Student Success

If you are a professor, you know that some of your colleagues are very strict, unforgiving, and generally difficult when it comes to dealing with undergraduate students. It seems they have a grudge against students and want to make sure that they struggle, if not fail. In my experience, these kinds of professors are the exception, not the rule.

Most professors play a large but unheralded role in ensuring student success. Yes, students have a lot to do with their own success, but professors do too. They give significant amounts of personal attention to students to help ensure they succeed in the course and in their degree program. They give students lots of little breaks – sometimes big breaks – to help them move along to the next step in their education and in life. It has nothing to do with being liked. It is a practical response to life’s many unusual and unpredictable circumstances.

There are innumerable situations that students run into that require the professor to be flexible (here is short list). Variation can be both time-consuming and annoying. In truth, all professors would like course rules to be followed exactly, with no exceptions. But, that is not reality. The professors who are inflexible are unrealistic and create negative learning experiences for affected students and other students to whom they tell their stories to. Such professors probably should not be teaching.

ce_gradingMy father was a career university professor and long-time department chair. He was the rare full professor who insisted on teaching courses to undergraduates – one for non-science majors with 100 or so students and two for geology majors with 30 or so students each, plus his graduate courses (a total of three per semester). He gave students lots of breaks when the situation legitimately warranted it. One example is the way he graded undergraduate students’ performance on exams (he graded all exams himself; no teaching assistants). He was not a straight-up A-B-C-D-F grader, which was the official university grading system (no plus or minus allowed for final grades). Instead, his grading was more nuanced carried implied performance messages. The image at right shows an example of how he graded exams.

A+++ meant you were doing really well; keep up the good work. B—- meant you are seriously close to getting a C next time if you don’t study harder. It also means “I’ll do a lot to help you avoid getting a C.” C– meant you are falling below C average and need to work harder. D++ means you might be able to pull your grade up to a C next time. It also means “I’m trying to help you not fail.” The grading system he used quietly transmitted positive emotional and work-related messages to students.

Recognize that this comes from someone who was a straight-A student in in every subject, in a strict pre-World War II Italian public grade school and university system (Bologna). His early avocation life was to study and learn as much as he could – math, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, literature, history, religion – you name it – often by skipping class, teaching himself, and showing up for the test (much to the consternation of his professors). My father was hugely motivated and had enormously high standards. But, he recognized the reality that not every student was like him. Realism is an important quality for a professor to have.

And, he did not discriminate against the poor performing students. He was always available to explain things and help them improve through personal tutoring. On many occasions he would have lunch with them or a beer after work in the Rathskeller (in his engraved pewter mug, a family treasure now in the hands of my son Michael; drinking age was 18 at the time). When it came time to input final grades into the computer system, my father obviously had to make some adjustments to reconcile his grading system with the university’s. I do not know the details, but my bet is that it was mostly in student’s favor. He wanted to see them succeed in life as well as in school.

But, things are changing. As more teaching goes from face-to-face to hybrid to fully online over time, one can expect the professors’ interaction to go from high touch to low touch to no touch for some, perhaps many, courses. We should not lament that change. After all, things change – that is just reality. Remember, we used to get great personal attention at gas stations and department stores. That has changed. We used to get great personal attention on airline flights and at the doctor’s office. That too has changed.

It will be interesting to see how students do when nobody is around to give them any breaks, or when “the system” – the computerized learning management system – won’t let the instructor (facilitator?) give breaks to students who legitimately deserve a break. Will students be more or less successful than they are now, in the waning era of close faculty-student interaction? Lower cost online courses and degree programs could have some interesting unintended consequences.

Engaging Faculty in Lean Teaching

You may be interested in a short paper I have written, “Engaging Faculty in Lean Teaching.”

It was published in International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2015. You can view the paper here.

The paper identifies the challenges of engaging faculty in the Lean teaching pedagogy, beginning with the first early adopter and then on to other members of the faculty.

Please consider sharing it with your faculty colleagues and administrators.


When Higher Ed Is Just A Game

Want to know what happens when higher education is treated as nothing more than a game? Here is what happens: “How to Raise a University’s Profile: Pricing and Packaging” (The New York Times, 6 February 2015).

The president responsible for increasing tuition price and improving the packaging at George Washington University is Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. It is another example of how university leaders will do anything EXCEPT improve administrative and academic processes, for the purpose of providing a lower cost and higher value educational experience. As president, Mr. Trachtenberg did the easy thing and followed the herd.

