Right Effect, Wrong Causes

The Chronicle of Higher Education published the article “Senators in Both Parties Agree: States Must Do More for Higher Education” (25 July 2014). The article speaks to how states have defunded public higher education between 2008 and 2014. Here are a few excerpts and my comments:

Senator Harkin, the committee’s chairman, reiterated his view that states largely disinvested from higher education during the most recent recession, driving up the tuition costs and requiring students to go deeper in debt for a college education.”

Finally, our elected officials begin to comprehend the effect (the problem) and its cause – though not its root cause. Failing to do the work to determine the root cause means that proposed corrective actions will miss the mark. To whit,

“The solution, Mr. Harkin said, is to create incentives for states to increase their appropriations for higher education.”

No. The reason why states disinvested in higher education (and K-12 education as well) is because they invested in companies. They gave companies tax breaks and incentives to create jobs or not leave town. The amount of public money re-directed to private enterprise is astonishing. Governors, state legislators, and economic development councils bear responsibility for doing that, and for forcing colleges and universities to raise prices. Read these New York Times articles here, here, and here.

While Senator Alexander identified a different culprit for shrinking state support for public colleges—rising Medicaid costs—he said he too expects states to take the lead in paying for higher education.”

No. Citing rising Medicaid costs is both a ruse and a implicit criticism of public welfare. So what are other solutions to this problem?

“In addition to freeing states from the costs of Medicaid, Senator Alexander said, the federal government could help states and colleges by reducing regulations for federally backed research on campuses and could help families and students by simplifying the process to apply for federal financial aid.”

While perhaps necessary, reducing regulations and simplifying the process to apply for federal financial aid are small dollar problems. Other solutions offered by Indiana’s commissioner of higher education are:

“…cut the number of credits required for most bachelor’s degrees to 120 and will start to define full time as 15 credits per semester, instead of 12, to encourage students to finish their degrees on time.”

Again, while perhaps necessary, these avoid the fundamental problem of re-directing public money to private enterprise.

The article finishes in the typical self-congratulatory way:

“There is no question that higher education is changing—there are new students, new providers, and new concerns for accountability,” Ms. Bell said later in an email. “States are tackling these issues in a big way.”

States are tacking these issues in a small way, undeserving of such praise. Here is more proof of that.

It is remarkable that the fundamental problem goes unrecognized and how the herd moves towards weak solutions that give the appearance of taking action, which is, of course, marketed as “bold action.”

Selling Change to Finance VPs

The Chronicle of Higher Education published the article “New Role for College Business Officers: Selling Change” (23 July 2014). It is remarkable. So, herewith are selected excerpts from the article and my critiques:

“The college vice president agreed that some of the proposals discussed for fixing the broken financing model for higher education might alienate some faculty members. But ‘they don’t see what we see,’ he said.”

Here’s what faculty have long seen: rising costs due to excessive and high-paying administrative positions, new facilities, generous student amenities, etc., declining revenue due to tuition discounts, lower enrollments, etc., and greatly reduced academic support. Do you see what we see?

“Karen L. Goldstein… [a] former chief financial officer at Davidson College, said she has sometimes wondered about professors who refuse to engage. ‘Don’t they understand,’ she said, ‘that if they don’t participate in this, not only are they not going to get raises, they’re not going to have a job because there won’t be any institution?’”

We won’t have a job. I think faculty understand that. I don’t sometimes wonder, I always wonder why administrators refuse to engage Lean management. Don’t they understand that if they don’t participate in Lean, not only are they not going to get raises, they’re not going to have a job because there won’t be any institution?

“High on their [college presidents] list, she said, was that ‘the CBO [chief business officer] needs to be an educator in the sense of helping the trustees, cabinet members, faculty, students, and staff to understand the financial status of the institution’.”

Maybe I can be a CBO. Here’s how  would educate trustees, cabinet members, faculty, students, and staff to understand the financial status of the institution: “It’s a pile of shit and it’s going to get worse. But, how you go about improving the financial status of the institution is critically important. Zero-sum ways causes great harm. You should cut costs and grow revenues in non-zero-sum ways so that people are not harmed. That way, people will support and participate in efforts to improve the financial status of the institution. You must have that. Let’s compare and contrast the alternatives, apply some critical thinking, and have a spirited dialog so that we make good decisions.” What do you think; do I have the job?

