Lean MBA or Conventional MBA?

Below is a video in four parts of me giving a presentation to a business school faculty in which I make the case that Lean management should be taught to MBA students. The video was recorded on 28 January 2016. What do you think? Did I make a good case for featuring Lean management in their MBA program?

Part One: 33 minutes

Part Two: 33 minutes

Part Three: 33 minutes

Part Four: 11 minutes

Learn about Lean management and the public good.

Higher Ed’s Big Lie: Academic Excellence

It seems there isn’t a university administrator anywhere, and most faculty too, who claim the mantle of “academic excellence.” What is “academic excellence?” The words typically connote the span of university activities related to the degree programs, scholarship, learning, and teaching. It is common to read how funding must be preserved or increased to maintain or improve “academic excellence.” Claims of “academic excellence” vary according to the topic under discussion*. For degree programs, it is accreditation. For scholarship, it is publication in peer-reviewed journals. For learning, it is graduation rates and post-graduation employment. For teaching, it is…. mostly nothing. Academic excellence in the context of teaching is often unsubstantiated. If it is substantiated, it is typically based on unscientific, misleading, or inaccurate survey data.

The term “academic excellence” is a synonym for “bugger off:”

  • Our degree programs are accredited, so bugger off.
  • Faculty and student research is published in peer-reviewed journals, so bugger off.
  • Our graduation rate and post-graduation employment numbers are in line with peer universities, so bugger off.
  • Accreditation, research publications, graduation rates, and post-graduation employment prove that teaching is good, so bugger off.

The principal purpose of the term “academic excellence” is to fend off criticism from outsiders, keep external stakeholders in the dark, and to avoid doing the hard work of improving academic and administrative processes across the university. The term “academic excellence” is used to maintain the status quo, and continues to successfully deflect criticism despite the need for change – especially when it comes to teaching. Teaching remains, by far, the weakest element of the enterprise and the most in need of improvement.

Generally, if a university president considers something important, then others will view it to be important as well. How many university presidents consistently emphasize the importance of continuously improving teaching? How many university presidents follow up their nice words with personal actions such as meeting faculty in their office to encourage ever-better teaching, thank individual faculty for their good teaching with handwritten notes, and motivate poor teachers to do better?

While most university presidents advocate for good teaching, the method for improvement is left up to individual faculty and thus leads to variable results. There are no institutionally agreed-upon methods for continuous improvement. Teaching is core to a university’s mission, and to the satisfaction of students, payers, employers, and others. How can the improvement methods, and the results, be left to chance?

Let’s looks some facts that represent the teaching situation at most, but not all, universities where research contributions are required of the faculty:

  • Most faculty are not trained how to teach. Therefore, they teach the way they were taught. As students, we found most faculty to be average or below average teachers. Fortunately, a few of the 40 or so professors that undergraduates would come into contact over 4 years good. Typically, this means 3 or 4 professors, or about 10 percent of the total.
  • Most faculty do little or no experimentation in their teaching. They may do some experimentation early in their career, but few do experiments throughout their career. They settle on methods that to them appear to work best, but which their students likely view as poor.
  • Most faculty do not share their teaching methods with other faculty in any great detail. So, they do not subject themselves to criticism that leads to improvement and remain unaware of what the professor in the office next to them does.
  • In most universities, teaching counts for relatively little in faculty evaluation. There remains an illogical line of thinking that says because one has a terminal degree, they know how to teach. The reward for experimenting and improving one’s teaching is nil, so most faculty don’t bother.
  • Faculty will immerse themselves in the literature of their discipline, but will be largely uninformed about which pedagogies are more or less effective.
  • Faculty talk of “continuous improvement” yet they do not actually use the methods and tools of continuous improvement (rooted in industrial engineering). Routine changes to courses and programs, while necessary, are accepted as evidence of comprehensive continuous improvement activity.
  • From academics’ perspective, the answer to any of their problems is “more money.” They spend money instead of spending ideas. They should spend ideas instead of spending money.
  • For the last 8 years or so, university leaders have been more focused on enrollment numbers and admission of out-of-state students to improve the financial condition of the institution than teaching.
  • As far as I can tell, no university president knows of or can name the top 5 teachers in each school (business, engineering, nursing, etc.). Nor do they know specifically the reasons why each person is a good teacher.

