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Applying business process improvement concepts to academic advising: a case study on the efficiency improvement approach.


It has been long concluded that academic advising plays a very important role in academic success of all students and more so for students with marginal academic preparation (Fowler & Boylan, 2012; Bahr, 2008; Vivian, 2005). In spite of its importance and impact on students, many--but not all--faculty members treat academic advising as an unpleasant task (Karr-Lilienthal et al., 2013), especially when their efforts are not recognized for the tenure and promotion decisions. For example, Karr-Lilienthal et al. (2013) quote some faculty who expressed frustration with academic advising: they considered it a "time sink"--a waste of time, "you don't need someone with a Ph.D. to pick out or check a student's classes," we are "always in a catch up mode with curriculum changes," etc. Many programs at large universities have relegated the "unpleasant chore" of undergraduate advising to advising centers that are staffed by peer-advisors, supervised by a faculty member or graduate student. At small to mid-size universities, academic advising is typically the responsibility of the teaching faculty.

This article is based on the authors' experience with about 800 majors in a department with 13 faculty members at a mid-sized public university located in western Pennsylvania. It must be noted that the number of majors in the department had been steadily increasing from approximately 400 students 10 to 12 years ago, to the current number of about 800 majors. Given that the department has only 13 faculty members at the time of the writing of this paper, each faculty member has a load of advising about 60 students. In addition to the expectation of excellent classroom performance, the college's accrediting body emphasizes both quality advising, and scholarly output from the faculty. This dual expectation has increased pressure on the faculty. It was unanimously agreed that there was a need to address this issue of advising. In an environment of shrinking budgets, allocating additional resources to academic advising activities was not a viable option. Hence, the only option that could be explored was the possibility of increasing efficiency in advising without sacrificing quality. It was decided that a process improvement approach would be undertaken. This article describes the process improvement effort that was carried out in the department. The improvement idea was shared with the college dean and the chairpersons of other departments. With a minor tweak and with the dean's support, the process improvement was implemented college-wide.

The rest of this article is organized as follows: the next section of the paper presents a brief literature review relevant to academic advising and process improvement. That is followed by a section describing the advising process that was utilized prior to embarking upon the improvement efforts. The subsequent two sections present the process analysis and process improvement effort and the resulting redesigned advising process. Finally, a discussion and conclusion section is presented.


Advisement of students is many times viewed as just another task professors are required to do each year. Involvement in committees, community service, department and college specialty events, just to name a few, take much of an educator's time. But the impact that professional, focused advisement has on the student and ultimately the institution as a whole, can be significant.

Historically at our institution, many advising methods have been used, ranging from arena-style to on-line and many styles in between such as email and texting. Regardless of the style or methodology, effective advising can make a difference in academic performance and eventually, student career selection. Champlin-Scharff (2010) contends that understanding each individual advisee can yield a more effective advising outcome. It is understood that professors do not have an abundance of time to spend with each student, but the quality of the time may be the difference. Champlin-Scharff suggests advisors facilitate an initial conversation that reveals hobbies, experiences, etc., and posing more open-ended questions that may give contextual information on student interests. Champlin-Scharff further suggests that utilizing the hermeneutic theory--which "deals "with the question of what it means to understand"--in the advisement process will allow the advisor to gain helpful historical student information, initiate an ongoing investigative approach and provide the advisor an opportunity to reflect on their approach in an effort to continually improve the process of advisement.

For various reasons, institutions of higher education continue to review their retention strategies. This review often focuses on the role of the academic advisor and his or her role on improving the process of advisement with the goal of increasing retention (Carstensen & Silberhorn, 1979; Glennen, 1976; Noel, 1976; Tinto, 2006; Coll & Draves, 2009). Quality time spent with an academic advisor may, for some, be their only significant student-faculty interaction (Hughey, 2011).

Coll and Draves (2009) cite Noel-Levitz's (2007) National Student Satisfaction Report that was based on data collected from 796 higher education institutions. The report identifies advising as an important variable in overall student satisfaction; academic advising was reported to be the second most important issue after instructional effectiveness for students at private higher education institutions. The 2011 National Student Satisfaction and Priority Report by the same consulting group--Noel-Levitz (2011)--presents a five-year trend at four-year private institutions, where academic advising is consistently rated just below, but only very slightly, instruction effectiveness in importance. For public higher education, the story is not much different. The report for Noel-Levitz's 2009 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report indicates that students at 4-year public higher education institutions consistently rated academic advising as the number one issue while attending college.

Drake (2011) points out the impact of advising on the student's successful graduation. She insists it's all about building relationships and knowing where they struggle and providing assistance to keep them on track. Understanding the individual student's interest, knowing what inspires them will happen through effective, focused advising. Filson and Whittington (2013) state, "[a]cademic advisors who have meaningful and engaged interactions with students, contribute to students' advancement."