“The revenue side of colleges finances is the one that gets most of the attention. But the other half of the equation—the expense side—is increasingly important, Mr. Walda said.”

OK, here’s where you need to watch out. Finance people are helpless when it comes to revenues, other than to count it. But, they are deadly when it comes to costs because they possess a special skill which learned in undergraduate and graduate business school (6 years in total): They know how to put a red line through a budget number and write a lower number next to it, usually 5 to 10 percent lower – sometimes even 15 or 20 percent lower. People with this special skill, and there are many (and thus outsourceable for lower cost), are referred to as “cost-cutting experts” – though they are actually budget-cutting hacks. Apparently they do not realize that cost-cutting and budget-cutting are two different things, the latter requiring no expertise while the former requires great knowledge of and experience with process improvement.

“‘There’s a robust discussion about how to constrain costs,’ he said. ‘It goes from more profound things like combining academic programs or sharing academic programs with other institutions to using technology to reduce costs. And then there are simpler things like outsourcing and realigning procurement’.”

These are not profound things, as John Walda, president of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), claims. This is what the herd does. It is simply copying others, not innovating for yourself. Notice, there is no mention of administrative and academic process improvement as an effective way to “constrain” costs. College and university CBOs haven’t yet figured out that costs are subordinate to processes: bad processes result in high costs, good processes result in low cost. It looks like it is up to us as faculty to sell this type of change – process improvement – to college and university business officers.

“‘They found that class size was potentially one of the bigger levers you could use to generate more margin,’ he said. Another was capacity.”

WOW! It must be gratifying to have finally figured that out. But seriously, this is a simple view based on an incremental increase in sales volume with all other things being equal. How about improving teaching (see posts here and here) as a way to increase enrollments?

Here is a law of business: When costs go up and revenues decline, finance VP’s become more influential to an organization’s leaders, and they gain greater control to do more dumb things. Watch out.

Unfortunately, this situation is no false dilemma. You can either have college and university business officers (finance VPs) “constrain” costs, or we, as faculty and staff, can do it ourselves via process improvement (with the participation of trustees, leadership, alumni, students, etc.). I can assure you that our (nonzero-sum) method, which requires thinking, creativity, and innovation, is superior to their crude and unsophisticated (zero-sum) red-pen method.

Priceless Small Improvements

Twenty-two years ago, I served on a strategic planning committee with 5 or 6 other up-and-coming young engineers. We carefully assessed the situation and told our leader that the breakthrough strategy he wanted was not attainable because we were not even able to do our fundamentals well. Our recommendation was to first master the basics and build from there.

The boss’ view was that the organization needed a big disruptive strategy, while our view was that the organization needed to improve a little bit every day. Walk before you run. Climb one stair step at a time versus leaping from the lower landing to the upper landing. That is what we saw as practical and achievable, and therefore motivated to make happen. It was a failed message.

Likewise in higher education, university presidents look for a major disruptive strategy while ignoring the possibility that small daily improvements can rapidly accumulate and deliver outstanding results. A change that is not big and disruptive, in response to extant threats, is seen as not worth pursuing. Small daily improvements is not seen as “game-changing.” Home runs are beautiful, base hits are ugly.

What the leaders of our learning institutions fail to grasp is that small improvements made every day by everyone results in individual and organizational learning. Big changes made once in a while by a few people results in only individual learning for a few people and zero organizational learning. The former respects people, the latter does not.

If you’re not trained in how to make small improvements every day, to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness in non-zero-sum ways, then the only thing you know how to do is either nothing or seek some kind of big disruptive change. The former is rapid-cycle experimentation (using the scientific method) that helps you keep up with the times, while the latter is slow-cycle change that helps you stay behind the times.

Stasis, followed by heroic disruptive change is seen as virtuous, while continuous small changes is seen as inferior and deficient. The reality is that all those little improvement are priceless.

Who Needs to Improve?

Every organization needs to improve, but only some have to improve.

The eight Ivy League schools need to improve, but they do not have to improve because theirs is a sellers’ market. True, they must compete against themselves, so within the Ivies – if one can afford the tuition and living expenses – it is a buyers’ market. As a result, the leaders of Ivy League institutions can focus on things other than improving administrative and academic processes.

