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Increasing Productivity through Workflow Redesign at Smith College

Christopher B. Loring

In January 2004, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) provided Smith College Libraries (SCL) with a grant to fund a work redesign project focusing on increasing the productivity of its purchasing, cataloging, and processing functions. Facing a staff reduction of more than 10 percent, SCL needed to make sure that work was accomplished as efficiently as possible.

Project Description

The goal of the project was to redesign SCLs’ purchasing, cataloging, and materials flow processes to increase productivity, improve efficiencies, and improve the timely access to materials. An ancillary goal was to identify areas where the Five College Libraries of Western Massachusetts1 could collaborate in library technical service operations and to develop and implement collaborative process-improvement strategies.

The project scope was broadly defined, allowing for the examination of any process that involved acquiring something for the libraries-whether it is paperclips, books, electronic journals, computers, or software. Included at the outset were all purchasing operations, from supplies and equipment to intellectual resources; all internal processes, from order through receipt to delivery to the bookshelf or customer; data flows, from vendor to library to integrated library system to college administrative computing systems; and access processes, such as electronic subscription, interlibrary loan (ILL), and document delivery. The scope of work within the Five Colleges was intentionally nonspecific to allow the participating institutions to discover areas where collaboration would be productive.


The Smith College Libraries is one of the largest liberal arts college library operations in the United States. It houses a collection of 1.4 million items and has three major branch libraries serving the visual arts, the performing arts, and the sciences. It has a robust special collections program that includes an excellent rare book room and one of the premier women’s history archives in the country. Prior to the project, SCL had a staff of about 57 full-time employees (FTEs).

The project was conceived with the context of two major environmental factors at Smith College in late 2003: a strategic plan for the libraries that included an emphasis on working more efficiently; and a developing reduction in financial resources at the college. In 2002, the libraries created a vision statement and a strategic plan that included a commitment to working better as an organization. Recognizing the need to constantly respond to change, the strategic plan included as a goal that staff be flexibly deployed to meet the libraries’ needs and priorities and be fully engaged in change processes. As a result of this strategic goal and prior to the grant, the libraries had engaged R2 Consultants to conduct a workflow analysis of SCL’s technical services operations. The consultant’s recommendations were generally interdependent and focused on budget control, work consolidation, automation, and expanded use of outside vendor tools. This was part of a larger effort to rethink work as envisioned in the strategic plan. By the time SCL received the grant, staff recognized that it would be necessary to do a significant amount of work to implement the recommendations.

During 2002 and 2003, the college started a financial-planning process to align its expenditures with its resources to ensure balanced budgets in future years. By summer 2003, it had become clear that SCL would have to reduce its staffing level for fiscal year 2005 by about 10 percent. Such a reduction would force change in a way that good times do not. When the grant was received, it was not yet clear where the reductions would be made; however, it was clear that reductions would affect all parts of the libraries and that it would be essential to re-examine how work was done.


The objectives of the project were to

  • design processes and procedures to permit a 3.0 FTE reduction of staff in technical processing, both centralized and distributed in branch libraries, and in interlibrary loan;
  • establish input and output benchmarks for current processes in equipment, supplies, and materials acquisitions and for interlibrary loan;.
  • improve turnaround times from order to access by 30 percent;
  • improve access and control of electronic resources;
  • maximize the use of software to improve access to scholarly information;
  • maximize the use of software to improve business processes with the controller’s office; and
  • identify areas for collaboration between technical services operations of SCL and other members of the Five College Libraries.

Work Redesign and Process Improvement Methodology

Work redesign and process improvement are business concepts that have been widely used in the private sector and in higher education for many decades. Process improvement is a method by which the interrelated activities that lead to a desired result are analyzed and then redesigned to achieve the result more efficiently. The analysis is conducted by the people who know and do the work and is done systematically using a number of different tools. While data-driven decision making is emphasized, good decisions are also derived from exploration of different approaches by project team members, all of whom bring different expertise to the problems.

