I Called It!

In December 2004, I wrote an article, “Lean in Higher Education,” about the future of higher education in the United States. I made the case that due to declining enrollments and other factors, “…some schools will go out of business, some will merge with other schools, and others will exist for a period of time as zombie (half-dead, half-alive) schools.” A recent article, “Mergers on the Rise?” (Inside Higher Ed, 7 July 2015), discusses how such changes are now under way. Unfortunately, I called it.

The troubling aspect is how the article cites mergers as a “method of survival.” My article promoted Lean management as a method for survival. But alas, higher education leaders remained committed to business-as-usual. Instead of understanding their problems, they rapidly capitulate and pursue “mergers, absorptions, affiliations and partnerships.”

Faculty are quick to criticize management practices used by for-profit businesses to solve basic problems such as declining sales (because they usually result in zero-sum, win-lose, outcomes), and hope that their leaders will not use such practices. They will, because they do not know what else to do and so they simply follow the herd. They are now in a pinch and are forced to pursue the same avenues for survival as those used by most other leaders.

Another troubling aspect is how the article says “scale is strength,” that “scale gives you an advantage,” and mergers can deliver “economies of scale.” Leaders would make better management decisions if they understood that economies of scale apply only under very narrow circumstances, and diseconomies of scale exist and must not be ignored. Nothing is all upside.

The economies of scale effect occurs when information is processed using  the batch-and-queue method. This is indeed the information processing method used by colleges and universities. So, they may indeed see a favorable scale effect (after adjustment for diseconomies of scale). But, an organization should not process information using the batch-and-queue method. Why? Because it is high cost, low quality, results in long lead-times, and dissatisfies students, payers, and other higher education stakeholders.

The conventional wisdom articulated in the article “Mergers on the Rise?” will provide only short-term relief to what ails these schools. They face peril in the long-term because they still process information using the batch-and-queue method. If instead of pursuing scale through mergers, processes were improved by (correctly) applying Lean principles and practices, the result would be information flow, along with growth and prosperity. College and university leaders should be pursuing flow instead of scale. This would allow them to control their own destiny. View my 2010 presentation titled “How Flow Destroys Economies of Scale.”

This article, “Closure Concerns and Financial Strategies: A Survey of College Business Officers” (Inside Higher Ed, 17 July 2015), clearly illustrates the lack of creative and innovative thinking that exists among business officers. Their uninspired strategies will buy some time, but that’s about all. Higher education faces greater cost challenges than healthcare, where the leaders of some hospitals such as Virginia Mason Medical Center and ThedaCare have adopted Lean management as the strategy for improving healthcare delivery and ensuring a more prosperous future.

The future of higher education lies in the hands visionary leaders. Those who who pursue mergers and scale are not visionary; they are bland conformists. Visionary leaders are those who pursue flow.

Kaizen for Higher Education

kf_smallI would like call call your attention to a small (98 page) but important book that I co-authored called Kaizen Forever: Teachings of Chihiro Nakao.

While few in pages, the book is a giant in delivering to readers the mindset that created Toyota’s Production System and their overall management system.  Mr. Nakao co-founded the Shingijutsu Company in 1987 at the behest of Taiichi Ohno to teach the principles and practices of the Toyota Production System to a wider audience. He has over 50 years of of genba kaizen experience. Nakao-san is an amazing teacher.

So, why should you care out this book, which might seem to you to be irrelevant to teaching. No so! Nakso-san’s teachings are relevant to what we do as professors, in the classroom, in service work, and in research too. The book is also highly relevant to improving administrative processes.

My formal training with Shingijutsu began when I worked in industry in the mid-1990s and ended in the late 199s. I lost touch with them for some years, until recently. Based on what I learned from Shingijutsu kaizen consultants 20 years ago, along with my more recent interactions with Nakao-san to produce this book, it has inspired me to think more deeply about how to improve my teaching and create better learning outcomes for students.

Kaizen Forever will give you a much better understanding of kaizen and give you dozens and dozens of practical teachings on how to improve the work that you do as a professor or administrator – from department chair to president to trustees. I hope you are curious to learn more.

Lean Higher Ed Conference Presentation

The Third International Conference on Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education was held at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 8-9 June 2015. The theme of the conference was “Making Higher Education Institutions Efficient and Effective through Lean Six Sigma Deployment.”

The title of my keynote talk was: “Application of Lean to Teaching.” I discussed how I developed and applied the Lean teaching pedagogy over the last 15-plus years. In addition, I presented my new approach to course design aimed at transforming face-to-face and hybrid teaching from “push” to “pull.  Click on the image below to view my presentation.


I also led a workshop titled: “Lean Leadership for Higher Education,” which presented how university leaders should begin a Lean transformation and gain broad-based buy-in. Both were very well received.

New Books: Lean Teaching and Lean University

You are likely familiar with my e-books on higher education, The Lean Professor for faculty and We Can Do It! for administrators.

lean_hebooksI’m happy to announce that I’ve made some important changes:

  • The books have been re-titled Lean Teaching and Lean University.
  • Both books have been corrected, updated, and expanded.
  • They are now available only in paperback, in response to many requests for that format and so that the images can be read more easily.