Public higher education needs to improve and they have to improve. Students have choices of where to go for public higher education. External to the Ivy League is a true buyers’ market. Therefore, the leaders of public higher education institutions should be totally focused on continuously improving administrative and academic processes. But they are not.

Public higher education leaders frustrate their stakeholders when they:

  • Fail to see the market has shifted from sellers’ to buyers’.
  • Do the same things when a sellers’ market existed at a time when a buyers’ market exists.
  • Think a few small improvements is good enough.
  • Think improvement means to spend money (e.g. expensive new dorms, expensive learning management systems).

None of this is helped by leaders’ decisions that contradict their assurances that “students are the most important thing” (e.g. reduced instructional support, poor teaching, poor administrative processes, high tuition, poor sexual assault response, etc.).

So, we ask “why?” Why are public higher education leaders so blind to the obvious changes that have taken place, and so ill-informed about how to effectively deal with it? Is it because:

  • They are career academics, unaware of how other industries deal with major changes in a marketplace?
  • They are unaware of different management systems and associated leadership routines?
  • They have fallen into the trap that being in a leadership positions means that they are smarter than anyone else (and therefore dismiss others’ concerns and recommendations for improvement).
  • They lack intrinsic motivation for improvement; they lack the spirit of change and embrace the spirit of same?
  • They are unwilling to admit that their strategy for the university is flaws and must be drastically changed or scrapped?
  • They are not willing to think, learn, and do things differently from what they are accustomed to?

How can the leaders of public higher education be so uneducated about how to lead public higher education? Their ignorance will surely do harm when, they will swear to us, their intent is to do only good.

But perhaps there is hope: Maybe a big-name consultant will come around and point out the problem and suggest some progressive corrective actions. The only difference is what could have been had virtually for free will cost the university a few million dollars.

Did We Succeed Or Fail?

Many college and university graduates who now occupy policy-making positions advocate for judging the success of higher education by how graduates perform in the labor market – employment and earnings (the latter of which fails to account other important and valuable benefits offered by employers or sought by employees) – and tying the availability of public funds to employment and salary metrics. The high cost of tuition has generated this new basis of evaluation, the reduction of higher education to a return on investment calculation, and diverts people from the real issue: bad administrative and academic processes = high costs.

Colleges and universities have no direct role to play in post-graduation employment or remuneration. Hiring graduates and making salary offers is not their decision. The availability of public and private sector jobs and accompanying salaries are determined by leaders of those businesses in relation to productivity, sales, industry benchmarks, changes in technology, sales growth, macroeconomic conditions, and so on. In the future, jobs are likely to be fewer in number and the pay low. And, of course, continuing employment and salary increases are often dependent on individual supervisor-subordinate relationships, which oftentimes are strained, leading the employee to look elsewhere for a job.

Colleges and universities cannot possibly hope to succeed with employment and salary metrics, except perhaps for the top tier (though they too may someday suffer because their graduates cost much more to hire yet are not that much more capable than graduates of public universities). If the success of higher education is to be judged by how graduates perform in the labor market, then higher education administrators and faculty will quickly figure out ways to succeed with this dumb metric:

  • Offer only academic programs where employment is currently high or predicted to be high (the latter surely missing the mark at least 30 percent of the time, resulting in expensive failures that raise costs).
  • Offer financial incentives (bribes/kickbacks?) to employers to hire their graduates, much in the way that food producers offer financial incentives to grocers for prime shelf space.
  • Collude with sympathetic local employers to hire graduates as full-time regular employees during the time in which the metric is recorded, and reduce them to part-time status immediately thereafter.
  • Count promises made by employers to hire graduates as employed graduates (immediately after which employers can rescind the job offer).
  • Colleges and universities hire their own graduates for the minimum time necessary to be counted towards the metric.
  • Count unpaid volunteer work as full-time employment and list remuneration as that which the graduate would have gotten paid for if the work were not done for free.
  • Make the metric look better by adjusting for factors that affect employment such as involuntary layoffs, recession, wage freezes, productivity gains, etc.
  • Include the value of benefits to make the salary number look larger (as many companies do).
  • Use forecasted salary figures based on unrealistic assumptions (just as pension funds do for rates of return)
  • And, if all that is too hard to do, then just fake the numbers.

