What is a Spark session?
A Spark session is a two-hour meeting used by faculty, staff and students to examine immediate service issues or revise a service, and identify how to make rapid improvements. A Spark session can be conducted by itself, or several sessions may happen concurrently, with each one examining a different topic. These sessions bring together staff, decision-makers, subject matter experts, faculty, and students to examine a specific issue or challenge, or re-imagine a program or process. The group develops solutions, and selects the most viable options for the time and resources available. In the final step, the group creates an action plan to implement and maintain the solution. The goal of all ASU Spark sessions is to generate a solution and subsequent actions that produce results.
A Spark session is comprised of a series of short, simple steps, conducted across 3 phases. The phases are 1) planning, 2) conducting the Spark session, and 3) subsequent implementation of an action plan. Figure 1 shows the process.
- Identify the issue to improve, challenge to overcome, or ideas for new programs.
- Collect information and data for the Spark session.
- Plan the Spark session meeting.
- Prepare the facilitators.
Conduct the Spark
- Understand your process.
- Analyze challenges, find root causes, envision the future
- Brainstorm ideas.
- Create an action plan.
- Implement the solution
- Assess the outcomes
When to hold a Spark session
Spark sessions are highly focused discussions about an issue or challenge an organization, department or group has encountered. The best use of these sessions is to address the following:
- There is a need to improve the customer experience in a service, or the quality of a product delivered to students and their families, faculty, researchers, or staff. Students, faculty, and staff can all collaborate to improve classroom and support service experiences.
- There is a need to re-imagine how a program or process functions, or develop an entirely new one.
- There is a compelling need for improved results, such as reducing costs, minimizing inefficient activities, increasing the ability to meet demand for service or a product, or reducing process timelines.
- Challenges or issues are known to exist, but it has been difficult to get people to take action.
- Results are needed, but a group cannot devote a large amount of time or resources to a formal improvement project.
- Solving an issue or challenge requires input from more than one person.
What makes for a good Spark challenge, issue, or idea?
The following are all examples of successful past Spark topics:
Scheduling Graduate Courses in ChinaThe team examined issues surrounding the scheduling of courses that typically happen in December and January of each year. This process requires international communication with ASU and non-ASU faculty in China, Europe and the United States. Completion of the scheduling has encountered delays due to constraints that occur in the December and January timeframe. These include limited staff and faculty availability due to holidays in the United States and China, high staff workloads during the holidays, the recruitment of students completes for resources and time during this time, and delays due to waiting for course feedback from students and partner schools. The team concluded that the solution was to move the scheduling process to October and November. This allows the staff and faculty more time and flexibility to coordinate course scheduling, staff are able to respond before the holidays, and staff are able to provide students with more relevant faculty and course information during recruitment (which was delayed until April under the previous schedule). It was also determined that it is not necessary to wait for course feedback to begin scheduling the majority of courses, as students and partners in China were still in communication with ASU staff with course feedback on a daily basis. Evaluations will still be collected, but later in the process, so that it does not delay course scheduling.
School of Accountancy Honors SocietyStudent leaders from the School of Accountancy Honors Society used a Spark session to address two key issues related to growing their support for accountancy students. First, they wanted to develop ways to increase awareness of accountancy as a career for students from high school through graduate-level studies. Second, they wanted to identify gaps in how they engage with and provide resources to students. During the session, the group determined that while they do provide support for high performing high school students, they do not engage with or provide resources for average or under-performing students. The team also determined that they do not engage with or provide support and resources to students in community colleges, students moving to graduate programs or those pursuing their CPA certification. These are all areas of opportunity the students took out of the Spark session to address and improve in future offerings.
College Curriculum processRequests for new curriculum, or for changes to curriculum, involve several teams, including governance review, leadership, and technical implementation teams. The process is not transparent and it is difficult to track where requests are in the workflow. Additionally, the communication between the teams at various steps is difficult to follow, as seven different methods of communication are used. This team examined ways to improve the workflows and track requests using the JIRA system they are currently using, create a dashboard to allow people to monitor requests, and ideas for consolidating and improving team communication.
Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards processThe process has run into obstacles, and preparation for the event has not run as smoothly as desired. The timelines feel compressed and the team must rush to complete tasks on time, or the tasks are delayed and affect program quality. The source of many of the issues was traced to communication issues, and people not being aware of turn-around times or that decisions in one area have a negative impact on the functions in another area. The team examined the process, and discussed adopting new technology that will help streamline and speed up the workflow. They also identified a need to adjust the timeline to give staff more time to plan, develop an action list for the event and complete the work. The discussion also provided decision makers with a clearer understanding of the entire process, and the factors included in the management of the event. Providing training to people who want to submit nominations or write letters of recommendations will help improve the review process. The team will also reach out to other colleges and discuss the best practices they use in planning and conducting their own Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards programs.
Onboarding of New Hires processThe team did not have a formal, documented onboarding process for new hires. This resulted in employee stress and a poor new hire experience. The team mapped the existing activities and identified bottlenecks in the process. They also identified a number of improvement opportunities that they are able to implement quickly. These activities include:
- Creating an onboarding checklist for the team.
- Clearly defining which staff need to be involved in the process and when, and assigning one person to be in charge of the process.
- Providing cross training about the onboarding process to all staff.
- Creating a procedure manual for staff to follow during onboarding.
- Standardization of the departmental new hire orientation that all employees receive.
- Creating an employee welcome video from the Dean.
- Developing standardized training for each new hire job role.
- Developing standardized documents to guide manager check-ins with new staff.
- Holding a quarterly departmental orientation program for all new hires.