Collaboration the key to streamlining the exam deferral note process

Posted on Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Paolo Errore, Senior Project Manager in the Office of AVP Financial Services (left) and Franҫois Labreque, Organisational Development and Talent Management Advisor, Human Resources.

Paolo Errore, Senior Project Manager in the Office of AVP Financial Services (left) and Franҫois Labreque, Organisational Development and Talent Management Advisor, Human Resources.

By Marta Rochowska

Here’s Paolo Errore and Francois Labrecque’s story. It began when Jana Luker, Executive Director of Student Services, turned to them with a question. The deferral note process, the process for submitting the necessary note from students to defer a final exam for health reasons, was presenting a challenge. Everyone working with the process knew there was a glitch somewhere, but nobody knew where that might be. What everyone shared in common was a real concern to better understand how these procedural problems were impacting both students and staff.

The next six months showed that effective change really happens when employees working with a process are empowered by being involved in diagnosing and solving a problem.

And what high-powered consulting firm do Errore and Labrecque come from? None: François Labrecque (FL) and Paolo Errore (PE) are both McGill employees, and they tackled this quandary as a side-of-the-desk project in addition to their regular jobs. (Labrecque is an Organisational Development and Talent Management Advisor, Human Resources, and Errore is a Senior Project Manager in the Office of AVP Financial Services.) Here, they explain the process of collaborating to get to the heart of the problem in order to fix it.

What was the problem?

PE: First, we needed to understand how everyone involved in the process perceived the problem. We spoke to management, University clinicians who issue the notes, Service Point staff who analyze and interpret them and students. Each group had a different take on what wasn’t working.

For management, too many notes had to be reworked by clinicians so that Service Point would accept them. Clinicians didn’t see re-working the notes as a major problem but they didn’t know what kind of information Service Point needed and were concerned about respecting patient confidentiality. Service Point, in turn, felt the notes were not specific enough to allow them to decide if the student should be allowed to reschedule exams. Students were not all aware how the overall process worked, where to go with the note once they received it from the clinician or who made the final decision.

By talking to each group about how they perceived the problem, we were able to reach a common understanding: It appeared that the problem was in the content of the note. Now, we needed to collect objective data to see if it backed-up this claim.

FL: We gave a questionnaire to Service Point employees, asking them to evaluate the notes they received. We found that these employees believed some notes were missing key information. More importantly, we noticed that staff’s view on what made a note acceptable varied. This was our lead into the heart of the issue.

We latched on and delved deeper into the data to uncover the root of the issue. The data from the surveys showed that the problem had two components. For Service Point: (1) the notes didn’t always contain the information Service Point wanted, and (2) there were discrepancies in how the notes were being interpreted. Once the data shed clarity on where the real problem was, it allowed for everyone working with the process to see the issue objectively and unite in finding a solution that worked for everyone.

Collaborating to come up with solution

FL: We needed to first re-establish shared standards for how Service Point staff interpreted a clinician’s note. Such standards had been put into place years ago, but had eroded over time. That’s reality: a perfectly good process can deteriorate.

PE: Then we met with Service Point management to clarify the basic set of criteria for what makes a satisfactory note. We took that information to clinicians and Student Services staff for discussions on a final common set of criteria for the notes. In the end, Service Point staff and clinicians from Counselling Services reached an understanding on language to use that will allow clinicians to protect patient confidentiality while providing sufficient information for Service Point staff to make a decision.

Beyond that, instead of working in silos as before, both groups have developed a closer relationship. They are communicating better and staying in touch. Counselling Service clinicians now have direct access to Service Point staff when they need it. Counselling Service clinicians and Service Point staff now have much easier access to each other and better overall communication and understanding. And for students, we implemented a communications plan to raise awareness about what they needed to do obtain a deferral.

FL: The entire process was guided by a structured approach to finding problems and solutions: the LEAN methodology. LEAN by its very name conjures up fears of budget cuts. It is not. It is “LEAN” on the red tape/waste and it is all about people. It is about making sure that processes are truly working and adding value for everyone. The data it allows us to collect is also all about people. And it allows casting a fresh and objective look at a situation.

PE: This process was such a positive and empowering experience. We’d take on another project like this in a heartbeat. It brought people closer, got them to communicate about each other’s realities and allowed them to find common solutions. It also showed to all those working with the deferred note process that change is continuous because, as great as a process may be at the outset it will naturally erode overtime.

That’s why re-thinking in a structured way how you do things is important: sometimes you may see that everything still works great, and at other times you may notice that one component has changed over time and it may have affected the performance of the overall process — but implementing change will only work when employees involved in daily processes are empowered to fine tune them.

You often hear that employees react negatively to change so we were actually a bit surprised that we didn’t receive any resistance. Listening to employees got us their goodwill, while the information and data they provided allowed everyone to find the root cause and improve a process to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s what made the difference. This was the real key.

How others viewed the process

“It was an awesome experience. Since we all have one point in common — helping our students in an environment without red tape — it was great to work with colleagues who have the same issues. We were able to come to solutions that help everyone — not only the students but also the staff members of each office’s involved in the process. The actual LEAN process makes you realize how much red tape or extra steps your workflow has, and it affects again not only the students but the staff members themselves.” – Marcella Casella, Senior Service Professional, Service Point

“Meeting and working on the Lean Project with people from other student services at McGill was very valuable on many levels. Specifically, it has resulted in greater clarity and communication between the Counselling Service and Service Point.” – Ruth Mencow, Senior Counsellor, Counselling Services.

“Paolo and Francois’s outside perspective was invaluable. For staff so involved and invested in the process, objectivity can be difficult. Gaining a dispassionate and independent observation was very beneficial for everyone involved in the deferral note process because it allowed us to work together to find a common solution, a solution that in the end would improve our students’ experience. The strength of applying LEAN to improve or fix a process lies in the ability to customize, contextualize and tweak possible solutions. It’s about involving the people who work with a process in finding improvements that actually work.” – Jana Luker, Executive Director, Services for Students.

The LEAN methodology is used by other universities around the world. Have a look at how the University of St-Andrews in Scotland explains this exciting tool to become a nimble workplace

Do you have a story of collaboration that you would like to share? Email your story to 




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