meaningful measures.
Avoid going wrong
Organisations who learn to study demand in this way, and who then act to redesign services can save tens of millions of pounds (£100m in one case). As the service is redesigned to deliver more value the number of calls drop markedly. This leaves the contact centre and other associated departments with more capacity and staff can be reassigned to deliver value in other parts of the business.
Care is needed though as it is easy to go wrong when studying demand. Here are some things to avoid that I have come across over the years.
- Build IT to measure demand or create call-wrap codes – there are many reasons not to do this, including the fact that demand is a temporary measure. And anyway, it is better to design against value. This is a predictable flaw in many continuous improvement approaches.
- Carry out a desk-top approach – studying demand is best conducted as a normative exercise with leaders and teams to create shared understanding
- Pass the results of a demand analysis across the table to a leader – they will think it is a criticism of them and therefore a threat instead of an opportunity to learn and transform.
My main advice is to get help. The right help.
Studying reveals …
This film is from a different system and sector and shows what leaders learn when they study demand ‘outside-in’ normatively.
I have a duty of care to organisations that I work with. Information related to the organisation is commercially sensitive and never discussed.