Data that I have collected in recent years (see it here, here, here, and here) informs me that “academic excellence” is weak when it comes to teaching, and not nearly as strong as people think in other areas. Rather than confront the poor quality of as basic a human activity as teaching, university leaders prefer to run from it and instead adopt expensive technological or other solutions. Top administrators are too quick to spend money and thus increase the cost of higher education.

Instead, top administrators should recognize teaching as a process and, like any process, it can be continuously improved. The way to do that is by using a proven, low cost/no-cost method. That method is kaizen.


* It is challenging to associate degree programs with “academic excellence” when, in most cases, courses are disconnected from one another and sometimes even repetitive in bad ways. The same is true for accreditation, as this process allows even weak academic programs to be accredited. The focus of peer-reviewed publications is quantity, not quality. And graduation rates and post-graduation employment metrics are easily gamed. And, of course, reputation is not a reliable proxy for academic excellence. These, therefore, compromise overall claims of “academic excellence.”

Top 2015 Lean Higher Ed Blog Posts

Thank you for reading my blog! Here are the most viewed blog posts in 2015:

Methodological Errors in Lean for Higher Ed
Lean Higher Ed Conference Presentation
How To Get Started With Lean In Higher Ed
Teaching Surveys – Interim Results
What Is Good Quality Teaching? – Survey Results
My Student Course Evaluations
New Books: Lean Teaching and Lean University
Lean Must Do No Harm
Imaginary Customers
Higher Education Quality
Why Professors Can’t Teach
“All Deans Are A**holes”
Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?
Lean for University Leaders
The Value Of Higher Education
Improving Critical Thinking
Course Blueprint
A Shameful Legacy
A Lost Decade
I Called It

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.

Riches of Embarrassment

There has been much consternation as well a strong, negative emotional response among CSU faculty to the Board of Regents opening proposals for the AAUP contract. Faculty, who once viewed the Board of Regents as merely bumbling and incompetent now view them angrily and as the enemy. That is an unfortunate development and will surely make reasoned negotiations between the BOR and AAUP more difficult.

My personal sentiment, however, not so much centered upon the BORs bumbling and incompetence. Nor am I angry or do I see them as the enemy. Instead, I am simply embarrassed by their proposals and how others nation-wide view the BOR and the CSU system. The BOR presented themselves as ill-informed amateur administrators, not as knowledgeable higher education professionals. It reflects poorly on both them and our Governor, and it is disappointing to think of them as the leaders of our university system.

I am embarrassed because the BOR negotiating team, in the first five sessions, reveals many important things that they do not understand but should understand such as: the mission of public higher education; what tenure is and what it is not; effect of class size on student learning and student success; the practical impact of faculty re-assignment to sister institutions; process for modifying or eliminating academic programs (including low enrollment programs); of a code of conduct that is impractical; the difference in work responsibilities between full-time faculty and part-time faculty; the needs of part-time faculty; and staffing required to provide student services related to academics. Their level of ignorance of the basics is alarming, and is likely the same or worse among the “powers that be” and the “higher ups” that the negotiating team reports to.

I am embarrassed because the BOR failed to comprehend the ramifications of their proposals. Specifically with respect to accreditation of the university as a whole, as well as its various undergraduate and graduate programs, which the BOR needs as much as students do and employers want.

Faculty and staff understand that the BOR wants to be fiscally responsible and save money. So, tell us what the annual savings target is and we will work with you to see how much of that can be achieved and by what means. But, please recognize that CSU faculty are underpaid relative to both industry and other public and private universities. All parties must recognize that a faculty labor contract is only one of many expenses where savings might be achieved. The BOR must commit to taxpayers that it will be equally diligent in scrutinizing administrative labor cost, benefits for top administrators, supply contracts, athletic programs (1, 2, 3) as well as academic programs, the many bad processes that generate high costs, and so on.

