From education to employment

Every college has a bottleneck problem

After a month spent helping several providers with assorted problems I’ve noticed a common theme. Each of the problems was the result of a bottleneck or constraint in a well established process. This has made me realise that, often unknowingly, every provider suffers bottlenecks that costs it dearly.

Of course some providers will argue that they have no constraints that prevent perfection; but I contend that every system in the world has a constraining feature. Even the top performing colleges I work with suffer from constraints: the constraint isn’t the problem, but not recognising it is.

So what do I mean by constraint?

What I mean is something that holds back a system or process from accomplishing some, or all, of its primary purpose. If you think about it this is just common sense really; as are the solutions proposed by Goldblatt in his Theory of Constraints.

But this isn’t theory; this is reality in every college.

To better understand constraints lets look at an every day example. You want to make a cup of tea. You have a teapot, an electric kettle, teapot, milk and cup, so the process ought to be easy. Not necessarily.

There is a power cut and lack of electricity prevents you from achieving your primary objective, the cup of tea. In this case you have two possible solutions, restore the power or resort to gas.

Apply this logic to all college processes

Now apply this logic to college systems like recruitment which consist of multiple marketing, admissions and other processes, where each of these will have many potential constraints and it is obvious that to increase recruitment may not necessitate more applicants. It can be as easy as reducing constraints in the system that prevent them from going through the process. Likewise remove process learning constraints and you could see retention improve. This might also mean managing expectation levels in your promotional materials and at interview.

Another obvious area where constraints apply is in recruiting apprentices. We are currently experiencing a surge in apprenticeship applications across the UK. Determining the framework to offer is relatively easy, marketing to young people is quite simple, but there is a constraint. It is finding employers willing to take on apprentices. Of course we all know this. But do we know how to overcome this constraint? This has been my task with several providers recently. It is a challenge but not impossible once you understand what is holding the employers back.

In another piece of work I was faced with a college wishing to run a new course that wasn’t recruiting well. The college’s initial research had indicated the need for the course and that many young people would apply. Marketing had done a good job, there was a lot of interest with the course web page getting lots of traffic. But applications were well below what they should have been. So what was the constraint?

Careful examination of the system revealed all. The web page most people visited had a flaw in it. The language used was impenetrable to the level of student .. full of academic speak that they didn’t understand. The course details also failed to inspire young people; the course content list focused on health and safety, introduction to employability etc. and none of the topics that excited young people. I’m not saying the topics listed aren’t vital, they are, but the website stats showed that people were leaving the page very quickly. Sadly, those that did decide to apply were then faced with a broken link to the application form. So we had multiple constraints which, when fixed, resulted in a rush of applicants.

So my questions must be these:

  • What primary objectives do you have that you are failing to achieve, or are only doing so at high cost?
  • When did you last minutely examine each process and look for constraints and potential savings?
  • How are you addressing constraints?
  • Who is addressing constraints in your organisation? Is it the quality team, directors – who?

The rewards for reducing constraints is huge. It includes more cost effective processes, financial savings, more motivated staff and happier customers.

Not addressing constraints results in high overheads, poor recruitment, poor retention, stringent cost cutting and redundancies, to name but a few.

How are you going to find your constraints?

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US. Visit:


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