According to Rate My Professor (I know, don’t say it), the average professor rating at George Washington University is 3.66, while at my school, Central Connecticut State University, the average professor rating is 3.71 (as of 8 February 2015). It is possible, therefore, that students could have received an equivalent education for a fraction of the price by attending public higher education. And many students would have very low debt or be debt-free upon graduation.

Here is another except from the end of The New York Times article:

“I was given an institution and told, ‘Make this place better…'”

The plan, obviously, was self-centered (the institution), not student-centered (inclusive of parents, payers, and other stakeholders). “The place” is better, but the student is not.

Here is another except:

“I asked Mr. Trachtenberg if it was morally defensible to let students borrow tens of thousands of dollars for a service that he himself had compared to a luxury good. He is not, by nature, one for apologies and second-guessing. ‘I’m not embarrassed by what we did,’ he said. ‘It’s not as if it’s some kind of a bait and switch here. It’s not as if the faculty weren’t good. It’s not as if the opportunities to get a good degree weren’t there. There’s no misrepresentation here.’ He seemed unbowed but also aware that his legacy was bound up in the larger dramas and crises of American higher education.”

The fact is, if the faculty at George Washington University is like most college and university faculty, they are not good – or at least not as good as they could be. See What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, The Value of Higher Education, and Higher Education Quality.

Share The Knowledge

There remains a pressing need to overcome barriers among both administrators and faculty about the application of Lean management to higher education. Please consider sharing my work with your faculty colleagues and university leaders to help gain awareness of how Lean can significantly improve things for students, payers, employers, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders. If you like my work, then copy and paste the following into an e-mail to your colleagues:


Dear Colleagues – I have come across new e-book that I thought you might be interested in: The Lean Professor: Become a Better Teacher Using Lean Principles and Practices (128 pages), written by Dr. Bob Emiliani. It is about the thoughtful application of Lean principles and practices to teaching in higher education. I believe you will learn much from the new perspectives contained in this short book. It is available from Amazon and you can download it for free if you are an Amazon Prime member. The book can be read on any device simply by downloading a free reading app. And Kindle owners can lend the book to another Kindle owner. You may also be interested in Professor Emiliani’s blog about Lean teaching, The Lean Professor, as it is both practical and thought-provoking. Here is one example that I am sure you will enjoy: “Lean Must Do No Harm.”


Dear Colleagues – I have come across new e-book that I thought you might be interested in: We Can Do It! Improving the Relevancy and Value of Higher Education Using Lean Management (148 pages), written by Dr. Bob Emiliani. It is about the thoughtful application of Lean principles and practices to improve leadership and administrative processes in higher education. I believe you will learn much from the new perspectives contained in this short book. It is available from Amazon and you can download it for free if you are an Amazon Prime member. The book can be read on any device simply by downloading a free reading app. And Kindle owners can lend the book to another Kindle owner. You may also be interested in Professor Emiliani’s blog about Lean teaching, The Lean Professor, as it is both practical and thought-provoking. Here is one example that I am sure you will enjoy: “All Deans Are A**holes.”

If, instead, you hate my work, then copy and paste the following into an e-mail to your colleagues.

Faculty and Administrators

Dear Esteemed Faculty and Loathsome Administrators:

I have come across two new books that purport to describe how to improve teaching and student success in higher education using principles and practices derived from industry. Oh Lord, from industry of all places! I have read both and judge them to be absolute, total, and complete taurus stercore – bullshit, for those who flunked Latin.

The two e-books (e-books!) are The Lean Professor and We Can Do It! They were written by Dr. Bob Emiliani, a refugee from industry from where his foolish ideas no doubt came. Whoever gave him entry into the Academy surely erred and must be forced to serve as department chair in perpetuity.

The books concern the insane application of de-humanizing Tayloristic efficiency thinking to academic and administrative work. This corporatization of higher education is an ill wind that will surely result in a total loss of academic freedom, reduced creativity, robotic obedience to standards, faculty and staff burn-out, and layoffs, as well as debase and diminish student learning to the point that they can no longer function in society – not even as voters!

I implore you to read these silly little e-books. This tripe is available for free from Amazon if you are a Prime member – good thing the e-books are free because they are not worth the paper they are printed on. They can be read on any device simply by downloading a reading app, and Kindle owners can lend the book to another Kindle owner and jointly ridicule this pompous author who, incredibly, claims fealty to know-nothing students.