The BOR desires flexibility to add or discontinue academic programs, and re-locate or laying off faculty. There are two things to recognize in pursuit of such seemingly desirable flexibility:

  • Full-time faculty have four job responsibilities: teaching, research, service to the university and service to the profession. The purpose of these four job responsibilities is to build our knowledge steadily over time so that we can more effectively build student’s knowledge. While the BOR may desire professors’ jobs to be easily eliminated or replaced with technology, the reality is that knowledge is a construction project that never ends. This benefits our students, the vast majority of whom remain in-state, as well as society. Re-locating or laying off faculty by fiat is the type of penny-wise, pound-foolish decision that that so often plagues business thinking and causes many more problems than it solves. I should know, I experienced such folly when I worked in industry, and for 10 years I have taught a unique graduate course that analyzes the failed decisions of senior managers in dozens of organizations.
  • There is a practical, established process for discontinuing old academic programs and adding new ones. It is part of the system of “shared governance” (a.k.a. teamwork) that helps us avoid making stupid and costly mistakes. Faculty realize that programs with low enrollment are in trouble and they either work to increase enrollments, discontinue the program, or replace it with a new one that better fits the times. We can work with the BOR on this in the future, just as we have always done in the past.

Unfortunately, the cost driver for public higher education is the tremendous growth in high-paying administrative positions, new buildings, and campus amenities – not faculty whose salaries have remained flat with inflation for 30 years and whose numbers of full-time positions has declined by half. As a former manager in industry, I am embarrassed that the BOR does not recognize its cost-drivers, as any business leader would, and focus on those, while also challenging faculty to achieve sensible programmatic goals through proven approaches such as shared governance and process improvement – all for the benefit of students.

It is common knowledge that public education in general, and public higher education in particular, is a Governor’s piggy bank for funding tax breaks and incentives for private industry. This two-decade, taxpayer-funded tax break and incentive spree is finally on the decline because the data shows that the return on investment is terrible* – far worse than investing in public education – which Connecticut’s senior elected and appointed leaders apparently have yet to grasp. I’m embarrassed by this too.

Recent Connecticut governors have created a billion dollar-plus budget problem as a result of these generous tax breaks and incentives to private industry, and then, in turn, demand wage cuts from state employees and funding cuts to necessary state programs. It is foolish of our elected leaders to forsake a long-term public trust such as higher education for the fickle, short-term interests of industry.

On behalf of all CSU faculty, I give our new BOR president, Mr. Mark Ojakian, a homework assignment: read The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, by Thorstein Veblen (Annotated Edition, John Hopkins University Press, 2015). This will inform Mr. Ojakian of the valid concerns of faculty, and how they relate to the distinct mission of higher education, student success, and society as a whole. As the leader of our state university system, he should gladly accept and complete this assignment.


* See “UNITED STATES OF SUBSIDIES: A series examining business incentives and their impact on jobs and local economies.”

Lean Governor, Anti-Lean Board of Regents

This is an op-ed article that appeared in The Connecticut Mirror, a respected nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that reports on government policies and politics. I wrote it in response to the ongoing contract negotiations between the Connecticut Board of Regents and the AAUP.


Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy recently wrote the Foreword to a book titled The Lean CEO: Leading the Way to World-Class Excellence. The Governor wrote how Connecticut business leaders adopted Lean Management, properly known as the Toyota Production System, with great success beginning in the 1990s. The governor extolls the virtues of Lean Management in private industry and its new application in government.

Chapter 13 of The Lean CEO features Lean successes in five Connecticut state agencies where significant improvements and cost savings were achieved without laying off any state employees. On March 26, 2013, Governor Malloy expanded Lean throughout Connecticut state government, later called LeanCT, and is one of his signature policy directives.

I happen to know this topic well, having previously led Lean efforts in both industry and in higher education and as the author or co-author of 16 books and some 30 scholarly papers on Lean leadership and Lean management. Therefore, I and would like to compare Governor Malloy’s words on Lean management to the Board of Regents actions, now under the leadership of Mark Ojakian, in relation to the CSU-AAUP labor contract currently under negotiation for the Connecticut State University System. You will see areas of remarkable misalignment between the governor’s LeanCT effort and the Board of Regents.

