Stars of Stanford Medicine

The Grants and Contracts Group stands in front of a Lean visualization board, which helped them identify areas where they could streamline processes. The group’s associate director, Sonia Barragan, is shown second from the left.

SoM Grants and Contracts Group

By applying “Lean” processes, the group reduced grant-award processing time by 32%

Two years ago, acceptance of a grant award by university officials was a nail-biting affair. Researchers didn’t know how long it would take, or if unexpected problems might delay the release of the funding.

Now, with the adoption of “Lean” process improvements, made famous by Toyota and other organizations, Stanford Medicine’s Grants and Contracts Group has reduced average time from award acceptance to release of funds by 32 percent, down from 17 to 11.56 days in 2017. These improvements occurred during a period where the group’s overall workload increased by 30 percent. Now researchers receive earlier notification of missing information and potential problems, reducing the possibility of delays.

The Grants and Contracts Group performs a largely invisible, yet essential function — making sure research dollars flow steadily into the university. The role of a Research Process Manager is to check that sponsored awards are compliant with university policy, federal regulations and research-sponsor guidelines. They also ensure that human subjects research protections and animal-use protocols have been submitted and approved. Issues in any of those areas can delay or freeze funding, shutting down research projects.

Sonia Barragan, the associate director of the Research Management Group who supervises this 32-person group, worked with her team to try out the Lean process. Quietly competent with an economics degree from Stanford and an MBA from UC Davis, she’s been at Stanford for eighteen years. For a while, she was a catcher on a Stanford-employee softball team, and she strikes you as someone who doesn’t often drop the ball, on or off the field.

Barragan considers Lean more of “journey” than a project with a fixed start and end. In the beginning, two experienced consultants educated her team on the Lean approach. Then the team documented each step of the award process with sticky notes on a long roll of butcher paper. They also identified “pain points,” places where grant awards often got stuck.

Once problem areas were identified, the team members broke into smaller groups to brainstorm on improvement ideas, then reconvened to discuss which ones were the most promising and worth trying.

Barragan has found that the biggest challenge in getting her team members to implement new ideas is fear of failure. As their manager, she had to give them explicit permission to try new things as a way to see what works and what doesn’t.

Two years into the incorporation of Lean philosophies, Barragan cites three initiatives that have significantly contributed to the team’s impressive results: better operations reporting, daily group huddles and earlier escalation of problems. The group maintains 14 reports that provide employees with multiple windows on workflow. These allow team managers to more effectively balance individual project loads, keeping awards and proposals moving through the pipeline. Each of the subgroups holds 10- to 15-minute daily huddles to identify logjams early on. A new, clearly defined problem escalation process removes the apprehension of asking for advice or help.

For the next phase, the team has developed an online proposal intake form to test with departments. Barragan hopes that this will help research staff and faculty provide more complete information ahead of a proposal’s submission, reducing turnaround time for proposal development.

For other groups considering adopting Lean, Barragan offers this advice: “Be patient. It takes a while to get the answers. And don’t be afraid to fail. That’s the only way you’ll learn what works.”

Marcia Cohen, the school’s senior associate dean for finance and administration, has established a process-excellence team to help others adopt this approach.

“The key reason I embrace Lean is that I’m confident that staff in the School of Medicine can provide excellent administration and operations. Our staff members have great ideas on how to streamline processes and create greater value to their “customers,” the people who they support,” said Cohen. “I would like eventually to have everyone engaged in improvement efforts.” 

To learn more, see their website or contact the team’s director, Bonnie Tsang.