You may also be interested in Professor Emiliani’s blog about Lean teaching, The Lean Professor, as it spews endless nonsense and provides us with unlimited material to argue against in solidarity for maintaining the status quo.

Yours truly,

Dr. ______________________

Course Blueprint

Having worked for years in manufacturing businesses, I find there are many things in common with other types of organizations including colleges and universities. For example, the production activity in manufacturing is defined by upstream design work performed by engineers. Their product is a blueprint, which tells production management and production workers what to make, while sales informs them of how much to make and when to make it.

In higher ed, professors have long acted as both designer of the course and the one who produces (delivers) the course. The defining document for the course is the syllabus. Prior to the establishment of a course, a form is usually filled out that proposes a course for consideration and acceptance by faculty in the department, the school, and the curriculum committee.

My view is that a blueprint, such as that found in manufacturing (or architecture) would provide better early definition of the course. In addition, a blueprint would identify measurement points that are more relevant as well as institutional weaknesses in course and academic program specification. The image below shows a blueprint for one of the courses that I have taught for 10 years (click on image to view .pdf file):


Producing a blueprint like this requires the professor to articulate many aspects of a course that may not be well thought out or implied. The blueprint makes it explicit. It makes clear the following information in preparation for the subsequent steps needed to get a new course approved:

Section 1 – Type of course, the student’s learning challenge, the aid(s) used to facilitate learning, delivery mode, pedagogy, and maximum number of students for effective learning. The learning aid, in this case a problem-solving template, which links to the learning challenges and Section 8, Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is my view that learning aids (templates for problem-solving) could be more widely used to great effect for achieving student learning objectives.

Section 2 – Learning objectives are few in number and focused on what the course truly seeks to accomplish. There should be alignment between the Learning Challenge and Learning Aid (Section 1) and Bloom’s Taxonomy (Section 8).

Section 3 – Requires the professor to think about the amount of theory and real-world practice contained in the course and justify the balance. Courses weak in practice should be strengthened in that area while those strong in practice might introduce some appropriate amount of theory.

Section 4 – This section identifies the type and number of assignments, assignment evaluation schedule, estimated time to complete assignments, in-class evaluations, and exams. This captures both the student and faculty workload for the course. It helps differentiate between 3-credit courses that require a lot of work by the teacher and those that require less work, thereby enabling supervision to better manage faculty load (assuming the words “student success” are more than rhetoric).

Section 5 – Identifies qualified teachers. The fact that there is only one qualified instructor to teach the course identifies a potential problem. This would be more of a problem for a required course in the degree program than for an elective course.

Section 6 – Identifies classes that are critical for students to attend to assure student success. This is especially important for part-time working professional students whose schedule is uncertain and may miss some classes due to work and family commitments. Students would benefit from knowing this prior to the start of the class.

Section 7 – Course schedule and duration, and emphasis on the need to start each class on-time, while end-time varies according to the extent of useful discussion.

Section 8 – Relationship to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Requires professor to identify (check marks) which elements of Bloom’s Taxonomy are part of the educational objective of the course. This should link to Section 1, Learning Aid, to create learning aids that strengthen the Learning Challenge in relation to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Section 9 – Identify specifications that pertain to the course: Accreditor, University, School, and Department. The lack of specifications point to potential problems. My University has no documented (simple) specification for lecture courses, online courses, hybrid courses, or laboratory courses. Their design is guided by tradition or opinion, which means there will be many problems as perceived by students due to a large amount of variation. Likewise, my school (of Engineering, Science, and Technology) has no specification for lecture courses, online courses, and so on, nor does my department.

Professionally run organizations carefully define the goods and services they produce and also assure the goods and services conform to blueprints and specifications. In industry, that requirement is fulfilled by workers, managers, and auditors, through self-inspection, monitoring of performance metrics, and physical inspection. The blueprint proposed here allows for inspection, auditing, and the creation of simple metrics and data collection that, in my view, form the basis for more meaningful and accurate assessment and reporting.

A blueprint similar to that shown above could also be created for an academic program and would likewise prove to be beneficial.

Effective Online Courses

Let’s assume that online courses are or will soon be as effective as in-person education. Is that a stretch? Probably not, because face-to-face teaching is, on average, is not very good. University-wide professors’ ratings are typically 3.0 to 3.75 on a 1 to 5 scale – a score of just 60 to 75. Teaching can be improved by at least one full point. Yet, I do not find much evidence of university leadership seeking to substantially improve face-to-face teaching via Lean teaching or any other means.