At Smith, five functional process-improvement project teams (PIPs) were created and charged with examining how they did their work. They were administrative services; electronic resources; interlibrary loan; receiving/cataloging serials; and stack management. A sixth PIP was created for the music library, which had incurred a reduction from 5.5 FTE to 4.0 FTE. Each team comprised staff doing the actual work. The administrative services PIP included two library staff members who were also library “customers” and, because of a prior vacancy in the unit, had been cross-trained in some purchasing and accounting functions. Each team had a leader who was responsible for overseeing the work of the team as well as for communicating the work of the team to a process-improvement steering committee (see below).

A facilitator with a general knowledge of libraries, but not a librarian, was hired to assist each team with its work. The facilitator was skilled in group process, project management, and the use of work-analysis tools. She provided a neutral, outside perspective and, because of her previous work with the libraries, was a trusted third party. She helped the start-up of each team, provided members with training on the use of analytical tools, and assisted teams in the use of data. Her role was especially important in the beginning phase of each team’s work. Gradually, she met less with the teams; as they developed the ability to work on their own, they would check in only occasionally to assist in solving specific problems. The facilitator also coordinated the process-improvement steering committee meetings and updated the sponsor of the project, the director of libraries, on progress.

The process-improvement project steering committee comprised the team leaders, the project sponsor, and the facilitator. Conceived to provide general project oversight, it became a forum where teams could share their progress and provide feedback and critical appraisals of each other’s work. The steering committee also championed the effort throughout the organization by communicating PIP activities campuswide.

Pre-project Environmental Changes

Projects that take some time between conception and launch can be affected by ongoing changes in the operating environment. This project, conceived in spring 2003 and slated for launch in summer 2004, was no exception. Several significant forces outside of the libraries led to changes in the scope of the project, the expected outcomes, and the time frame for its completion. The most important of these was that the college postponed staff layoffs required by its financial realignment plan until June 2004, after the end of spring semester. The fundamental driver for the project was to adjust work after the layoffs; thus, the project had to be delayed six months to get through the layoffs, the resulting disruption, and the normal summer hiatus in work caused by vacations.

Another significant force was the decision by the libraries of the Five Colleges to stop using their legacy Innovative Interface library management system in 2005 in favor of ExLibris’s ALEPH software. Many of the data flow efficiencies envisioned by the project had been predicated on the Innovative Interface modules, which do not exist per se in ALEPH. While SCL was still using Innovative software throughout the project period, it did not make sense to redesign work in areas that would need to be redesigned again within a year. This major component of the project had to be set aside.

Pre-project Actions

Prior to and just after the staff reductions, the libraries’ management took organizational and process actions without the benefit of the in-depth analysis and detailed data collection that are the hallmarks of process-improvement methodologies. While these actions may have been contrary to the best practices of process improvement, they were carefully considered and proved to be correct. The major organizational change was to move responsibility for stack management in the main library (Neilson Library) from the circulation department, which was burdened with multiple roles. Stack-management responsibility was moved to a small unit in technical services, the preparations unit, which had a limited role and could absorb more responsibility. The decision was based on evidence that shelving new and circulated books was too slow and that the stacks were in significant disorder. Later, during the project data collection, the benefits of this change were confirmed.

The major pre-project process change was to move serials check-in in the two branch libraries losing staff (the art library and the music library), to the central technical services department. Following the loss of staff, managers in both branch libraries realized quickly that they needed to make some significant rapid changes. Mainstreaming serials work to the place in the libraries that was already handling the majority of such work was an obvious solution that was also consistent with an important principle of process improvement, i.e., reducing variation in the process.


Scholtes (1988, 5–26) provides a framework that sets forth a number of approaches to analyzing and changing a process. These approaches include describing the process, identifying customer needs, developing a standard process, error-proofing a process, streamlining a process, and reducing variations in, or mainstreaming, a process. The PIP teams used all these approaches to redesign their work and improve their results. Below are examples of changes that fall into each of these categories and provide a flavor of the project’s work and outcomes.

