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Author: Kayla Waters, PhD, and Zach Frank

Assessment
What can you do with four minutes? You can close down the report and check the clock, update your to-do list, sort through your mail, or respond to a minor email query. There are lots of important tasks you can do in four minutes. And if you don’t do them now, you’ll just have to find another four minutes later. Of course, none of this matters if you have plenty of time and too little to do, but most institutions have finite resources and must be deliberate in how they use them. Program assessment presents a special challenge to resource allocation, requiring a similarly deliberate approach. Importance of program assessment Program assessment is a critical task in higher education. It is mandated by accrediting bodies and indispensable in the quest to provide high-quality programs that are well-received by students, communities, and other key stakeholders. Furthermore, from the finest of arts to the hardest of sciences, one mission of all academic programs is to promote critical evaluation of the products and processes of the field. To fail to apply a similar analysis to our own work would lack integrity. Program assessment’s place in academia While program assessment is important, it is not and should not be mistaken for an essential function of academic institutions. While different institutions pursue different missions, none of us exists primarily for the purpose of assessing our own effectiveness. Assessment should be explicitly identified as subservient to our essential functions. There are three reasons that assessment is a special case in resource allocation:
  1. For any institution with finite resources, there is an inherent contradiction of purpose in program assessment. Every four minutes spent on assessment is four minutes not spent on the essential functions being assessed. While assessment should help us make our teaching better, too much assessment will make our teaching worse by diverting resources away from the very functions we are assessing.
  2. The relative newness of the age of accountability in higher education creates urgency within a context of uncertainty over what will be considered acceptable by accrediting bodies. A natural response to the combination of pressure and uncertainty is to err on the side of over-performance, diverting too many resources away from essential functions in an effort to bolster assessment.
  3. Though methodologies vary wildly, many academicians have great expertise in critical evaluation. Furthermore, in academia we find a high concentration of people who are constitutionally inclined to strive for the “top grade” on all tasks, regardless of relative priority. 
Of course, assessment is important and worth investing in. Ideally, exactly the right resources in exactly the right quantity at exactly the right time will be assigned to each and every task. Because this level of precision is impossible and prohibitively costly to pursue, institutions must choose their errors by selecting which functions to over-support and which to minimally support. Because of its nonessential nature and inherent contradiction of purpose, assessment should fall into the second category.   Why lean? Many academicians have virtually no training in resource allocation. Furthermore, academia sometimes lacks the direct feedback mechanisms more apparent in traditional businesses, especially at the department level where assessment plans are developed. A few core principles from the Lean Six Sigma model can help departments keep assessment “in its place.” Simply, “lean” means creating more value for customers while using fewer resources. This approach involves identifying all the tasks of the institution and analyzing each from the perspective of the customer. While academia serves many customers (e.g., the future employers, patients, clients, and customers of our students; citizens; community leaders; current professional experts), we will focus here on students and their future employers. Once customers have been identified, it is important to understand their voice by determining which institutional tasks are of value from their perspective. These value-added activities are defined as tasks for which the customer is willing to pay. However, some non-value steps are prerequisites for value-added tasks. Any unnecessary non-value-added tasks are considered waste. Once defined, the tasks can be prioritized. Value-added activities are supported and necessary, but non value-added tasks are minimized, and waste is eliminated (Barry, Murcko and Brubaker, 2002). Lean assessment planning These core principles of Lean Six Sigma may be readily applied to program assessment in academia. For example, because many disciplines use student portfolios to assess department effectiveness, an array of sophisticated portfolio management software packages has joined the market. The lean approach asks us to consider whether this methodology would be student centered. Assessment and beyond The inherent contradiction of purpose in assessment makes it a low-threat vehicle for introducing lean efficiency principles to people who may have little training (and even less natural interest) in matters of efficient resource allocation. Once understood, the approach may be easily applied to a variety of domains of functioning. In financially-challenging times, when academic budgets are tight and faculty are called upon to model an ever-expanding wardrobe of hats, lean principles may allow departments to spontaneously prioritize their own processes to manage heavy workloads more effectively and stay student centered. Remember, even four minutes can make a difference. Kayla Waters is an associate professor, MA coordinator, and co-chair of the Human Services Department at Washburn University.  Zach Frank is the Physical Therapist Assistant program director at Washburn University.