In The Lean CEO, Governor Malloy said: “As governor of Connecticut, I am also effectively the state’s CEO… When I took office, I directed all executive branch agencies to implement Lean methods to get routine activities functioning smoothly and consistently and to free up staff members’ time so they could focus on higher value-added tasks that are more directly linked to meeting the needs of citizens.”

Unfortunately, the Board of Regents is far behind other agencies’ own Lean efforts, as revealed by the 2014 Office of Policy and Management report: “Continuous Improvement in the State of Connecticut.” Our time as faculty has not been freed up to focus on higher value-added tasks. In fact, the BOR’s contract proposals will increase faculty burdens and have us do even more non-value-added tasks than we do today.

Governor Malloy goes on to say: “…Lean management was founded on a profound respect for people and the understanding that when workers are consulted, they become more engaged, enthusiastic, and innovative… The underlying assumption here is that the deepest understanding of how to improve a process does not come from management but from the workers who go through those processes day in and day out.”

Lean is a human-centered management system designed to enable people to succeed in their work, not to make work more difficult or stressful. Lean must “do no harm;” no harm to any stakeholder. Unfortunately, many leaders in the private and public sectors misunderstand this. The two inviolate principles of Lean Management are “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People.” “Continuous Improvement” means daily engagement in improvement activities by people at all levels, agency leader on down. “Respect for People” is deep and has many meanings, including that people will not become unemployed as a result of process improvement.

As Governor Malloy says, “…the deepest understanding of how to improve a process does not come from management but from the workers who go through those processes day in and day out.” Higher education has long had a tradition of listening to its workers. It is called “shared governance.” Faculty and staff perform their academic and administrative processes on campus day in and day out, and are in the best position to improve it – not the Board of Regents in Hartford. Yet, shared governance is an aspect of the CSU-AAUP contract that the BOR seeks to eliminate. They want to make major changes to administrative and academic processes, without worker input, which will lead to unemployment as well as changes in teaching processes that offer no guarantee of near-term cost savings and will likely lead to higher future costs.

Leaders who understand Lean Management do not succumb to herd mentality, flavor of the month cost cutting programs, or the allure of new technologies that offer unproven savings and benefits to students, employers, or the state. Lean Management demands that leaders take a different path to cost savings and improvement, one that requires new learning and diligent daily engagement of core principles and practices.

In Lean Management, when problems occur, such as one faculty member going astray, the remedy is not to impose new, impractical rules on every professor, but to instead determine the root cause of the problem and implement a practical countermeasure to prevent that specific type of problem from recurring. Faculty, staff, and administrators on campus should be responsible performing the root cause analysis and identifying and implementing practical countermeasures, not the Board of Regents.

Further, Governor Malloy said: “Lean, however, comes with a caveat. As with most new ideas there is a tendency to adopt it superficially as another flavor of the month. Even worse, if it is implemented purely as a cost-cutting measure, it will lead to alienation of workers and unsustainable results.”

Indeed, the Board of Regents proposals are superficial and nothing more than zero-sum, win-lose, pure cost-cutting that offer nothing in the way of imaginative or innovative Lean thinking. It is, in fact, anti-Lean thinking. A critically important rule in Lean Management is: Do not sacrifice the long-term for short-term results. However, that is exactly what the BOR is doing with their contract proposals. The BOR’s proposals must be consistent with the spirit and intent of Lean Management. Which is to say, outcomes must be non-zero-sum (win-win); good for all people – faculty, staff, students, payers, employers, Connecticut communities, the State, and so on. Mutual gains, not zero-sum.

And, Malloy said, “By empowering our people [state employees] to improve the processes that define their workplace, we can tap a powerful force that will lead the way to a stronger, more prosperous world.”

It is clear that the BOR does not yet comprehend how to tap a powerful force, faculty and staff, to lead the way to a stronger, more prosperous state. An expert on budgets and labor contract bargaining is no Lean expert. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Everything that ails higher education – high tuition and fees, low enrolled academic programs, inefficient back-office operations, labor costs, and myriad process problems – can be corrected with shared governance and the application of Lean principles and practices to all processes, and without laying off people – just was the case for the Connecticut agencies featured in The Lean CEO.