"The responsibility to meet these demands is often assigned to the academic advisor, making the skills needed for effective academic advising more important than ever before" (Hughey, 2011). Christian and Sprinkle (2013) find that students perceive "it as the advisor's responsibility to ensure his/her course requirements are met, making sure he/she graduates, and ensuring he/she gets into courses need for graduation." Their finding is based on an empirical study in a mid-sized public university. Anecdotally, our own experience is similar.

Initially connecting with each individual student on a personal basis is the beginning of a successful advising encounter. Students are typically unsure about majors, careers, and even interests as it relates to the professional work force. Advisors connecting with their advisees, making them feel they have someone who can and will guide them successfully through their academic endeavor, may be crucial to their college experience. Much of this depends on the process of advisement. Academic advisors must make sure this process is consistent, user friendly, efficient, effective and one in which the advisees believe to be useful. In today's complex world, everyone is hard-pressed for time. Students as well as the advisors don't want to waste time on non-value-added activities. Hence, any kind of wastes such as waiting or unnecessary travel should be eliminated. Perhaps, the quality and process improvement techniques could be applied to the advising process.

From its beginning in the writing of Deming (e.g., Deming, 1986) and Juran (1978), Quality Management has involved the analysis and improvement of processes. Process, as defined by Evans and Lindsay (2012) is "a sequence of activities that is intended to achieve some result." The goal is to eliminate waste (non-value adding activities) in the process. The result is a process that produces goods or services with lower cost and/or higher quality.

Linton (2007) gives a short review of process mapping and distinguishes tabular charts as more appropriate for manufacturing processes and flowcharts as better for mapping service operations. Linton's assertion notwithstanding, a "Flow Process Chart"--a basic tabular process investigation and analysis tool, typically used by industrial engineers in manufacturing settings--has also been used successfully in many service situations as well. For example, Feng, Sun, and Liu (2014) used this tool to analyze the service delivery at a medical service agency in China. They were able to: 1) reduce the average movement of patients from 255 to 170 meters, 2) reduce the average total treatment time from 78 minutes to 38 minutes, and 3) reduce the average number of waiting customers in the system from six to one.

Botha, Kruger, and de Vries (2012) developed the Enhanced Customer Experience Framework (ECEF) that integrates some of the basic process improvements tool, such as quality function deployment, benchmarking, value chain analysis and business process reengineering. They used the ECEF for improvement initiatives for "in-store" customer experience in a telecom business.

Wager et al. (2013) conducted a process improvement exercise for inpatient phlebotomy services. They used a variety of quality tools, such as a statistical control chart, Pareto analysis, value stream mapping, and a cause-and effect diagram, among others, to carry out their process improvement with impressive results. Lummus, Rodeghiero and Vokurka (2006) also relied on the lean approach for quality improvement in the health care industry. They used value stream mapping in a small medical clinic and made "recommendations that would significantly lower patient wait time and increase patient throughput," thus adding capacity without any extra resources. By applying continuous improvement tools such as data collection, value stream mapping, 5S, Kaizen, and Pareto analysis, Vojislav et al. (2014) were able to obtain processes that were more stable and without delays for a biochemical unit. Wagar et al. (2013) used a process value stream map to identify potential sources of delay and used the fishbone diagram approach to reduce the preanalytic, inpatient, and laboratory responsiveness time by 83%.

Barman, Fisher and Kingsworth (2011) apply the value stream mapping approach to suggest improvement in undergraduate academic advising for a large department at a major higher education institution. Montano, Hunt and Boudreaux (2005) applied Deming's PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle for improving the quality of advising in higher education. They heavily relied on flow charts and SIPOC (Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and Customer) to find opportunities for improvement. Their effort was focused on the students, the consumer of the advising process. Most of the improvements were geared toward addressing the service providers (advising skill, lack of advisors, delay in removing holds on student records, long waits for students at different stages in the process, etc.) as well as on the consumer (students not required to attend mandatory orientation, deadlines not followed, student missing advising appointments).


Table-I below describes the academic advising process it existed at the university under consideration in this paper. Typically, the advising activity is a student initiated activity. The student learns through several sources--including freshman orientation, peers, the student handbook and other literature--that they must consult their academic advisor before they can build their upcoming semester schedule. Sometime during the middle of the semester, the student visits his advisor's office and selects a convenient timeslot on a signup sheet posted on the advisor's door.

Later, at the appointed time, the student returns to the advisor for academic advising. Typically, the advisor then instructs the student to obtain his folder from the department office. The student walks to the department office and waits for his turn to request his folder from the secretary. After receiving his folder, the student walks back to his advisor's office. This part of the process can take as long as 10 minutes, mainly due to long lines of students in the department office at certain times of the day. This also means that the advisor is waiting for the student to return from the department office.

