Iowa State will implement continuous improvement principles to improve grant proposal process

By Paula Van Brocklin, Office of the Vice President for Research

Earlier this summer, more than a dozen representatives from several Iowa State colleges and departments as well as the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer (OIPTT) spent almost five days with representatives from Vermeer Corporation in Pella, Iowa, discussing how Kaizen continuous improvement principles could improve the pre-award grant process here at Iowa State.

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen, which means “good change” in Japanese, is based on the idea that small, incremental changes in processes can lead to significant improvements. Kaizen is most often used in manufacturing settings to lower defects, eliminate waste or increase productivity.

Jerry Zamzow, assistant vice president for research at Iowa State, credits Iowa State’s grant coordinators for identifying inefficiencies in the current proposal submission process and working to improve the entire system.

“I’m so proud of the team. They gave so much of their time to make a difference for their colleagues, departments and the university,” Zamzow said.

“This team put their hearts into improving the effectiveness of the proposal submission process, and provided a great foundation for changing the way we support researchers in developing their funding proposals,” said Sarah Nusser, vice president for research. “Their work raised new questions that will help us work with colleges to address the larger question of how researchers and Iowa State’s sponsored funding growth can best be supported by knowledgeable grant coordinators.”

Several steps

With the help of the Vermeer team, the Iowa State working group determined there are currently 116 steps in the grants proposal process – too many, according to Zamzow. After applying the Kaizen principles to identify which of those 116 steps would add value to the system and create an “ideal” state for the proposal process, that number was whittled down to eight steps.

From there, the team developed a more realistic future process that considers variabilities in requests for proposals (RFPs) and additional steps often required by grant sponsors. With these additional considerations, the proposed number of steps is now 65. But reducing the number of steps in the process is second to creating steps that add value, Zamzow said.

“The goal was not necessarily a reduction in numerical steps, but rather an improvement of the process,” he said.

A new form

A substantial change to the proposed future grants process is a revamping of the current “Goldsheet” routing system with a new dynamic one, called the “Live Form.”  The new system would reduce the number of layers and approvals required now, and focus on information-sharing while maintaining the appropriate checks and balances.

“Our goal is to control what we can control,” Zamzow said. “There’s accountability, empowerment and expectations in the new system. The vision is that those involved in proposal submission can tap into the system when they need to, and not be beholden to a sequential process.”

Grant coordinators are key to new process

To successfully implement the new proposal submission process, the role of the grant coordinators will be redefined. Of the 300-plus grant coordinators currently on campus, most of them juggle multiple jobs daily in addition to their grant responsibilities. In the future, Zamzow said, grant coordinators will ideally be dedicated to the grants process, highly trained and empowered to carry out their tasks. The OVPR is working with university human resources to redevelop the coordinators’ roles and responsibilities, and possibly create a new job classification for this position.

Next steps

In addition to better defining roles and responsibilities of grant coordinators, the Iowa State team has developed a complexity rubric for the new grants proposal process that addresses training, proposal lead times and necessary resources. The rubric is currently being tested in a pilot phase, but don’t expect changes too quickly.

“Currently, there are many institutional decisions in play that have a direct impact on what has been proposed by the team,” Zamzow said. “But discussions are underway to move it forward.”