If face-to-face teaching largely remains as it has long been, then it is likely that online courses will soon meet or exceed in-person courses in quality and effectiveness. Acceptance for online courses by students could accelerate due to the many chronic problems that plague face-to-face teaching – and which their parents also experienced if they were college students. So parents will be sympathetic to the quality problems and even encourage online degree attainment especially if the tuition is reduced.

When this happens, what is to become of professors?

State schools are the low-cost mass producers who will automate teaching, just as low-cost producers in any industry are known to do. Like most managers, they would much rather adopt a new solution rather than fix old problems. The former earns them points for being progressive while the latter earns them demerits for being a Luddite.

Private schools are the high-cost craft producers and will likely use far less automation because the hallmark of their service is “handmade” education. People who want that service and experience will pay the price.

The value the professor (at state schools, anyway), therefore, must become greatly narrowed. They will serve the role of technical content writer, and will not necessarily be the person who delivers the pre-recorded content to students. That means, highly educated subject matter experts will work behind the scenes similar to the way writers do in television or cinema. The professor’s teaching labor, therefore, would be divided, from one who both writes and delivers to one who writes.

One of the few ways professors could add more value than writing is by facilitating periodic live online discussions. But, they cannot simply repeat the video modules. Their effectiveness would be defined by three things:

  1. Deep knowledge of the history of the subject matter, from its inception to current times.
  2. Relationship of the subject matter to the real world – the working world that students will
    populate upon graduation.
  3. Ability to motivate and inspire students.

Item 1 would be accomplished through self-study or additional formal education. Item 2 is a major problem for career educators who lack real-world work experience. Item 3 depends somewhat on ones proficiency with items 1 and 2.

In this scenario, the person who delivers the material online is akin to the play-by-play announcer in a football game, while the professor is the color commentator (analyst). Sounds like a pretty good job. Maybe it will even pay better than the current one. But, let’s make darn sure we don’t end up as sideline reporters (no offense intended to sideline reporters).

Higher Education Quality

As you may know, the U.S. Department of Education’s College Ratings Framework defines higher education quality as consisting of three elements: Access, Affordability, and Outcomes.

I was curious to learn how undergraduate and graduate students define quality in higher education. So, I conducted a survey in the second week of January 2015 (click on the image below to view a .pdf file):


Here is what I learned from the 65 students surveyed:

  • Students view of higher education quality is more broadly defined than by Access, Affordability, and Outcomes, and also more nuanced.
  • Professors do many things that detract from students’ perception of higher education quality.
  • Administrators do many things that detract from students’ perception of higher education quality.
  • Students want their college education experience to prepare well for the working world that they will graduate in to.

There is clearly a gap between what higher education offers and what students want and when viewed in the context of quality. The longer this gap remains, the more likely it is that other forms of education and training will become more appealing to students. This will put downward pressure on enrollment and create long-term cost problems.

While the sample size is small, the results are consistent with my other surveys of students in the School of Engineering, Science, and Technology (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education).

These results could be unique to my regional comprehensive public institution, but I suspect the are broadly applicable to colleges and universities higher and lower in ranking, public or private, and small or large.

Why don’t you conduct surveys asking the questions that I have asked and share your results here?

Lean for University Leaders

Let me know if you are interested in having me speak to your senior university administration team about Lean management as it applies to higher education – for administrative processes, academic processes, or both.

I can do a free 90 minute meeting via Skype. This offer is only for non-profit institutions of higher education.

dt_qPrior to our meeting online, there is a reading assignment and a homework assignment (i.e. flipped classroom). Each participant must read both We Can Do It and The Lean Professor and take notes using the fillable .pdf form at right (right click to save, use as many pages as needed).

Then, meet as a team prior to our meeting to discuss what you read and create a consolidated list of discussion topics and questions, again using the form at right. Send this to me a few days before our meeting.

Contact me if you are interested so we can work out the remaining details.

Imaginary Customers

Most professors and many administrators have great difficulty accepting the idea of students as customers. Some put great effort into finding ways to describe students as anything but customers. They are partners, they are empowered learners, they are producers, and so on.

The resistance to accept students as customers is perhaps because most people do not like to serve others, even though it may be their job to do so. In truth, we would rather be served. Let’s face it; many highly educated professors view it as a professional come-down to “serve” 18 year old “know-nothing” students. Professors who would rather be served by students are likely to be poor teachers compared to those who see it as their duty to serve students.

