Higher Learning and Lean Management

Conflict between management and employees seems inevitable, but that is not always the case. When I worked in industry, there was near-perpetual conflict between senior management and labor unions, but less so between senior management and salaried employees. Overall, there was broad alignment in the mission of the company to design, manufacture, and service the product. There were, however, conflicting internal priorities driven by the different metrics in each functional area.

In higher education, it seems that conflict between faculty and administration over the fundamental reason for existence is perpetual. Why? Faculty are mission-driven. They are the front-line workers whose job it is to educate students and conduct research to create new knowledge and discover truth. While senior administrators may say they are mission driven, their day-to-day actions indicate they are often driven by different concerns – the business of higher education. And, they are also more directly exposed to the influence of business persons, politicians, and pundits whose interests are more narrow than liberal arts education and research to create new knowledge and discover truth.

Administrators’ concerns about the business of higher education, while complimentary to the mission of higher education, can, at times, interfere with teaching and research. Yet, it is the influence of business on higher education that has long been troublesome to faculty – especially those faculty outside the professional schools (e.g. law, medicine, engineering, business). Today, the business influence on higher education often manifests itself in the form of a university president with no advanced degree and no higher education experience plucked from industry or the political realm, to unsparing criticism from pundits over the normal and messy process of learning and discovery by people of all ages.

In the book, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (Annotated Edition, John Hopkins University Press, 2015), Thorstein Veblen makes clear the distinctions in interests and influences between administrators and faculty. Published nearly 100 years ago, The Higher Learning in America makes the case that the university should be as free of business thinking in administration as is practical; that its leaders should unfailingly support the faculty’s pursuits in both words and actions.

Veblen’s view is that the university is the only place in society where people are free to pursue knowledge for its own sake (“idle curiosity,” where “idle” means “…a knowledge of things is sought, apart from any ulterior use of the knowledge so gained.” [p. 40] – hence, distinct from business interests, yet which could be put to practical use later by someone else). It is a necessity, not a luxury. Veblen notes the valuable interplay between scholarship and teaching in pursuit of higher learning (pp. 47-48):

“The conservation and advancement of the higher learning involves two lines of work, distinct but closely bound together: (a) scientific and scholarly inquiry, and (b) the instruction of students. The former of these is primary and indispensable. It is this work of intellectual enterprise that gives its character to the university and marks it off from the lower schools [colleges, professional, and vocational schools].

The work of teaching properly belongs in the university only because and in so far as it incites and facilitates the university man’s work of inquiry – and the extent to which such teaching furthers the work of inquiry is scarcely to be appreciated without a somewhat extended experience.”

In Veblen’s view, the university’s position in society is scared and should not be diluted or re-directed in favor of fads or to fulfill short-term needs. And, the symbiotic nature of research and teaching cannot be easily understood by those who have not experienced both over a long period of time. Veblen’s thesis, in a nutshell, is that the university’s evolution from professors teaching practical knowledge to professors pursuing knowledge for its own sake is both sensible and correct, and that the pursuit knowledge for its own sake should be strengthened by university administrators and never inhibited by the interests of business persons.

The faculty’s mission of higher learning, in Veblen’s days, was funded by students’ tuition money or state support in the form of subsidy for the cost of running the university. Federal funding in support of academic research began to appear years later. In modern times, research in public higher education is often supported, in part, by the state through labor contracts with unionized faculty. This makes sense because a professor in a top tier institution with a mediocre idea is far more likely to obtain external funding than a professor in a second or third tier institution with a brilliant idea.

Veblen makes a distinction between pursuing knowledge for its own sake and pursuing knowledge that is of practical or utilitarian value such as for employment – the latter being of far lower order than the former. There has always been tension between the mission of higher education to create an educated citizenry and prepare people for work. Basically, to help create people who can productively contribute to society across its numerous dimensions.

Today, particularly in public higher education, politicians and business persons seek to change the balance that has long existed to create an educated citizenry that is prepared to contribute to society through work and other means. They would prefer the balance to shift sharply towards employment preparation, thus forsaking the knowledge areas and modes of thinking that help create high-functioning citizens. This change is balance is obviously the result of budget problems that are the result of decades of reduced taxation on individuals and on business (inclusive of tax breaks and incentives given to business by the state).

Today, we may think of the balance between educated citizenry and employment preparation a bit differently than Veblen and others in his time did. But certainly not so skewed towards employment as as politicians and business persons do. Then, as now, a principal focus of professors is the development of student’s critical thinking skills. This capability can benefit society as well as the workplace in terms of replacing opinions with logic and facts, and more accurate understanding of cause-and-effect.

The fundamental basis of Lean management is human discovery and learning. The means for achieving that is the scientific method and its derivative forms such as kaizen, Plan-Do-Check-Act, root cause analysis, etc., to improve processes so that material and/or information flows without interruption, resulting in myriad positive outcomes for affected stakeholders. It is a form of scholarship – empirical scholarship – animated by deep curiosity, mostly practical but sometimes idle, and a incessant drive to discover facts that inform rational, logical thinking, which any citizen, any society, and any workplace can benefit from.

I believe that it would be beneficial to educate all students in Lean management. How would you do that? Incoming undergraduates are often required to take a “First Year Experience” course. Perhaps a course in Lean management would be in the form of a course student take as a “Fourth (or Last) Year Experience” before they graduate so that they have basic familiarity with key Lean concepts and methods. However it is done, the purpose would be to strengthen and harmonize the balance between achieving an educated citizenry and graduates who are prepared for employment. This outcome is preferable to simply tilting the balance towards employment preparation.

Whether the object is society or work, the need for continuous improvement is unceasing and must always be achieved in ways that respect people, with a long-term view. A manifestation of higher learning is knowing the reasons why as well as the methods for achieving non-zero-sum (win-win) outcomes. Lower learning, on the other hand, is reflected in short-term interests and zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes that are all too common in business and government. Conventional management practice commonly found in business is clearly at odds with higher learning and is the source of upset for faculty. The learning needed to do harm to some people is trivial compared to the learning that is needed to do good for the benefit of all. The latter is, of course, higher learning.

Learning the basics of Lean management can be a practical route for bridging the interests of faculty, administrators, business persons, and politicians. Were Thorstein Veblen alive today, would be approve of this? I think so, but with some qualifications that, no doubt, would be sensible.

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