The Board of Regents are clearly anti-Lean and discriminatory in that higher education must abide by old thinking and old management practices, while other state agencies must engage in new Lean thinking and new Lean Management practices. Governor Malloy should not let this difference continue.

In a CT-N video dated from March 26, 2013, Governor Malloy said: “Lean… throughout state government and across all, now all, of our agencies. Nearly two years ago I said Lean was the beginning of a new way of doing the state’s business…. It is now time… to make Lean part of our culture of continuous improvement in state government.” Indeed. Expectations of students, payers, and employers continue to rise, so cutting cannot be the solution.

This is Mr. Ojakian’s challenge. Is he up to the challenge of making Lean part of the culture of continuous improvement in state government? His idea that the only way forward is concessions and negative cutting – to make things worse for faculty, staff, students, payers, employers, Connecticut communities, etc., – is ancient and flawed. However, the intent of Lean is positive; to continuously improve, grow, achieve mutual gains, and make things better for all stakeholders, Governor Malloy cannot take pride in LeanCT if it does not include all of public higher education in the state, including UConn.

One company featured in many Lean books, including one I wrote in 2003, is The Wiremold Company based in West Hartford, Conn. Their labor union enjoyed a positive relationship with management. Under the leadership of Art Byrne, the former CEO of Wiremold, labor contracts were successfully negotiated each time and the financial and non-financial outcomes were better for the people who actually did the work. Mr. Ojakian can learn much from Art Byrne about Lean Management and how to achieve non-zero-sum outcomes.

Finally, the current BOR contract proposals should be abandoned and replaced with a  BOR proposal that is positive for the people of Connecticut, consistent with the governor’s own words about Lean Management, and in alignment with other agency leaders’ efforts to create a culture of continuous improvement in state government.

Dr. Bob Emiliani is a Professor of Lean Management in the School of Engineering, Science, and Technology at XYZ State University. Prior to becoming a professor, Dr. Emiliani worked for 15 years in industry, most recently as a manager in the aerospace industry in engineering, manufacturing and supply chain management.


Technical Note of Interest: The published version of this op-ed piece said:

“As an expert in Lean efforts in both industry and higher education, I would like to compare…”

This was a change made by the publisher that I did not approve. The use of the word “expert” is incorrect in the context of Lean management because there is no such thing as an “expert.” Why, because when it comes to Lean, you’re never done learning. There are infinite solutions to problems, so nobody can claim to be an “expert.”

The op-ed piece posted here is the correct version and reads:

“I happen to know this topic well, having previously led Lean efforts in both industry and in higher education and as the author or co-author of 16 books and some 30 scholarly papers on Lean leadership and Lean management. Therefore, I and would like to compare…”

I am a humble student of Lean management:

Where Unqualified Means Qualified

In the not too distant past, Boards of Regents or Trustees who hired university presidents demanded that the candidate be qualified for the position. Typically, that meant the candidate possessed an earned terminal academic degree, rose through the ranks of the professoriate, and then rose through the ranks of university administration. A 30-year career in higher education – teaching, research, and administrative work – was the desired qualification to lead a university.

In recent years, the process for hiring university presidents has been reverting back to what it was 100 years ago*, when Boards of Regents or Trustees hired businesspeople or politicians with scant qualification to lead institutions of higher education. Boards of Regents or Trustees, often comprised of businesspeople and politicians, now prefer to hire in their own image, and possess the view that leading and managing are skills that transcend any industry and any endeavor. This view is at odds with how faculty comprehend the knowledge and skills necessary to perform a job successfully and how to lead an institution of higher education.

The very consideration of hiring of a businessperson or a politician with no terminal degree, no teaching experience, no research experience, and no higher education administration experience to lead a university immediately engenders distrust, animosity, and resentment among faculty and staff (especially faculty), who themselves must be qualified in order to be awarded their positions. Imagine this: Would an army of highly trained soldiers accept as their general someone whose entire previous experience was leading a software company or a civilian government agency? Would Catholic clergy accept a businessperson with no ecclesiastical experience – perhaps even an atheist – as their Pope?