Upon the student's return, the advisor quickly reviews the materials in the student's folder (which she may be seeing for the first time) and then helps the student select his courses for the upcoming semester. Depending on time, student needs, and the advisor-student relationship, other aspects of advising (grades, career plans, etc.) may be discussed.

After the appointment is over, the student takes the folder back to the secretary in the department office. He also shows the secretary his copy of the completed advising form. This authorizes the secretary to give the student his 4digit PIN code so he can register on the university's computerized scheduling system on his appointed day. One of the authors has been with the university for over 25 years and recalls the process described Table I to be in place since his joining the university.


It was decided to analyze the entire process and apply the principles of continuous improvement to the advising process. Flow process charts were created to better understand the process and explore ways to eliminate or combine steps in an effort to streamline and remove waste from the advising process. It is important that the process be analyzed from the perspectives of the three primary stakeholders. Hence, three flow process charts describing Table 1 were created: Figure 1 (student's perspective), Figure 2 (advisor's perspective), and Figure 3 (secretary's perspective).

A flow process chart is a graphical tool to represent process activities. Conventional Flow Process Charts use five symbols to depict activities in the process: Circles/ovals represent operations, arrows depict movement or transportation, squares/rectangles represent inspection, symbol Ds indicates delays or waiting, and triangles represent storage. The appropriate symbol corresponding to each activity is darkened or filled for better visual representation.

The only truly value-added activities are "operations" and all other activities should be minimized, if not completely eliminated. By looking at Figure I, it is obvious that there are at most five delays or "waits" for the student, at most two times waiting for the advisor and at most three times waiting for the secretary. Also, the student has to walk between the advisor's office and the department office three times in the advising process. From the secretary's perspective, there are too many interruptions, as each student requires the retrieval of his folder from the filing cabinets. The advisor, too, often endures a long wait while the student obtains his folder.


After reviewing the flow process charts, we engaged in a brainstorming session on how to improve the process. The initial focus was how to eliminate students handling their own folders to maintain folder integrity. It was thought that perhaps student folders could be permanently stored in their respective advisor's office. That idea was discarded as we need to store the folders centrally so that they can be accessed easily if a student transfers to another department or if other offices need to access a student's folder (for example, the dean's office). Also, if an advisor is away (sabbatical, sick leave, etc.), the student can be advised by the department chair or another faculty member without having the need to retrieve the folder from the advisor's office. Further brainstorming led to the decision that advisees' folders would be temporarily stored in each advisor's office in a plastic folder crate in anticipation of the university's 5-week online registration period. Having the folders in the advisor's office eliminates the need for the student to walk to the department office. It was also decided that distributing the PIN code after advising would be done by the faculty member, rather than the department secretary.

However, it could be argued that to organize the crates with the student folders requires too much extra work for the office staff. But the benefits of not having constant interruptions and the effort to retrieve individual folders as students request them would be eliminated. A reduction in student traffic in the department office was also expected. The wait time for the advisor when the student goes to get his folder from the department office would also be eliminated. It was decided to implement the improved process. The flow process charts describing the improved process are depicted in Figures 4, 5, and 6.


This was purely a process improvement project that was successfully implemented. The project was not driven by any urgency to address perceived or verbalized complaints from stakeholders. This was simply an execution of the continuous improvement philosophy.

Often we work in our environments, following the same procedures and routines without taking the time to question if the process utilized is the best approach. Whether profit or non-profit, industry or government, many follow the same given path day after day without questioning if there is a better way. The environment many times sets the stage for encouraging employee involvement and ownership to continuously search for areas of improvement. Effective leaders/managers empower their workforce to continuously improve the processes they use. Many times, a small change to a process may cost very little and yield a minor improvement. These minor improvements, in the aggregate, can yield impressive results.

The process improvement here did not require any costly technological investment. The only material cost involved was the acquisition of the $4 crates for each faculty member in the college. The focus was to make improvements that were simple, inexpensive and doable.

Incidentally, an unexpected benefit due to this process improvement project is that the advisor has the advisee's folder before the appointment and thus can prepare ahead of time. This resulted in a huge improvement in the quality of the academic advising itself. Recall that prior to the process improvement project, the advisor almost never reviewed the student's folder in advance as the folder was first obtained by the student and then brought to the faculty. Of course, the redesigned process eliminated the need for the students to handle their own folders and thus ensuring folder integrity

Higher education institutions, especially those that receive state funding, have been facing a difficult time for the last decade; state funding is dwindling but costs continue to rise. There has been pressure on all of us to "do more with less." But, we are fast approaching the point where it is impossible to keep on doing more and more with less and less. One of our previous university presidents often stated we are reaching a saturation point where doing more with less is no longer sustainable and we have to think about doing "less with less." Is that possible when it comes to advising students? Thorough advising is essential for student retention and success. With the shrinking number of faculty positions, the advising load on the remaining faculty members has increased over the years at our university. How can we do less with less when it comes to student advising? Fortunately, this simple process improvement project illustrates how to eliminate inefficiencies in the process and allow faculty to spend quality time with students rather that wasting time due to an inefficient and ineffective system.

