Are “Non Value Adding Tasks” Killing Your RTO’s Growth?
Keeping Up With Constant Changes in The VET Sector
As many of us have experienced and know very well by now, the vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia is an ever-changing landscape especially in recent times. The only one constant VET practitioners seem to know is “change”! Most of these changes have been positive; however there is no denying that each and every time a change is introduced, they have placed a great deal of stress on Registered Training Organisations (RTOs), especially on our people, systems, and operational processes.
VET organisations have spent many years trying to get everything right, ensuring that we have evidence in place and contingencies for all, just in case things go wrong. Quite often, training organisations are stretched to their limits to meet the pressure of providing quality outcomes and yet still find themselves drowning in administrative processes.
In recent years, we have seen an unprecedentedly strong focus on regulatory standards and compliance, which has proved costly and stressful for most training providers. Research shows that the pace of change in regulations, government policy, funding contracts, expectations of industry and changes in the learners have placed a considerable strain on VET providers and their staff.
In some situations (and here we must emphasise not all situations), organisations deal with the frequent changes in regulations by just adding another layer of policy or process to their current framework.
It’s a bit like band aiding the situation; and unfortunately, the band-aid will still be there when the next change comes around.
So we just put another band-aid on top of the existing band-aids.
The consequence of all this band-aid approach is an enormous burden on your trainers and administration staff to remember a huge amount of policies, business rules, and procedures, which keep changing.
With time, training organisations will find that it becomes increasingly more difficult to operate within this ever-expanding framework which, unsurprisingly so, results in a large quantity of inefficiencies, double handling of data and an overload of paperwork. Human errors, data duplication, lost paperwork – all adding to the stress.
This distracts RTOs from our key focus, which should be about providing high quality education and putting the students first. It must be said that most training organisation have the best intentions of doing this; but when it comes down to the day-to-day tasks, this focus can be lost so easily in the midst of a mountain of paperwork, outstanding admin tasks, and the perpetual fear of being “non-compliant”.
But let’s not blame it on compliance.
Compliance is like the foundations to building a house, if done correctly it provides us with the stability to be creative and innovative without placing cracks in our structures.
It keeps us accountable, and ensures that we are quality-focused. However, as organisations grow from being a small business into a medium to large entity, often their processes and operational framework does not evolve quickly enough to keep up with the growth of the business. This results in the compliance and administration and data teams becoming overloaded and overstressed. Or, in some cases, compliance and best practices are pushed to the side temporarily to keep up with the volume of student – but as we all know, this is a surefire recipe for failure and is definitely not a sustainable, long term solution.
However, this is easier said than done.
Then, how do we break this vicious cycle?
Quite simply, we need to ask the question – “Is compliance the burden or is it the non value adding tasks we are placing on our people and processes?”. Are your current practices making sense, or are they just there because they have always been there? Are we doing things in the most efficient and streamlined manner, or are we suffering from bottlenecks and clunky frameworks?
This is not a simple question to answer, but it is an important question all training organisations should ask themselves, if they are serious about wanting to scale and grow.
In our experience of helping RTOs in Australia, compliance, per se, is not the problem.
The problem is in the way most organisations facilitate the compliance and administration processes.
You will find that, in order to break the cycle, most if not all successful training organisations have a commercially aware compliance practice. When proposing new processes, policies or business rules, these organisations respond to the change by taking a systematic, holistic approach and selecting a long-term strategic solution.
The most successful national RTOs typically have very good document management and version control processes to ensure that any change would be effected immediately. In a recent panel discussion we had with Sophie Lanham, National Operations Manager of the Futurum Group, she has advised that RTOs should be clear on who should be involved in the decision making process (for example, a change affecting eligibility criteria and potentially affecting sales strategies would require the business development team, whereas an enrolment documentation change would best be discussed with staff who enrolls students, operations staff and data management team). She also mentioned that effective communication strategies are critical.