Faculty can be upset for many other reasons. By dint of their professional development pathway, faculty are acculturated in the purpose and mission of higher education, which is the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and to educate the masses for the benefit of society. This view of the purpose and mission is not usually shared by businesspersons or politicians, who by dint of their professional development pathway, are acculturated in the purpose and mission of business or government. As a result, they are far more likely to invest money in athletic programs and establish their legacy by commissioning expensive new construction projects, in preference to building academic and research programs.

Public higher education, in particular, is likely to get into trouble when led by businesspersons or politicians-cum-businesspersons acculturated in the purpose and mission of business. Viewing such institutions as for-profit corporations will, over time, degrade their standing as public trusts through disinvestment and other actions to satisfy short-term interests or feed one’s ego. Of course, everyone recognizes that universities are an economic entity as well as educational entity, and that they must be financially successful in order to fulfill their purpose and mission. To that end, tuition must be substantially reduced so that it is accessible to low- and middle-income families.

The values and ideologies of business, in particular, clash with the values and ideologies of higher education. The clash is not comprehensive, but it is sufficient to ensure that newly appointed university leaders will soon make significant mistakes that will quickly erode confidence, while faculty will be closed-minded to opportunities to improve core activities such as teaching and research, as well as related administrative processes.

When I worked in industry, I obtained promotions into positions for which I was unqualified. And the people who reported to me knew it. Yet, I did not make the mistake that most college and university presidents from outside academia make. Instead, I was curious and took the time to learn the discipline and respect the purpose, mission, values, ideologies, and diverse people of the groups I led. I did not do this in a perfunctory manner, as most leaders do. Rather, I was sincere and did it to establish competence and credibility, after which I could propose changes to make people’s work easier and workplace better.

Fortunately, some unqualified university leaders take a similar path, but most, it seems, do not. So, the trend to hire the unqualified and pretend that they are qualified will continue until such time that the damage they have done becomes widely recognizable to the public and not just those in academia. Then, perhaps, qualified will once again mean qualified.

The next step is to assure that qualified leaders understand the need to improve processes – that faculty and staff are good people trapped in bad processes – rather than playing around with budgets and architectural plans. Costs go down and quality goes up when processes are improved.


* Reversion back to old and ineffective ways are mistakenly thought to be “progressive” because they see it as something new, when in fact it is ignorance of the history of past problems and the solutions devised to correct those problems – often albeit imperfectly. Unfortunately, solutions tend to remain static and are not improved over time, giving the appearance that they are no longer in step with the times.

University Annual Budget Process

Below is a university’s process for developing an annual budget. It takes six months to create a fiscal year budget, when the actual value-added time is probably less than two weeks. It is a mind-numbing batch-and-queue process that wastes people’s time and whose owners never think to improve.


FY 2017 BUDGET CALENDAR

  • November 2015–Mid-January 2016 – Discussions at the department, school and division level of needs in relation to strategic goals with prioritization of needs within the division.
  • Mid-January – Mid-February 2016 – Preparation of presentation by division head.
  • February 18, 2016 – Presentation by division head to Budget Committee for formative input.
  • Late February 2016 – Budget Committee deliberations and feedback to division heads and President.
  • First Week of March 2016 – Preparation of presentation by division head based on formative input from Budget Committee.
  • Mid-March 2016 – Presentation by division heads to President, Chief Financial Officer and Budget Officer.
  • Early April 2016 – Preliminary feedback to division heads on FY 2016 expenditures and FY 2017 requests.
  • Late April 2016 – Initial formulation of Spending Plan Request created.
  • TBD – Review and approval of budget plan by Board of Regents

People do not like to engage annual budgeting because it takes a long time, is filled with re-work, and is generally an uncertain and unpleasant activity. And, the budget that one finally receives is usually different from the input provided months earlier and misaligned with the resources that are actually necessary to get the work done. In public higher education, budgets are often flat from one year to the next, so the entire budget process should take no more than a few hours.

