From Vision to Mission

The University of Michigan’s plant operations department uses its Vision 2005 program to take maintenance and engineering to a higher level

By Dan Hounsell  

The three-word phrase doesn’t show up until the third page of the Vision 2005 document. But the phrase — changing the culture — might say as much as anything in the document about the far-reaching changes that have taken place in the Plant Operations Department at the University of Michigan.

“Our reason for being is to support the university,” says Rich Robben, the university’s director of plant operations. “We’re not just here to be a plumber or fix sidewalks. We’re here to support the needs of the researchers and the classrooms.”

In October 2000, the department began a five-year program, Vision 2005, that sought to transform and reinvigorate the department that had performed well but suffered from image problems within the university community. The department also faced new competitive and economic pressures that required a rethinking about some basic assumptions related to maintenance and engineering management.

The process, though necessary and ultimately productive, was not easy, say department directors who took part.

“The process is brutal,” says Bill Verge, assistant director for utilities and plant engineering, one of six work groups within the department. But all involved in developing the Vision 2005 plan knew that changes were necessary, and the results spoke for themselves.

“We saw the six groups performing better as a result of having the plan,” he says. “That’s when we knew it was a success.”

A Need for Change

The university’s plant operations department has numerous challenges, dictated largely by the vast size of the organization it supports — 38,000 students, along with 6,400 faculty and staff, working and living in 538 buildings with 30.9 million square feet. The university also is in the throes of $1.6 billion in construction projects.

Despite the department’s size and its central role in keeping the campus operating efficiently, a disconnect existed between the department and its most important customers — facilities managers working for individual schools and colleges within the university.

“We were the 900-pound gorilla on campus with clout and power, but we were not friendly or efficient,” Robben says. And the facilities managers across campus were uncertain how to work the plant operations department.

“It was hard to understand how we worked,” says Lowell Hanson, assistant director for facilities maintenance. “There was a lot of mystery. Managers were asking questions like, ‘When is my million-dollar- project going to get funded versus somebody else’s multi-million-dollar project?’ “

Robben, who became director of plant operations in 2000, knew things had to change to bridge the gap between the department and facilities managers around campus.

Robben’s idea was to develop a strategic plan for the department that would streamline and improve department operations, outline goals and objectives for department staff and managers, and clearly spell out the department’s role in supporting the university’s mission. The task was daunting.

“Raising the perception of a maintenance department is not an easy job to undertake,” Robben says.

Using an in-house management expert for guidance throughout the process, Robben and the six assistant directors conducted customer surveys, met with facilities managers, sought input from the department’s in-house staff. All of these efforts were directed toward “improving our performance in communications, work quality, job completion rates and billing practices with our customers,” according to the resulting Vision 2005 plan.

The central elements of the Vision 2005 plan are four areas into which all improvement efforts throughout the department are directed: customers, finances, people and internal business processes.

“Everything we did, we can put it in the perspective of these four areas,” Verge says. Perhaps the major selling point for the program was the participation of supervisors and front-line technicians in its development.

“None of this was top-down,” Verge says. “Everyone knew it wouldn’t work that way.” Each area within the department — facilities maintenance, utilities and plant engineering, building services, construction services, grounds and waste management, and work control — took the more general document and adapted it to related more specifically to its operations. And shops within these areas did the same thing, bringing the department’s vision as close as possible to its mission on campus and addressing an issue raised early in the process of developing Vision 2005.

“Staff know we have a strategic plan focused on customer service,” Hanson says “This a complete turnaround from an indicator on our initial survey, which reflected the lack of staff knowledge of any strategic and long-term plans for plant operations.”

In addition, directors and managers have tied the goals of Vision 2005 into annual individual performance reviews for those workers they supervise. This linkage helps staff understand that, unlike the results of many strategic shifts by organizations of all sizes and types, changes created by the Vision 2005 plan were permanent.

“This hasn’t turned out to be a fad that’s only here for a couple of months,” Hanson says.

Measuring Results

Robben cites improved communication with customers as the biggest benefit from the Vision 2005 effort. Now, the department meets monthly with facilities managers across campus.

“This has created a greater understanding and appreciation for what all parties have to do to accomplish their respective missions in support of the university,” Hanson says.

In addition, changes brought about over the last three years have given individual areas in the department greater autonomy to act as “little entrepreneurs” in order to better meet competitive challenges facing all maintenance departments these days.

For example, the department’s HVAC group is investigating the idea of forming a group to maintain ultra-low freezers systems around campus, Robben says. Facilities managers in various university schools and colleges now pay about $150,000 annually to contractors for the service. The new group could compete with outside contractors in an effort to keep those funds in-house.

“That’s the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we’re looking for,” he says.

The department also is seeking to keep more dollars inside the university by developing contracts with individual schools and colleges for tailored services that meet specific needs. Called service-level agreements, these contracts help the department to keep work in-house, and they help customers receive custom-tailored services that address specific facility needs — less office cleaning and more common-space cleaning, for example — better and more cost-effectively than an outside contractor could. The effort also has sharpened the entire department’s focus.

“Internally, I believe our front-line employees, our supervisors and all support staff have a keener eye towards customer service,” Hanson says. “Employees like working in a dynamic environment, and they like to satisfy customer needs and generate solutions.”

The Vision 2005 program also has generated benefits for separate areas within plant operations. For example, Hanson says, the process helped the facilities maintenance develop better numbers for budget planning and, as a result, new support for added staff and equipment purchases.

In the utilities and plant engineering area, the process enabled managers to open up the utility rate-review process so customers understand it better and are more comfortable participating in the process, Verge says.

Pointers and Caveats

Plant operations directors offered several suggestions for maintenance organizations contemplating any effort similar to the university’s Vision 2005.

First, avoid unnecessary tasks that can divert attention and energy from the focus of the project. For example, instead of developing a survey for internal employees from scratch, the department used an existing survey from another organization, Robben says.

Second, find a good facilitator. In this case the department used a person from the plant academy, the department’s in-house training department focused on facilities management and supervision issues.

Third, be persistent. The common refrain among the department directors is that though the process has not been easy, it has helped department to become more customer-focused, effective and cost effective.

“Change is hard to embrace,” Hanson says. “It certainly isn’t the easier choice, but it is more rewarding.”

“You have to stick to it because it takes a while to put a program together,” Robben says, adding that the effort is worth it. “If you just slap something together, it will end up on the shelf and die,”

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  posted on 8/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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