Couple that with the many problems that exist in higher education with respect to teaching: cost, quality, value, graduation rate, etc. If faculty cannot accept students as customers, then it is unlikely that problems associated with teaching – the core mission of colleges and universities – will be recognized and corrected.

The inability to accept students as customer in higher education is an interesting problem that perhaps can be solved by looking to the field of mathematics. It is reminiscent of the long-ago fight among mathematicians who resisted the idea of imaginary numbers (e.g. 3i, whose square is -9). Complex numbers, the correct term for imaginary numbers, were not widely accepted by mathematicians until the late 1700s – nearly 1700 years after they were conceived.

Negative numbers were an abstraction up to the middle 1500s. It made intuitive sense to have 3 apples, but it did not make sense to have -3 apples. What does it mean to have -3 apples? You have have 3 apples or no apples, but not -3 apples. Once mathematicians began to accept the idea of imaginary numbers, it enabled them to solve important real-world problems that they could not otherwise solve, or solve important problems in simpler ways (i.e. polynomials).

So it is with students as “customers.” Thinking of students as imaginary customers, Ci, is useful for solving important real-world problems in higher education or making those problems easier to solve: cost, quality, value, graduation rate, etc. (see What is Good Quality Teaching?Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?45 Teaching Errors, and The Value of Higher Education).

Professors invariably think of “customer” in the context of consumption and commercial transactions, which they abhor because they comprehend the university as something other than a business. Consumption and commercial transactions are concrete contexts that our minds immediately default to. But, customer can also be used to denote attitudes and desires – abstract contexts that we are much less familiar with. Yet, this would help us comprehend what humans – students – want and focus our efforts on providing that.

Automatic reversion to the concrete context of “customer” is an excuse to preserve the status quo and ignore the need to recognize and correct problems. This leaves professors stuck in the past, wedded to ineffective pedagogies, mistake-filled teaching, students who forget what they learned the moment the last class is ends, and so on.

We can think of students as partners, empowered learners, and producers and keep teaching as we have always done, or we can think of students as imaginary customers, Ci, and get on with the work of solving important real-world problems in higher education and fulfill our role as professors who serve students.

Let’s hope it does not take another 700-plus years since the founding of University of Bologna in 1088 for Ci to be widely accepted by academics in higher education.

College Productivity

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Colleges Need a Business Productivity Audit” (28 December), authors Frank Mussano and Robert Iosue argue that colleges should be audited as business are “to identify unprofitable practices.” Audits are the answer to structural problems when one knows nothing about process improvement. While audits, done well, can be helpful in identify problems and providing single-point direction for corrective actions, they do not normally results in a fundamental re-evaluation of processes and the go-to-market strategy.

In the case of higher education, the prevailing view has been that it is a non-competitive sellers’ market. This was a major strategic error because it assumed that markets would not one day turn into competitive buyers’ markets. As a result, costs have risen dramatically over the last 15-20 years. But now, people are not willing to pay the high tuition prices that they once willingly accepted.

But, what is most remarkable about Mussano and Robert Iosue’s opinion article is the comments made by readers, all of whom have at least earned an undergraduate degree. The comments show that the real failure of higher education, whether the tuition price is low or high, is an inability to think critically. Teacher get an “F” for their efforts to teach people how to think critically. Graduates get an “F ” for not applying critical thinking that they learned in college (and in earlier years of schooling).

Many comments starkly reveal poor critical thinking skills. For example:

  • The effect, high tuition prices, is due to a singular cause such as government tuition subsidies.
  • The state Department of Motor Vehicles is inefficient, therefore all federal government agencies are inefficient.
  • Federal bureaucracies have the lowest productivity.
  • High administrative labor costs are the result of government control (rules and regulations).
  • For-profit colleges are more efficient that not-for-profit because they are for-profit.
  • Academics have too much power over administrators.
  • High costs are the result of progressives running higher education institutions.
  • High costs are the result of many faux studies programs.

As teachers, we can do a better job of making it clear to students that critical thinking is not just something one does while in school and forgets about upon graduation. It is a practical approach to comprehending a problem and identifying practical solutions in the real world.

For example, federal and state bureaucracies, agencies, etc., have low productivity (and high costs) due to batch-and-queue material and information processing, not simply because they are bureaucracies. If students were taught this, then that would open the door to inquiry as to how to improve processes in was that increase productivity (and reduce costs) without harming people (workers, customers, etc.).