In organisations such as these, senior management will look at what is best for the organisation commercially and analyse this against what is best for the student and training quality. They then propose a solution that will not only suit their current size and growth, but also make sense for them in 3 to 5 years time.
It takes time and effort to do this, and the bigger your training organization is, the more difficult it would be, but it is well worth the rewards in the long run.
So, take a leaf from the most effective VET organisations that have scaled and grown their business successfully.
Here are some of the fundamental questions the senior management team of these RTOs asks themselves, in order to quickly respond to any regulation changes that are thrown their way:
- What is the effect / impact to the change across the following areas:
- The business
- our students
- our trainers and assessors
- our current operations, processes and policies
- our growth
- our revenue
- How are we going to deal with this change? What is our action plan and who is responsible for driving the change across the business?
- What efficiencies can be made because of the change?
- What is the business opportunity for us as a result of this change?
- How are we going to make money as a result of the change?
Yes, the last question is surely a dirty one. But it’s time we admit that the bottom line is sitting pretty high up on most VET organisations’ priority list.
By having a straight and honest answer to these questions, you start to form a pretty clear idea of how to handle the change, no matter what it is, instead of just blindly band-aiding the situation.
Getting Rid of The Hidden “Non-value Adding Tasks” that Sit Behind Your Compliance and Data Processing
As we have said before, “compliance” is not necessarily the problem, but more so it’s the processes, procedures, workflows, that sit behind compliance that are often inefficient and can be perceived as “non-value adding”.
Let’s define what a “non-value adding task” is. We consider a non-value adding task in the context of the VET sector can be identified as the following:
- Things / activities for which the student / customer is unwilling to pay for.
- Activities / tasks that consume organisational resources but create no value in the eye of the student / customer
- Activities causing no value to be created, but still cannot be eliminated based on current state of technology or thinking in the organisation
- Required (regulatory or legal requirements)
- Activities / tasks that are a consequence or byproduct of an inefficient process
Some examples of non-value adding tasks in an RTO:
- Double entry of data – lots of different spreadsheets floating around the organisation in different departments which all have to be maintained and updated regularly.
- Photocopying of student’s work
- Checking date, signatures for students and trainers, all in paper-based documents that have to be posted to the office. Why not just let technology advances such as electronic attendance system to do the work for you?
- Double checking paperwork time and again
- Misplacing paperwork or unauthorised updating of documents, resulting in more fact checking
Have a look around your office. Can you quickly identify the non-value adding tasks in your RTO? Chances are, you already know them, as these would usually be the tasks that consume a lot of your time and attention.
Now let’s look at the other side of the coin: What are “value-adding tasks”?
Simple answer really – these are tasks which are genuinely going to add value to the organisation, and these are what the customers / students will happily pay for. Delivery of training, providing feedback, grading, and so on.
In order to start thinking about streamlining your process effectively, every RTO must begin with having a good understanding of who their customers are and how these people define value. Only then that RTOs can pinpoint which tasks are value adding and which are not.
Understandably, an organisation cannot simply eliminate all non-value adding tasks, especially not in the short term.
However this does not mean that VET organisations cannot or should not get started. What you could do is either decrease or simplify the process or task – for these to align with where the organisation is growing to, and not where it currently is.
Often, technology can play a leading role in automating non-value adding tasks for an organisation, which allows their people to better focus on value adding tasks. For example, if most of your documents are stored electronically, this hugely reduces the amount of time your staff have to spend on fact checking, photocopying, finding information, and circulating the data to the right person. Additionally, dates, signatures, and any editing would be logged automatically in reports that are ready at one click – reducing the risks of conflicting information or people not owning up to their tasks.
But in some cases, it is simply a matter of identifying non-value adding tasks and adjusting your process to circumvent or purge these.
The Holy Grail that all vocational training organisations seem to be chasing is to ensure that all the repetitive administration tasks and compliance burden are minimised and automated in the background, allowing the organisations to focus on the value adding tasks and developing and delivering high quality, flexible courses for their students. This puts an organisation is the ideal place, where the operational costs or diminished, and the organisation is able to spend money on growing the business instead.