Think about the resources that are expended in creating a budget. It requires the thousands of labor hours of the highest paid faculty, staff, and administrators. And at the end of the process, what has been produced? A document. Nothing of actual substance has been created.

As I am sure you can guess, my view is that these highly paid people should engage in kaizen instead. The first kaizen should focus on improving the budgeting process – reducing cycle time by 90 percent – and then continuously improve that process thereafter. There should be dozens of multi-day administrative and academic kaizens each week on campus, so that people learn continuous improvement, leaders engage lower-level people to learn what they do, and make substantive improvements that favorably impact students, payers, employers, faculty, and staff.

Kaizen is a far better use of human beings’ time on earth than creating budgets using a batch-and-queue process that is largely unchanged for a decade or more.

Research and Teaching: A Great Pairing

Public higher education is under pressure from politicians, businesspeople, and taxpayers. They think the only thing professors do is teach, and that, being their only responsibility, should teach more than 3 or 4 courses per semester. In fact, we also conduct research and perform many important activities to serve the university and our respective professions. Bureaucrats obviously think the only thing we do that is of value is teach, when in fact all four of our primary responsibilities have value and are intertwined so as to produce better results for all stakeholders – students, faculty, the university, payers, employers, and society.

Research is particularly important because, for most professors, it informs teaching. Yet, occasionally it does not. Years ago, a colleague of gave me a copy of a journal paper he had written. This was one of many he had written in the field of law. I read the paper and was very impressed by his outstanding research. Sometime later, I asked him if he brought his excellent research work into the classroom. He said, “No, what for? It’s not relevant.” I was shocked. In my view, a professor’s research should always be brought into the classroom.

I think the professor felt that his research interests in law were removed from the courses he taught in banking. I certainly did not see it that way. For example, professors teach courses in different topics, only some of which are directly related to their research. The others are almost always indirectly related, but sufficient related so that it can be brought into the classroom. The worthwhile challenge that all professors face is explaining how their research is relevant to the course, selected topics therein, to students, and society. Such explanations can be the feature of a course, such as Research Methods, or side-stories that help to better explain the material and improve student comprehension.

For example, research projects must be designed in intelligent ways in order for the data collected to be useful. Most academic subjects contain within them wonderful stories of elegant research designs that will help students to understand the problems that the researchers were trying to address. Sometimes research proceeds according to plan, but often it does not. Within that activity are numerous lessons-learned that influence research design and are excellent teaching points that expand students’ knowledge of the subject matter and help them better understand how to conduct research.

To be considered educated requires that students understand how to conduct research in order to find answers to important questions that arise at work and in life. We desperately want our graduates to know how to answer such fundamental questions as: “What do university professors do.” If they do not know how to conduct research – what all teachers teach from third grade onward – then they would quickly come to an idiotic answer such as “The only thing professors do is teach” and suggest idiotic improvements such as “Let’s make them teach more courses.”

It is true that some professors do little or no research. Their position may not require it, or their time could be consumed by service to the university or service to their professions, or they might have grown tired of conducting research as they near retirement. Nevertheless, these professors will utilize the research output of other professors, which appears in textbooks and academic journals that form the basis for students’ assignments.

One way or another, research is an integral part of the job of professors in higher education, as they search to answer questions and discover the truth. As answers and truths reveal themselves over time, they become an integral part of teaching by professors and learning by students.

Many politicians and bureaucrats argue that research takes time away from teaching, or that teaching and research are in opposition to one another. That is true; research does take time away from teaching, but as I have explained previously, they are not in opposition to one another. They are a great pairing. To think that teaching in higher education is or should be the same as K-12 education is a major error in one’s understanding of the purpose and mission of higher education, the role of professors, and what it means to be an educated person. This type of illogical thinking, willful or accidental, does not reflect well on businesspersons, politicians, or bureaucrat’s Alma Maters.

It is also true that the quality of teaching varies widely from one professor to another. Excellence in research does not guarantee excellence in teaching. Poor teaching is indeed a problem, sometimes the result of assigning courses to faculty outside of their areas of strength. But, this and other problems can be corrected if university leadership were to recognize this problem and lead sustained efforts to improve teaching. Higher education leaders must take on this challenge to help assure that students graduate with the requisite knowledge and skills needed to effectively function in and contribute to society.