Describing the Process
One of the areas examined by the serials PIP team was the claiming of unreceived serials. Team members sought to understand the process by flowcharting the steps and then studying how much time each step took. They also tracked the yield rate for claims. As a result of these analyses, staff came to understand that a process they thought was onerous was in fact quite easy and that it yielded significant results when done twice, but usually not a third time. Further analysis led them to understand what types of materials warranted the additional third claim. Describing and understanding the claiming process helped the team redesign the process so that claiming was done more efficiently, eliminating in most cases a final step, and was performed in a more standardized manner.

Identifying Customer Needs
Ultimately, any process exists to meet the need of the customer. Operations lacking contact with the customer need to be particularly aware of customer needs as they analyze their processes. Fortuitously, two members of the electronic services PIP team were public service staff. They were able to inform the team’s workflow analysis with the user’s perspectives. In particular, they noted that when students looked for journals, they generally relied on the libraries’ journal locator (an SFX form) instead of OPAC, and that librarians were instructing students to use the journal locator before looking in the OPAC. Moreover, students were increasingly dependent on SFX Open-URL links in licensed databases to find licensed full text. Despite this, the process of cataloging a new electronic resource mirrored that established for print journal titles: titles were first cataloged for the OPAC and only later added to the SFX database. As a result of this input, the team realized that the current process neither reflected nor met the needs of the user. The team decided to reverse the order in which electronic resources were processed so that new electronic journals were added to the journal locator database first. This increased the likelihood that users would find the resources in the place where they were looking.

Standardizing the Process
Once a standard process has been developed and implemented, work outcomes tend to be more consistent, more efficient, and less prone to errors. The interlibrary loan PIP team standardized two very different processes-one dealing with how materials are sent to peer libraries in the Northeast and the other with how students are supervised. Interlibrary loan had a longstanding agreement with other liberal arts college libraries in the Northeast to ship materials to each other via UPS. In its analysis, the ILL PIP found that shipping by UPS regionally was not significantly faster than shipping by U.S. Postal Service. Processing shipments by UPS was more time-consuming, and there was no return of value for the extra time spent. By moving these materials into the standard process of mailing via U.S. mail, ILL could not only process materials more quickly and more easily but also reduce shipping costs.

Analysis of ILL work helped the ILL PIP understand how important student workers were to library operations. However, the ILL PIP found significant inconsistencies in student worker attendance rates, especially when compared with rates of other public service units in the libraries. The ILL revised its student contract to bring it in line with similar service units’ attendance policies and began to enforce the contract uniformly. As a result of this standardization, student worker attendance increased from an average rate of 77 percent of scheduled hours to roughly 90 percent.

Error-Proofing the Process
Any process is prone to mistakes. As one analyzes process and redesigns a process, one goal is to reduce the possibility of errors, or to error-proof the process. A common place to look for errors is in the communication between customer and supplier. Both the administrative services PIP team and the ILL PIP were able to change communication processes to reduce the possibility of errors.

In its analysis of supply orders, the administrative services PIP found that 70 percent required further clarification. Such clarification was needed; for example, when an item was not available, a wrong code was used, or an item was back-ordered. To error-proof this process, the team did two things. First, it did not become involved in the order process when the college’s standard office supply vendor was used. This allowed the purchasing unit to submit online orders to the vendor and to recognize and correct problems immediately on placing the order. Second, for nonstandard orders, the team introduced a standardized form with standardized codes and trained staff in its proper use.

Patrons requesting ILLs are most likely to make mistakes when they enter their request into the online request form. Automating the process for repopulating citation data in the online form through the SFX service greatly reduces the opportunity for error. Similarly, ILL enabled OCLC’s Direct Request function in WorldCat, allowing a patron who locates a book in WorldCat to create an ILL request deriving the correct information from the WorldCat bibliographic record. These steps not only reduced the opportunities for error but also reduced the handling of requests by staff and saved patrons time.

