Don’t Be Intimidated: Process Improvement Within a School of Medicine Department


Administrative leaders at all levels within schools of medicine, from department administrators to chairs to management within the Dean’s Office, manage multiple processes. These processes range from developing and monitoring budgets, evaluating performance for annual salary increases, appointing faculty and completing research grant applications to selecting residents. Based upon our experience, most departments would benefit from reviewing key management processes to identify opportunities for elimination of non-value-added tasks and redundancies, as well as for potential automation. We realize process improvement methodologies that have been promoted in major industries can appear intimidating or as though they require significant resources; however, we believe the basic concepts behind these methodologies can be beneficially applied in schools of medicine and their departments to generate significant and sustainable results without investing in complex infrastructures or costly training programs. This article provides suggestions regarding where, how and why to apply basic yet rigorous process improvement methodologies to create efficiencies and reduce cycle times, which may lead to cost savings.

Where Should a Process Improvement Effort Be Applied?

Almost any process in a department can undergo a review. Processes to begin with should include those that have a significant impact on the success of the school or department, or those that are most complex. Examples of initial projects would include budgeting processes, patient flow, or capital projects. However, before embarking on process improvement, your department’s review efforts must be aligned with its short- and long-term strategic goals. Examples of goals and associated processes for review are shown in the table below.

Why Should Schools of Medicine Conduct a Process Improvement Initiative?

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the primary outcome of conducting a process improvement initiative is cost savings. While expense reduction can result from a process review, there are other benefits to be realized that may not be as readily apparent. Such benefits include those presented below.

How Can Departments Apply Basic Process Improvement Concepts?

Most process improvement methodologies utilize similar, basic steps to evaluate and redesign a work flow. Once understood, these steps can be adapted to your specific needs. Depending on the size or complexity of the process under review, the steps can most likely be accomplished by staff and faculty within your department. However, extensive processes, those that include interaction with external partners or other university departments, or those that indicate opportunities for automation may require outside facilitation or support. The basic steps for continual process improvement, comments regarding each step, and corresponding goals are presented in the graphic below.


When considering process improvement methodologies, the most popular and publicized applications can be expensive and perceived as intimidating. However, we believe schools of medicine and their departments can benefit from reviewing their work flow processes and can create significant improvements in their daily operations. Though departments may first consider potential financial gains, other considerations, such as efficient use of resources, increased job satisfaction and improved employee performance, and condensed task timelines, are also significant factors/benefits. Based on our experience, SOMs and departments may consider starting with a basic approach to process improvement (as outlined above) with subsequent tailoring, facilitation, and support based upon the process(es) under consideration.