To identify the areas that can be streamlined and automated, here are a couple of simple steps / activities you can follow:
- Start with assessing the current processes / workflows and procedures surrounding your student life-cycle, from expression of intention to completion
- Map out all your process associated with a typical student life-cycle, excluding all the variations that could happen during the lifespan of said student e.g. suspensions, variations to training plans, etc. Below we list a few examples of these process:
- Enquiry process
- Enrolment process
- Initial assessment process
- Admissions process
- Commencement process
- Course progression process
- Student support/engagement process
- Student completion process
- Certification process
- A tip: when you map out your processes, make sure you assess and take into account the following aspects:
- The inputs
- The outputs
- The resources, paper forms, and tools required to facilitate the process
- The controls and business rules, compliance rules, KPI measures etc into the process flow
- Any sub process, linked process or dependencies
- Define and clarify your customer expectations (it might help to set aside some time to talk to your sales staff, do a focus group, or talk to your students. Sometimes in this business we are so often carried away with what we think students need, instead of what they actually need.)
- Clearly identify the tasks within these processes that are truly "value-adding" and what are not
- With customer value protected, you can move aggressively to minimize or eliminate waste and other activities your customer doesn't want to pay for.
- Find process improvements that will maximize the value produced. This can be done by looking for areas where double handling of data occurs, and looking for opportunities to automate and eliminate paper in the business.
- Make the adjustments to the process / workflow, or create a new one.
- Implement the new change using one of the change management models such as Kotter. Changes are difficult, and each organisation will respond to change in a different way; so you need to ensure that your change is carried out and then sustained.
- Ensure you have a strong communication strategy to ensure the change is embedded in the organisations. Pay attention to your own organisation’s culture and how your people are responding to the change.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to assess the process:
- Is this task / process effective and efficient?
- Can this task / process be improved to provide a better product or service for the end customer?
- What is the cost and time invested for the task / process? This will assist you in determining the value added by the activity versus the cost of said activity.
Surprisingly so, streamlining and automating your VET organisation’s processes are in fact the easy part.
The hardest part is in the implementation of the change. A lot of organisations in the vocational education & training sector underestimate this; as managing and sustaining a new change in a company put your culture, leadership, and staff motivation under pressures. Transforming the way you do things is not easy, and it is especially hard to do so in the VET space where we are all very risk-averse and suspicious of changing.
If the new process or operations plan is not introduced to the organisation in the correct way, it will undoubtedly be met with resistance and lots of push back. This will result in confusion, wasted time, money and effort, and the new change will not be embedded into the organisation for the long term. Everything reverts back to how it was, as soon as the consultants are out the door – does this sound familiar?
Thus, to avoid this pitfall, we recommend that you have the following:
- A robust change management plan – Kotter’s 8-step process for leading changes is a good one
- A detailed communication and training strategy and plan
- Assigned accountability to a single person or a committee to manage the implementation and change process. We suggest having a project manager's, project sponsor, and a steering committee to drive the project.
- Have regular accountability meetings and reporting schedules.
If your training organisation wants to transition to the next level, you must boost the commitment of two (very different) groups of people in order for the change to take roots.
Visible support from top management and the most influential managers is critical; and you also need to take into account the enthusiasm – or, more often, lack thereof – of the ground floor staff who ultimately have to deal with the new systems, processes, technology, or ways of working.
There is no better time to review your compliance and data administration functions within your training organisation, to ensure that they are in fact working for you, and not against you.
Now is the time to streamline operations and leverage technology solutions to automate the non-value adding tasks, if this means that it would allow you to free up your people to focus on what they do best – deliver high quality training courses and growing your business.
Now is when you must make time for what truly matters.
And don’t forget, the secret to successful implementations is a strong change management plan and brilliant leaders!