How To Get Started With Lean In Higher Ed

How should higher education (HE) institutions get started with Lean management? Should they follow the tried-and-true path used by for-profit manufacturing and service businesses, or should they create their own new path? Is the rationale for doing the latter sound and also capable of generating improvements in the areas that HE needs it most and at a rate necessary to address strategic challenges?

The vast majority of Lean transformations in industry begin with industrial engineering-based kaizen in the core value-creating processes of a business – the work that matters most to customers. They, after all, must be the first stakeholder that benefits from improvement, while others will follow if kaizen is practiced correctly. Typically, a Lean transformation kicks off with 4 kaizens in operations and one or two kaizens in supporting processes, which the sensei (kaizen teacher) facilitates simultaneously (usually over a 5-day period). Future multi-day kaizens follow a similar pattern.

In industry, kaizen participants learn the goal (flow), the method, the way to think, and practical actions to take. They are encouraged to apply what they learned on a daily basis – daily kaizen – to contribute to rapid improvement in processes. Application of the learning remains focused on improving processes that affect customers – changes that customers can actually see or feel – as well as processes that customers do not see but which are nevertheless important to improve organizational effectiveness.

However, in higher education, the application of Lean principles and practices always begins with non-value-added but necessary administrative work, not core value-creating academic processes such as teaching. If higher education had carefully studied and learned from manufacturing and other service businesses, they would begin with academic processes: teaching, curriculum change process, academic advising, new course development, academic program development, and so on. Perhaps some in higher education did carefully study manufacturing and other service businesses and judged that approach to be unworkable because faculty were resistant to change, would not participate in kaizen, or would not welcome thoughtful scrutiny of their work.

It turns out, faculty are no different than anyone else. Kaizen can be uncomfortable at first, followed by the realization that nearly everyone has: My work can be significantly improved for customers and made much less burdensome on me. Once people realize that kaizen is fun and its outcome is not zero-sum (win-lose), most accept it and say things such as:

  • “I was assigned to this kaizen team. I didn’t think much of it. I am amazed by what I learned.”
  • “I would have never believed that could be done if I did not see it with my own eyes.”
  • “I’m floored by what we accomplished!”
  • “This is the fun part of my job.”
  • “I want to do this every day.”
  • “I finally see hope.”

The different path taken by higher education is significant. After all, the value proposition in higher education for students and payers is teaching and the resultant learning that can be applied to work and to life. Beginning process improvement with non-value-added but necessary administrative work – which typically continues as the sole focus for many years – is not an acceptable response given the many known problems with teaching and their strong effect on reducing student engagement and learning.

So, how does one begin to engage faculty? First, show faculty the need for improvement. Share data with them, such as the data that I have generated: What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, The Value of Higher Education, and Higher Education Quality. If your faculty does not like my data, then ask them to quickly replicate these surveys at your college or university. I’d be surprised if the results were markedly different. In addition, it would help to find a faculty member who can explain Lean management and kaizen to your faculty (call on me if you like). Peer-to-peer conversations are often very helpful in overcoming barriers and gaining interest and enthusiasm for kaizen.

Rather than forming a committee to correct teaching problems, go straight to kaizen (not kaizen “event”). The administration (and union) will have to change what counts for faculty’s service contribution. Kaizen must count towards service contribution and be weighted more heavily in faculty evaluations than committee work (with the exception of a few very important committees such as those related to undergraduate and graduate curriculum). The learning from kaizen should also be applied to improve committee work processes.

College and universities currently engaged in Lean should re-assess their priorities for process improvement and put greater focus on improving core value-creating processes. Those seeking to transition from conventional management to Lean management should not start out (or remain focused) in areas where improvement will be largely inconsequential from students’ and payers’ perspectives. They should start in the parts of the university that matter most to students and payers (and employers), so that improvement will be noticed by them which will, in turn, help the university grow and prosper, and assure employment for all – even tenured faculty. The kaizens should be a combination of academic and administrative processes, in a ratio if approximately 4:1.

Finally, please remember that there is no Lean without industrial engineering-based kaizen. Many universities have adopted only simple improvement methods that are the least upsetting to people such as suggestion systems or quality control circles. These are necessary but not sufficient, and the pace of improvement will be slowed by a factor of 100 or more. Do you have 10 years to do a few months worth of improvement?

Nor should universities blindly require everyone to do value stream maps or A3 reports without first understanding what these tools are, who should use them, and under what conditions they are used. Efforts to create value stream maps typically cause large delays in making improvements, while A3 reports, useful for problem-solving and improving critical thinking skills among managers, also delay making improvements. Neither value stream maps nor A3 reports are needed to make major improvements. So, don’t get hung up on them. Do kaizen instead.

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