Tech support at medical school gets ‘lean,’ raises the bar for service

Ever since the IRT Help Desk established a lean process improvement team, help-ticket response times and customer satisfaction have been steadily improving.

- By Kris Newby

Amber Burleigh, an IRT service desk technician, said she likes the way the lean process is slowly changing the way the organization identifies and fixes problems.
Kris Newby

It’s 10 a.m. Monday, time for the lean team huddle at the School of Medicine's Information Resources and Technology Office on Porter Drive. On this day, team members review progress on documenting the remote setup configurations of the hundreds of networked printers used at the school. It’s a daunting task, but posting this resource online will enable support staff to more rapidly connect new computers to printers and reduce the need to send field technicians out to customer sites.

This is just one example of how IRT support technicians are applying the “lean” approach, made famous by Toyota and other organizations, to improve customer value by engaging team members to recognize and solve problems.

Eight months after IRT’s first lean pilot project, results have been promising. Caller satisfaction is higher than ever, with 94 percent of survey respondents reporting positive experiences. And the average amount of time it takes for a caller to get a help-desk technician on the line is steadily improving, down from 112 to 24 seconds between August and November.

In addition to revamping its processes, the IRT group has upgraded its infrastructure and launched new customer-focused services. They’ve installed a state-of-the-art call system that displays help requests and wait times on large monitors around the office. When callers wait too long, their listings turn red, signaling help-desk technicians who are working on requests that aren’t time-critical to lend a hand. They’ve also opened a walk-in tech support bar in the basement of Lane Medical Library, complete with loaner computers for employees whose own machines are being repaired.

Looking back over the last year, Jesse Mena, an IRT service technician and a lean team member, said, “There’s been a revolutionary change in our approach to customer service.”

The lean launch

Last March, the IRT group formed its first lean team to improve the efficiency in the help-ticket process. The project started with a three-day launch, attended by representatives from the help-ticket team and a lean consultant.

Lora Pertle of Information Resources & Technology walks by a visualization board that tracks the progression of ideas for improving services.
Kris Newby

In the first phase, participants documented each step of the help-ticket process by posting sticky notes along a wall. At the end of the day, the team was surprised at the complexity of the work flow, illustrated with 15 feet of branching and looping sticky notes. The flaws in the process were laid bare, revealing that some help tickets had the potential to get stuck in the system for up to 40 days.

Next, the team learned how to integrate the lean process into the IRT work environment so that anyone with a good idea could write it on a sticky note and post it to a visualization board in the tech support area. During Monday huddles, ideas are discussed by all the team members, keeping in mind the lean mantra: “How can we quickly learn what ideas work, then discard the ones that don’t?” If the group decides that an idea has merit, it is systematically moved through planning, testing and deployment phases. The weekly huddles create a mechanism that keeps subprojects moving and prevents good ideas from falling through the cracks.

A bottom-up approach to problem-solving

Amber Burleigh, a service desk technician, said she likes the way the lean process is slowly changing the way the organization identifies and fixes problems. She said it’s moving innovation from a top-down management approach to a bottom-up approach. Problems are identified and fixed by the people who understand them the best: those on the front lines of customer service.

Burleigh, who said that she’d never heard about lean until this year, admitted that it wasn’t an easy sell in the beginning. “When we first started, we had trouble getting everyone on board,” Burleigh said. “Some people don’t like change.”

Our motto is to empower innovation by every person every day.

But six months after the launch, the lean process has won over many naysayers within IRT. Ideas sparked by the lean launch have led to major improvements, such as better call-tracking reports and a new call-triage system that rapidly escalates complex questions to specialty technicians, reducing the average time a call lasts with a customer.

In addition, new ideas for improving employee satisfaction have been adopted, such as a board that highlights praise from customers in the common area and the establishment of an employee-of-the-month award to recognize superior service. 

IRT’s first experience with lean has been so encouraging that the office is launching a second project aimed at improving the medical school’s IRT Service Desk performance. It is being led by Jesse Mena, an IRT service technician.

One of the first sticky-note ideas placed on Mena’s Service Desk board was, “Benihana's dinner for team building.” He said cultural onboarding is important as they grow their organization.

“The hard part is getting everyone to start putting ideas up,” said Mena. “But once they see their own ideas move from plan to test to deploy, they get excited.”

How your team can get lean

Encouraged by the success of the lean process, Marcia Cohen, the school’s senior associate dean for finance and administration, has established a process-excellence team to help others at the school adopt this approach. The team’s director, Bonnie Tsang, previously led lean improvement efforts at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, and she is eager to assist other interested groups.

She acknowledged that there are unique challenges to establishing lean practices in academic settings. These institutions typically have complex organizational and decision-making structures and frequently need to balance multiple missions, she said.

Tsang is a soft-spoken, thoughtful evangelist for lean. Her job entails educating employees about lean, helping teams embrace change and motivating them to continuously improve.

She adds, “Our motto is to empower innovation by every person every day.”

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

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