Judging the success of higher education by how graduates perform in the labor market displays the worst in critical thinking by our former students. It is like judging a chef on how their dinner customers performed on the toilet the following day, based on the ease, volume, characteristics of individual elements, and overall quality of output. That outcome is beyond the chef’s control.

The question is, are our graduates really that stupid? Or, have they shrewdly devised a way to cripple higher education while also benefiting from its demise? Is it a case of thoughtless destruction or a clever way to accelerate creative destruction? Faced with an opportunity, why have our graduates chosen what appears to be harm instead of doing good?

Have we, as teachers, succeeded or failed? It looks to me like we have failed, and, at minimum, need to improve how we educate students in critical thinking. At the same time, we could inform policy makers that Lean management is a better, non-zero-sum approach to improving higher education. Employment and salary metrics won’t do it.

Are College Presidents Overpaid?

Are college presidents overpaid? In most cases, yes. Overpaid or not, I expect more from the person in that position, and the pay and benefits that come with it, in terms of job performance.

Most university presidents do what every other university president does. Sameness, along with professional stasis, should not be rewarded with high pay. Leaders are people who not only challenge the norms of higher education and lead it towards a brighter future, they personally grow and improve their skills and capabilities through purposeful practice. Instead, what we typically see is university presidents that do little to develop themselves – and new ways of thinking – and whose focus is nothing more than keep the wheels from falling off the institutional wagon. And, in many cases, decisions made today, based on sameness are setting the institution up for future failure. Not wanting to be different can be disastrous.

High pay is better justified when a university president can do things that others cannot or will not do, and which results in a practical new model for higher education that is better than the traditional model. Needless to say, a university president skilled in Lean management (Continuous Improvement + Respect for People) is worth more than a university president skilled in conventional zero-sum management.

However, a university president skilled in Lean management would not seek high remuneration and would refuse it if offered by trustees. Infused with the mind of a Lean thinker, they know high pay is a cost that the university that students and payers cannot afford. They would instead direct the money towards more productive uses, such as funding continuous improvement activities.

Such people want to be president because they want the responsibility of leading positive, non-zero-sum change on a daily basis. They are not in the job because they like titles, perks, sycophants, and so on. They want to work to create a better future tomorrow and every day thereafter for students and all university stakeholders. That’s the most important thing.

Does money attract the best leadership? No. I think in most cases it attracts people who are attracted to money, and far less attracted to doing great work that is unique, valuable, and independent of the herd.

Sameness is safe, and at the present time it pays very well. Read the debate on college president pay in The New York Times.

Early History of CI in Higher Ed

The idea of improving teaching and administrative aspects of higher education is not new. Complaints by business people about college graduates in the early 1900s resulted in a study commissioned by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a report titled “Academic and Industrial Efficiency” (1910). You can read the entire report here.

The complaints by business leaders then broadly parallel complaints by business leaders today (see my earlier posts here, here, and here). Namely, that college graduates lack the skills and capabilities necessary to function effectively in industry.

cihe_imageIn 2008, I gave a presentation at the Lean Educator Conference that highlighted the findings of the Carnegie Foundation report (click on image to view .pdf file; it has been updated slightly) and identified contemporary improvement opportunities. You’ll be amazed at how faculty attitudes regarding improvement are largely unchanged over the past 100-plus years – i.e. the faculty can accept that it must do a few simple things to improve, but improvement is far more applicable to administration. Translation: “The work we do is fine. This does not apply to me.”

Among the recommended improvements were a division of labor whereby faculty would focus on teaching and research, while administrative duties would fall to others. The rationale for doing this, and for making other improvements, has been lost over time. The author of the report, Morris Llewellyn Cooke, had a good heart and his improvement suggestions were reasonable. But then, as now, faculty mistakenly see teaching as far removed from other types of work and not subject to “industrial” improvement routines.