Teaching Across the Curriculum

Many higher education institutions feature a pedagogical element called “Writing Across the Curriculum.” The intent is to require students to write in every course for the purpose of improving their writing skills. The phrase “writing is thinking” captures the rationale for requiring writing across the curriculum – to further develop and improve student’s critical thinking skills so that they can function more effectively in their work and personal lives. Writing, of course, is a hallmark of an educated person.

But what about the concept of teaching across the curriculum? This concept exists in K-12 education (especially in the form of team teaching), but I do not know of any university that does this. And if they do, it likely would involve very few professors, when it should involve most.

College and university professors reside in departments that reflect their knowledge areas and specializations. Organizing and co-locating people this way seems to make sense. They can discuss problems and opportunities that affect them and their students, learn from each other, improve existing academic programs, develop new academic programs, and so on. In essence, it is a small silo contained within a larger silo: English department within the school of Arts & Sciences; Mechanical Engineering department within the school of Engineering; accounting department within the school of business, etc.

Industry long ago recognized there were problems with silos and worker specialization. They set out to create cross-functional teams, co-locate teams where possible, and train workers to become multi-skilled. Expanding workers’ capabilities allowed industry to become more flexible to changes in the marketplace for the goods and services that they provided. And, it benefited workers by giving them opportunities for growth and expanding their capabilities.

Why not do the same thing in higher education, to benefit students as well as professors, and the institution by giving it more flexibility to responding to changing conditions? As we know, enrollments rise and fall over the years, with low enrollment programs coming under great scrutiny by administrators and state government officials (in the case of public higher education). The professors who teach in these low enrollment programs fear losing their job. But, more enlightened college or university leaders would recognize that faculty under threat of job loss are an asset, likely trained and educated beyond their narrow specialization. And, in the case of those whose knowledge is truly specialized, they would likely accept efforts to train them in related disciplines where they could become effective teachers.

Let’s examine my own case: I have an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with a double-major in applied mathematics; a master’s degree in chemical engineering, and a Ph.D. in materials engineering. As a result of my 15 years of industry work experience in diverse areas such as engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain management, I have produced scholarly work in Lean management, Lean leadership, supply chain management.

So, were the programs that I teach in to fall victim to low enrollment and put on a list for elimination, I would still offer students and the university something valuable. In each of the following three schools (and four departments), I could teach one or more courses at various levels, ranging from undergraduate to Master’s and Ph.D. levels:

  • Engineering: materials science and engineering, engineering management, technical writing
  • Arts & Sciences (Mathematics): algebra, linear algebra, calculus I or II
  • Arts & Sciences (History): progressive management
  • Business: Lean leadership, Lean management, operations management, supply chain management, executive decision-making

Many other full-time professors possess similar diverse academic backgrounds and work experiences, and would be able to teach across the curriculum.

If I were to teach in three different schools and four departments, my status would likely have to change to something like “university professor.” If this were widespread, most professors would then be categorized as such. The benefit of this arrangement would be that it provides the university with flexible faculty staffing, and enable it to better able to absorb changes in demand for its academic programs. In addition, faculty would feel more valued by college or university leaders and less threatened by enrollment declines – and hence more likely to make necessary changes in academic programs to keep up with the times.

It may also be attractive to change from traditional functional departments – English, Modern Languages, Accounting, Mechanical Engineering, etc. – to cross-functional departments (teams) based on academic programs. In industry, engineering and finance people, for example, tend to be segregated into their own departments, with like-skilled people located together in the same building. However, in operations (manufacturing) – the part of the business that makes the product or service that customers actually buy – all the functional skills necessary to get the work done are co-located. This has many benefits, including more rapid recognition and correction of problems that affect customers and well as those which affect the company. The same idea could be applied to a college or university’s service operations.

Teaching across the curriculum and cross-functional teaching teams would benefit all stakeholders and support the necessary evolution and improvement of higher education, both people and processes. Unfortunately, college and university presidents who feel their legacy is better associated with fundraising and new buildings don’t think of this stuff.