Streamlining the Process
Streamlining a process involves removing steps or subroutines that take time but add little or no value to the result. The examples of error proofing above incorporate facets of streamlining. With respect to decentralizing supply ordering, an additional process, central delivery of supplies, was eliminated. Supplies are now delivered directly to the ordering unit, which eliminates redundancy and improves delivery times. Other instances of streamlining abound throughout the PIP team’s work. ILL, through an analysis of the workflow, documented that it took 10 times as long to process a photocopy for paper delivery as for electronic delivery. Working with its customers, ILL eliminated the option for paper delivery for any ILL article received electronically. In the cataloging and receiving procedures, the PIP team looked at the processes for tracking endowed funds acquisitions and found them to be labor-intensive and lacking any automated procedures. By eliminating steps and doing only what is absolutely required by the college and the terms of the gift, significant time and labor would be saved.

Variation in a process can significantly hinder productivity when subroutines, which take more time and effort and are disruptive to an efficient flow of materials, are created to account for the variation. By reducing variation, the overall process can be improved. Flowcharting revealed that two very different processing routines were being used, based on the method of reporting. There was no rational basis for the differentiation. The staff redesigned both processes into a single, entirely new process that ensures faster problem resolution and better customer service.

The serials PIP, in examining the serials check-in process, noted the number of exceptions created by allowing titles to be routed to library staff before being shelved. This variation in the check-in process was analyzed and found to be disruptive and time-consuming. While the elimination of the routing variation was not achieved, the team sought to reduce it by two-thirds.

Finally, the ILL PIP found a number of variations between the processes for branch library materials and those for the main library. The variations complicated handling of the requests and delayed processing. By installing ILL software on branch libraries’ computers, they were able to harmonize the process throughout the libraries and thereby improve processing time.

Assessing the Project’s Results

Scholtes notes (1988, 5-31) the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is firmly rooted in quality- and process-improvement methodology. At the “Check” stage of the cycle, one looks at the changes made and asks what went well, what didn’t go as expected, and what could be learned from the effort and adjusted for the “Act” stage. For this project, there were clear successes for every team and for the overall effort, but there were also areas that clearly could be improved upon in the future. Much was learned about the process and how to better prepare as work continued.

The Scientific Approach Works
A key theme of process-improvement literature is that long-term success depends on taking a rigorous, systematic, and disciplined approach to problem solving, what Scholtes calls a “scientific approach.” The process-improvement project teams at SCL found this to be the case. They collected data and used the data as the basis of their changes in processes, and they looked for root causes of problems in order to create solutions that would have lasting value. They used a wide variety of tools, from flowcharting to cause-and-effect diagramming, to improve many processes.

Could it have been done it better? Yes. While all team members learned the methods of process improvement, a systematic training effort was not provided. More effort at the beginning of the project, which would have given those involved a deeper understanding and common knowledge of process-improvement methodology, would have served the process better in the long run.

Moving to Data-Driven Decision Making Is Hard
Making the transition to decision making based on data and analysis is difficult. Although this project was a significant step toward a change in culture, it was only a start. Staff members have allegiances to old ways of doing things, and giving up steps can be difficult. A long-term, ongoing, organization-wide commitment to data-driven decision making is essential for permanent change. Critical to the change is having some early adopters who champion the new way of doing business until it becomes part of the fabric of the organization.

Timing Must be Carefully Considered
Is there a right time to begin a process-improvement project? Probably not. There are, however, very wrong times to begin one. For Smith, it made no sense to begin this effort until after the college’s financial planning had ended and the reductions in library staff had occurred. The reduction was going to be very disruptive. Any process-improvement work done before it would likely have to be redone afterward; therefore, a delay was justified.

There can be a danger in delays, however. This is because all organizations experience change all the time as a matter of course. Leaders must not let outside environmental forces become a perennial excuse to avoid doing this type of work.

Exploring collaborative work with Five College partners also proved to be subject to timing considerations. At the start of the project, the environmental conditions in their own libraries were not deemed to be right to explore possibilities for collaboration. Only in the fall of 2005 did conditions change sufficiently for them to be able to begin work.