Because of that attitude, what we see happening today, 100 years later, is the deconstruction of customized teaching, whereby individuals were taught mostly in small batches and advised one-on-one, into its component parts. In other words, elements of teaching that were once closely aligned with Lean thinking (small class sizes, one-by-one academic advising) are slowly being replaced by larger class sizes (e.g. online courses, MOOCs, etc.) and less personalized attention. Many times, in various contexts, I have witnessed top managers deconstruct well-designed Lean and Lean-like processes that enhanced personal relationships in favor of poorly designed batch-and-queue processes that depersonalize relationships in an effort to lower unit costs – though they inadvertently increase total costs, which, of course, results in cuts to teachers and teaching support.

The increased use of adjuncts and hiring of full-time faculty focused solely on teaching (at lower wages, of course) decouples the other main activity, research, from teaching. Research, it appears, will eventually become the exclusive domain of faculty in research universities. Faculty hired solely to teach will have no requirement to provide service to the university or service to one’s profession. Top-down leadership disables the former, while the latter will occur only if one personally motivated to do so. Reduction in faculty’s job requirements justifies the lower pay.

It is clear that generations of educators and education policy makers have done a poor job of educating the public on how teaching has evolved (what little there has been); the value of research to individuals, society, and the environment; the interplay between teaching and research; the value of personalized attention in educational and administrative processes; and so on. Yet, the many chronic mistakes that teachers make and the perpetual inability of administrators to lead efforts to improve the quality of teaching undercut both the message and the value proposition for students and payers.

As a result, we face a future in which higher education becomes a two-tier system: low-cost, low-touch online education for the masses, and high-cost, high-touch education for the well-to-do. This is a long-cycle phenomena during which most administrators and educators will follow the herd, while some others will recognize mistakes as they happen, make adjustments, and then make concerted efforts to inform the public that their educational offerings are better than others.

There are faculty who advocate for the faculty-administrator of yesteryear* to reduce administrative bloat, improve the functions of the university, improve educational rigor and student learning outcomes, and reduce costs. Reassigned time, faculty hiring, and the application of Lean principles and practices to academic and administrative process would be welcome improvements.


* The author, Michael Cripps, mischaracterized Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s promise. Taylor’s work (1911) is precisely aligned with “The Scholarship of Administration” (2009) by Alexandra Logue. In short, both advocate the application of the Scientific Method to one’s own managerial work. Sadly, doing so is rare, resulting in poor leadership and management capabilities by both full-time administrators and faculty-administrators  throughout higher education.

The Value Of A Professor

What is the value of a professor? This is an increasingly important question as administrators evaluate options for teaching courses beyond the use of full-time and adjunct professors. If we cannot articulate our value to students and to our university leaders – and back it up with actual results – then our role in higher education will change significantly – perhaps for the better, but likely for the worse, as is normally the case when value is assumed to be recognized by institutional leaders (and other stakeholders) as high.

The work that we do consists of teaching, research, and service. Let’s look at the value of a professor from the principal job function, teaching, which is the focal point these days. To more effectively comprehend and answer this question, I make reference to my own teaching and what I think is the value that I bring to that part of my job. I’d like to know what you think of this and your views on the value of a professor in relation to teaching.

Here is what I believe comprises the value that I offer to my students and my institution:

  • Sort through articles 365 days per year to find interesting and relevant reading materials that resonate with students and help them learn
  • Create unique weekly assignments closely aligned with reading materials and responsive to focused learning outcomes
  • Make good use of precious face-to-face time in the classroom
  • Use mostly current (not dated) sources of information
  • Ability to improvise in the classroom when needed
  • Develop my own teaching materials based on my unique lines of research and industry work experience
  • Assess students in ways that align with their learning style and contribute the most to their learning
  • Develop and apply original ideas to teaching
  • Be responsive to students needs in and out of the classroom through personal attention
  • Act on feedback, from students, self, and others
  • Continuously update and improve my course materials
  • Continuously improve my teaching

In addition, I do work related to teaching pedagogy that other faculty can learn from and work related to leadership and general management that top university administrators can learn from.

The value of a professor for teaching is determined not just by what the professor does. Policy changes could help improve the value proposition of higher education for students. For example, in Lean management, decision-making is driven to the lowest level. Therefore, give students the freedom to choose all of their non-major courses. Students are adults and can readily do this to create educational experiences that have greater personal and professional relevance.

