Focus: change and Continuous Improvement at the University

anne harkness portrait

What is Focus?

Focus is the University’s change and Continuous Improvement (CI) team. We work on a range of activities, including service reviews, projects and consultancy, to support the University’s professional services strategy and empower staff to shape better ways of working.

What was your path to Focus?

I’ve been at the University for some 20 years in a number of roles –mainly HR and IT. Working with people across the organisation, in a range of contexts, has helped me see great scope for us to consider how we work; how we can improve connections between different parts of the University and overcome barriers that can impede us.

When Focus came into being, I was excited by this new opportunity to shape an improvement approach and work with people across the collegiate University to realise change.

How did you get inspired by CI?

As a mother of four children – working while running a home – I’ve always been looking for ways to do things in the most efficient way possible and reduce complaints!

A frequent observation here at the University is that, while many of us have ideas about how to sort out problems, it can be difficult – due to lack of time, energy or methodology – to actually pick up the problem and sort it out.  This is where Focus comes in.  People who have worked with Focus tell me that they particularly value our role as a neutral, practical ‘thinking partner’ – engaging with everyone involved and providing a structure to the process of solving problems for themselves.

What Focus achievements are you most proud of?

Starting from scratch, our first major achievement was just finding office space for the team! Recruiting and training our initial cohort of practitioners and delivering benefits through the early Focus projects (for example in Graduate Admissions, staff recruitment and the Ashmolean shop) was a huge step forward. When we were overwhelmed with applicants for our second cohort, it was clear we were tapping into a real vein of interest.

During the COVID pandemic, Focus generated a huge amount of positive feedback. People thanked us, not just for what we did, but also for the collaborative and effective way in which we did it.  Setting up the Xmas COVID-19 travel testing for students in tight timeframes while ensuring effective working with colleges, students and a wide variety of teams across the University is a good example of Focus activity during this period. 

I felt that the value of Focus to the University was recognised when we secured funding for a further phase and created a permanent team of CI practitioners to continue our work.

Now, Focus is supporting service reviews, a key element of the Quality stream in Professional Services Together.  The recommendations reached by our pilot service review for enabling joined-up and collaborative working in professional services communications are being progressed by the head of service. Over the next year we will monitor progress and provide any further support needed to help the review to achieve its goals.  We now have a proven methodology for future service reviews and are already supporting a second service review, of HR grading. 

Focus has also developed eLearning for Continuous Improvement.  This represents a real milestone, providing easy access to CI guidance to the whole University and sharing tools, tips and approaches for people to bring to their everyday work.  For teams wanting to invest in developing CI skills, we’ve launched the Local Practitioner Development Programme and will be recruiting for the next cohort of trainees shortly.

What's exciting you about where Focus and CI are heading next?

I’m really inspired to see great work emerging across the University, inspired by Focus approaches and training.  The people seconded to work on the programme and those who’ve attended Focus training, whether in central Finance, AAD, IT Services or Humanities divisions are using skills learned and sharing them with their colleagues.

We try to leave a skills legacy in our project work too – encouraging people to continue the improvement work they’ve started with us, for example in UAS HR and Bodleian Library Admissions.  In MPLS, Focus methods are really gaining traction through the work of their CI team and we’re embarking on a partnership with SSD through this month’s joint appointment of a Divisional CI Engagement Lead.

The CI Community of Practice – a fantastic opportunity for colleagues to learn from each other about CI – launches soon. And we’re preparing for ‘Discovering Continuous Improvement – Focus Conference 2022’ on the morning of 6 July in the Maths Institute and online – I really hope you’ll join us.

The next service review will be in IT and I’m also interested to see how Focus can support the digital transformation programme.

What makes it most worthwhile?

Hearing stories from departments who’ve saved 30% time on a task, or achieved a 40% quicker turnaround by revising a process. I think how that must improve the experience both for the customer and the people delivering it. It brings home to me how adopting a few simple approaches into our work can bring great benefits for all involved. This is what really inspired me about CI – giving people the tools to fix things for themselves in both the short and long-term. 

At a time when people are still overcoming the impact of the pandemic on our work and personal lives, it feels very gratifying to know that Focus is helping.

More information


Discovering Continuous Improvement – Focus Conference 2022