Outside Consultants Can Help Focus Efforts
The process-improvement literature often disparages the use of consultants for a number of reasons: they see and know the operations only in superficial ways; they are not vested in the institution’s outcomes; they recommend known solutions, not solutions that are tailor-made to the particular situation and issues. Despite this, Smith found the use of consultants before the project work to be useful in helping focus on which processes needed the most attention. The consultants did not recommend specific solutions; instead they identified areas where staff should concentrate their efforts. This is important. Having some sense of where the biggest return for effort will be found helps an organization avoid working on less-important processes.

Encourage Organic Discovery
While the scientific method was the foundation for most of the improvements coming out of the project, others came from a process that is best described as organic. When the right people come together to work over time and openly explore problems, they can come upon improvements that were not the focus of their work or were not being actively examined at the outset. This happened a number of times in the project, most notably when the electronic resources PIP team decided that one of the best things the libraries could do for their users would be to bring a link to the libraries journal locator service to the top of the libraries’ Web site. This improvement was a byproduct of the team’s analysis of how electronic journals were processed. The discussion that led to the change was triggered by this analysis, but it could easily have been missed if public service and technical staff had not been involved in discussions and been open to all manner of change.

Expect the Unexpected
In embarking on a process-improvement project, one has to expect the unexpected. One cannot predict where the practice of process improvement will lead. One of the biggest surprises for Smith was the uncovering of a significant area of organizational dysfunction. As the electronic resources PIP team analyzed how electronic journals were processed, it uncovered a number of problems. Over time, the libraries had implemented a number of new digital services, but had not clearly delineated responsibility for them within the organization. The organization had not kept up with an environment of rapid change. In response, we gathered data on the problem, analyzed the data, and made organizational changes to address the problem.

Another unforeseen finding was that resistance from outside the libraries can come from unexpected sources. The administrative services PIP team sought to eliminate a shadow budget system whose dual purpose was to provide more current information than the college’s administrative software could and to act as check against data-entry errors made by the college. An analysis showed that maintaining the shadow system required significant work with little payback. The shadow system was not as current as either perceived or needed, and the errors it helped identify, while significant, were not numerous enough to warrant the labor involved. While it was desirable to eliminate this duplicative work, the college staff advised the libraries to retain the shadow system-unexpected advice from the custodians of the college’s budget software. Despite this counsel, staff have sought to find a way to use the college’s system better and eliminate this redundant work.

Sustaining the Effort: Toward Continuous Process Improvement

A challenge to any process-improvement project is to transform it into an ongoing effort so that the methods of process improvement are integrated into the way in which the organization regularly conducts its work. In this case, where the effort was defined as a “project” from the outset, creating an exit strategy was essential. This responsibility fell to the project steering committee. This group continues to provide oversight and guidance, meeting regularly to check in on the work of various groups, providing feedback to team leaders, and identifying areas where continued process-improvement work is needed. The group will ensure that work that could not be started because of outside forces, e.g., leveraging data flow between software systems, is indeed pursued.

The processes that interface with the new library management software will need particular attention as the project progresses. There is an inherent danger in such a migration that processes designed for and built around the old system will be retained; in other words, staff will seek to make the new system work like the old one did. No matter how good the old processes are, trying to remake them is a recipe for making the difficult transition to the new system more difficult and for creating inefficient processes. The migration does represent, however, an opportunity to use process-improvement methods to ensure that processes developed for the new system are as efficient as possible.

Two major forces at Smith made for a successful environment for process improvement. The incentive for change, given the prospect of significant staff reductions and the generosity of CLIR in funding the project, was indeed a crisis and an opportunity. Process improvement, however, need not find its origins in such extremes. The inherent benefits of continuous process improvement, maximizing resources, should be incentive enough. Weaving continuous process-improvement philosophies and methodologies into the fabric of an organization will yield a better use of staff, time, and materials. This is something all libraries need to do.


Scholtes, Peter R. 1988. The Team Handbook: How to Use Teams to Improve Quality. Madison, Wis.: Joiner.


1 Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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