Professors must not ignore the increasingly competitive landscape for differentiated forms of human and automated teaching. Instead, we must react to it by improving the value that we offer to students and to our institutions, and by making that known to our administrators.

No Confidence In No Confidence Votes

No confidence votes by faculty against top administrators are a common occurrence in higher education. It seem that no confidence votes come about for one primary reason: The president or provost does not know how to lead people. The problems cited are typically general in nature, such as incompetence, dictatorial leadership style, lack of transparency, and poor decision-making. In addition to poor leadership, these problems are seen by faculty as antithetical to shared governance, which is greatly valued.

No confidence votes have become over-used and are meaningless. In most cases, their only effect is to signal to regents that it is time for them to issue another form letter stating their support for the leader who received the no-confidence vote. I joke with colleagues that the Faculty Senate should simplify the matter and pass one blanket resolution of no confidence for whoever happens to be leading the leading the university. But, that would be unfair to someone who might really know how to lead a university.

University leaders receive votes of no confidence because of what I consider to be amateur, rather than professional quality leadership, due to the hundreds of basic errors that most leaders make. Good leadership requires purposeful practice and dedication to improvement that is akin to what people go through to become capable musicians. Because leadership and general management is generally poor in all organizations, higher ed or otherwise, 80 to 90 percent of leaders suffer from a lack of confidence among their followers – whether it is voted on or not.

So, the bigger picture informs us that most leaders are poor at their core job of leadership. People love big titles and big salaries and big perks, but are most leaders are unwilling to engage in the daily practice routines that are required to become great at what they do. So what can be done?

No confidence votes are a type of formal feedback given to the leader by faculty. Yet the feedback is usually ambiguous and late, creates animosity, and does not lead to improvement. Faculty can provide better and more timely formal feedback to university leaders by pointing out the specific leadership errors that they make. This re-orients the feedback from criticism, which results in defensive behaviors, to specific opportunities for improvement. That’s important, because everyone wants to do better in their job and be more successful, but they often don’t know how because the feedback lacks specificity.

So, what faculty can do is identify the specific leadership errors that leaders make and provide a steady flow of feedback (e.g. quarterly or semi-annually) to both the president and provost, with copies provided to human resources and the regents. Fortunately, faculty will not have to think too hard to do that. They can simply select from hundreds of common leadership errors organized into 15 routine leadership processes. The documented feedback need be no more than one-half to one page, and cite the top 3 to 5 errors which, if corrected, would improve leadership. They should also indicate 3 to 5 things that the leaders does well.

Rather than triggering a form letter from regents in support of the leader, regents are put in the uncomfortable – but now responsible – position of having to address specific errors and identify corrective actions that the leader must take. Of course, leaders must make an honest effort to improve and accept the fact that nobody is exempt from improvement. Their failure to do so will quickly indicate to regents that the leader, while perhaps valuable for fundraising or other type of work useful to the university, is not the right person to lead the university.

This feedback process should be made public, while the specific leadership errors made can be kept private. In doing so, I expect that the process would scare away many candidates for leadership positions because they don’t want their poor abilities be exposed and made visible for all to see. That would be good thing. But, it would also attract candidates for leadership positions who are serious about improving themselves and the university. That would be a better thing.

Lean Teaching Visual Controls

Visual controls are an important part of Lean management. They are simple and practical ways of reminding us of what to do or not do, and signal to us the existence of abnormal conditions. In addition, they are fun to create and an opportunity to share ideas and improve teamwork.

LEVC_imageLast year I posted a one page, two-sided Lean Teaching Visual Control in the Resources page. It contains information that is helpful for improving one’s teaching. Click on the image at right to view or download the .pdf file.

People really like this visual control. I’ve seen examples of faculty posting them in their office and carrying them around to meetings pertaining to teaching as well as administrative work. I hope that you have found it to be helpful.

LEVC2_image1I now have added a new one-page, two-sided visual control that you may find to be more useful. Click on the image at right to view or download the .pdf file.

This visual control has a more direct focus on recognizing or avoiding problems in teaching that can reduce the impact of teaching or leave students with the perception that the quality of teaching was low. I hope you find it useful.

I’d love to know which of the two visual controls you find more useful by replying to this post. Thank you.