As we continue to improve the advising process, we plan to implement an electronic, web-based advising tool for more efficient and effective use of our resources. An electronic advising tool will also reduce, if not completely eliminate, human errors in advising. Errors that have been observed include, using incorrect prefix and courses numbers; failing to consider course prerequisites and student status (e.g., junior standing) while recommending course work, failing to observe that a student has failed a course that must be repeated by the student, and so on. Also, an electronic system would obviate the need of the student to contact the office and request to receive a photocopy of an advising sheet lost by the student. Process improvement is continuous and our march toward finding a better way of doing things cannot stop.

Ramesh G. Soni, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

P. Michael Kosicek, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Richard A. Sandbothe, Indiana University of Pennsylvania


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Botha, G. J., Kruger, P. S., & De Vries, M. M. (2012). Enhancing customer experience through business process improvement: An application of the enhanced customer experience framework (ECEF). South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 23(1), 39-56.

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(1) For simplicity, we assume in our descriptions that the student is a male and the advisor is female.


1   The student signs up for an available time slot
    posted on the advisor's office door.

2   On the day of the appointment, the student arrives
    at the advisor's office and waits for his turn (if
    needed) to confirm that the advisor can see him,
    especially if the advisor is running late.

3   Upon confirmation, the student walks to the
    department office to obtain his folder from the
    secretary. The student may have to wait for his

    turn if there are other students waiting for
    assistance or if the secretary is on the phone.

4   The secretary walks to the filing cabinets,
    locates the folder, and gives it to the student.

5   The student returns to the advisor, who has been
    waiting for the student-unless someone else
    (another student, colleague, etc.) has stopped by,
    and in that case, the student may wait.

6   The student gets advised by the advisor.

7   The student walks back to the department office
    and may wait for his turn to return the folder to
    the secretary and obtain his registration PIN.


Average         Symbol                   Description
Distance (ft)

                   The student arrives
                                         and waits for the
                                         advisor to become

                   The student confirms
                                         that the advisor is
                                         available for

104                The student walks to
                                         the department
                                         office to get his

                   The student waits
                                         for the secretary to
                                         become available.

                   The student requests
                                         his folder.

                   The student waits
                                         for the secretary to
                                         retrieve his folder.

104                The student returns
                                         to the advisor's
                                         office with his

                   The student waits
                                         for the advisor to
                                         become available.

                   The student meets
                                         with his advisor and
                                         completes the
                                         academic advising

104                The student takes
                                         the folder back to
                                         the department

                   The student waits
                                         for the secretary to
                                         become available.

                   The student gives
                                         his folder to the
                                         secretary and
                                         obtains his
                                         registration PIN.


Average         Symbol                   Description
Distance (ft)

                   The advisor tells
                                         the student to
                                         obtain his folder at
                                         the department

                   The advisor waits
                                         for the student to
                                         return with his

                   The advisor advises
                                         the student.


Average         Symbol                    Description
Distance (ft)

                    The student requests
                                          his folder from the

21                  The secretary walks
                                          to the filing

                    The secretary
                                          locates the folder
                                          and gives it to the

21                  The secretary walks
                                          back to his/her

                    After advising, the
                                          student returns to
                                          the department
                                          office and gives his
                                          folder back to the
                                          secretary. The
                                          secretary gives the
                                          student his PIN.

21                  The secretary walks
                                          to the filing

                    The secretary puts
                                          the student's folder
                                          back in the filing

21                  The secretary walks
                                          back to his/her


Average         Symbol                   Description
Distance (ft)

                   The student arrives
                                         and waits, if
                                         necessary, for the
                                         advisor to become

                   The student gives
                                         his name to his

                   The advisor locates
                                         the student's folder
                                         in the folder crate.

                   The advisor and
                                         student complete the
                                         academic advising


Average         Symbol                   Description
Distance (ft)

                   The advisor locates
                                         the student's folder
                                         in the folder crate.

                   The advisor and
                                         student complete the
                                         academic advising


Average         Symbol                   Description
Distance (ft)

                   The secretary pulls
                                         all the advisees'
                                         folders for a
                                         specific advisor and
                                         puts them the
                                         advisor's folder

                   The secretary
                                         notifies all the
                                         advisors to collect
                                         their folder crates.

                   Folder crates are
                                         relumed at the end
                                         of the advising
                                         period. The
                                         secretary returns
                                         the folders to the
                                         filing cabinets.
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Author:Soni, Ramesh G.; Kosicek, P. Michael; Sandbothe, Richard A.
Publication:Competition Forum
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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