Operational Efficiency: Learning from Leicester City’s Premiership Success

What can universities learn from Leicester City's Premiership success? Perhaps more than you realise. Alison Kennell, University Secretary at York St John University discusses parallels identified between football management and institutional efficiency in a recent project to introduce LEAN processes. 

York St John University put its operations under the microscope last academic year in a drive to improve efficiency, with a focus on LEAN process improvement as one strand of activity.

Whilst the University was going through transformational change, Leicester City were on their own transformation journey in their bid to be Premier League champions. Leicester’s stellar performances were enough to make me believe I was living in a parallel universe, so it may well have been hallucinatory, but I began to see synergies between the team’s performance and the operational efficiencies we were aiming for. I hope that you will forgive this unashamed indulgence in exploring the connections between the two.

1      Be clear on what counts as success

Leicester’s approach to winning matches was based on a clear understanding that achieving points was the way to success in the Premier division: not possession, not goals, but points. Their approach of hitting opponents on the break flew in the face of the game plans by most of the top teams but was a key factor in their success.

One of the many challenges in improving efficiency is defining success criteria, not least because those success criteria drive behaviours. As we have worked through our transformational change programme, we have sought to set out clear benefits and KPIs that are sufficiently robust as success indicators but also nuanced to reflect what we want to achieve.

With LEAN process review in particular, a holistic understanding of what you want the process to deliver is important in ensuring that other key aims (for example ‘right first time’ approaches) are not compromised in a drive to (for example) improve response times for enquiries.

2    Set stretching but realistic targets

Leicester’s target at the start of the season was to achieve 40 points to avoid relegation. This was an achievable aim that focussed energies, with a target of much higher attainment only being set later in the season.

Our approach to LEAN was initial identification of five priority processes for review. We selected problems that we believed could be resolved in a finite window as part of a wider change programme, with the aim of building confidence and momentum in the LEAN process. The processes identified were also ones where staff and student feedback indicated strong appetite for change.

The process reviews that have delivered the greatest efficiencies to date have done so on the basis of achievable aims that have nevertheless challenged us to think how we do things (for example, admissions processing; programme validation).  We are seeking to build on these early successes by embedding LEAN in our operations through a network of champions.

3       Focus on making the whole more than the sum of the parts

Claudio Ranieri’s biggest success last season was to create a team that could compete with the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals of the Premier division from players that were regarded (at least at the beginning of the season) as individually unremarkable. A team that delivers more than the sum of the parts is a true indicator of operational efficiency.

One of the biggest successes of our LEAN programme was the creation of new teams to solve problems, looking at processes ‘end-to-end’ and bringing colleagues together from across the University who in most cases had not worked together before.

Like Leicester, we were able to create new teams with an energy that could not have been anticipated to achieve more than the sum of the parts. This sort of cultural change is less easy to capture and quantify but nevertheless a significant contributor to operational efficiency.

4      Think carefully about incentives and rewards

Leicester had a good start to last season, but were initially let down by their defence. Ranieri famously offered to buy the team pizza if they kept a clean sheet (which was, after all, the only way to guarantee at least one point from each match).

Our wider transformational change programme has been under the mantra of ‘One University, One Team’. Often incentives and rewards foster a culture of internal competition between different academic areas and professional services. This can create a culture that runs counter to delivering efficiency.

As a sector, there is more we can do to think creatively about reward and incentive schemes that incentivise collaboration, flexibility and team performance rather than individual achievement.

5     Understand the challenges of sustainability

The most disappointing aspect of writing this blog is Leicester’s relatively poor performance in the Premier Division this season, which demonstrates how difficult it can be to sustain success, even with all of the right ingredients. Perhaps setting our collective sights on fresh goals (such as the Champions league) is a final lesson from Leicester.


Image Credit: Leicester City Fans by Ronnie Macdonald on Flickr used under Creative Commons license CC by 2.0