Lean Teaching is printed in color and contains 48 informative images. These images help give readers a much better understanding of how I designed and delivered my courses over the last 15-plus years. It is your guide to the Lean teaching pedagogy.

Lean university is printed in black-and-white and contains 15 images. It is intended for all levels of university administrators. It describes how to lead a Lean transformation in higher education and provides hundreds of important and helpful details. Administrators will find it to be a great help in assuring a smooth transition.

I appreciate your support in telling your colleagues about these books. Thank you.


Here is a review of Lean Teaching by Professor Gloria McVay:

“In this book, Bob Emiliani addresses all of the facets of university teaching and makes both observations (from his own teaching) and recommendations (from his own experiments) for continuous improvement in course content, design, and delivery. If every professor seriously adopted a practice of continuous improvement as recommended in this book, the change to higher education would be nothing short of revolutionary. It takes being willing to really evaluate your teaching practice and realize that any single improvement in and of itself is not major. It is when you make many small improvements, knowing there is no end to improving, that you begin to understand the revolutionary power of lean in higher education. I found many good ideas that I will personally try out in my teaching practice. The big question then is – how do we create an environment which fosters this type of continuous improvement on a large enough scale to achieve a major breakthrough? For some of Bob’s thoughts on this challenging and broad-scoped topic, I recommend Lean University – another excellent book on Lean in higher education.”

Here is a review of Lean University by Mark Graban:

“Bob Emiliani is a most-credible source for this book, targeted at leaders and staff members in higher education. As a long-time industry practitioner of lean management practices, Bob has served as a faculty member at Central Connecticut State University, so he knows what he’s talking about with both lean and higher ed. This book is a succinct primer on how to apply lean management to higher ed. As Bob points out, Lean is not about easy cost cutting or doing anything that harms stakeholders – faculty, students, support staff, etc. Lean management combines continuous improvement with the equally important ‘respect for people’ principle, as Bob highlights throughout the book. Lean management is about creating the best quality education, while reducing costs (by eliminating waste, not by cutting heads). Bob dispels many of the common misperceptions about Lean, shares lessons learned and mistakes to avoid, and covers the role of leaders in transforming an organization’s culture.”

Top Blog Posts – First Half of 2015

Thank you for reading my blog! Here are the top 15 most viewed posts 1 January to 1 June 2015:

Teaching Surveys
Priceless Small Improvements
The Value Of Higher Education
My Student Course Evaluations
Lean Teaching Visual Controls
How To Get Started With Lean In Higher Ed
Lean Must Do No Harm
Imaginary Customers
Are You Satisfied With 10 Percent?
Hire More Faculty
Lean for University Leaders
Thoughts on Lean Higher Ed Conference
The University As Manufacturer
Higher Education Quality
Improving Critical Thinking

There’s more great articles to come. I encourage you to contribute your thoughts and opinions.

Managerialism In The University

Here is an article that I think you will find interesting: “‘Cuckoo managers’ are throwing out academy traditions” (Times Higher Education, 21 May 2015).

The article correctly criticizes managerialism – what actually is better characterized as mismanagement of universities. However, it is unfortunate that academics generally have great difficulty discerning the difference between beneficial practices for managing organizations that come from outside of academia and destructive managerialism derived from poor corporate management practices. Their only improvement idea is to return to traditions while offering nothing to help correct managerialism.

It is akin to witnessing the misuse of a tool, such that it does harm, and then concluding that the tool cannot be used correctly. That is demonstrative of poor critical thinking.

On the bright side, see the article “Laurie Taylor on academics v administrators” (Times Higher Education, 28 May 2015). The second to the last paragraph nails it:

“Might not administrators improve their relationship if they presented themselves not as managers but as support staff to those upon the academic stage, as producers, property masters, scene setters, audience providers? What they must surely never do is to seek to occupy the stage themselves.”

Whether one works in a university as faculty or staff, or elsewhere in for-profit or non-profit corporations, employees greatly prefer servant leaders. That is a major differentiator between conventional management (people serve the leader) and Lean management (the leader serves the people).

Finally, here is a interesting article, “The commodification of higher education” (The Varsity, 20 May 2015) that zeroes in on a big negative impact of corporatization gone awry:

“Yet, given the increasing corporatization of tertiary education, the futures of university graduates do not seem to be nearly as important as securing future funding for the institutions themselves.”

Institutional self-interest is a clear and present danger to students and higher education.

Graduation Day

My daughter is graduating from college in a few days, with high honors. She did it in 4 years! And, she has a full-time job that starts four days after graduation!!

We were driving around the shoreline last weekend and talking about her college experience. She noted that important parts of her education in her major field of study were not current with the times. The department chair is a traditionalist who emphasizes numerous courses of a similar type to develop a particular capability and is unaware or does not care that the field is changing from manual processing to digital processing.

My daughter said there were too many courses in manual processing and not enough courses in digital processing. She would have preferred to get more value for her time and our money by taking courses in digital processing – which is the type of processing she will do in her new job, as well as most other graduates. She gave this feedback to her professors.

I asked her about her teachers. She had a great teacher in her final semester; the best one in all four years. I asked her, “What made this one teacher stand out? Why was she so great?” My daughter said:

  • “Fucking not an asshole!!”
  • “She’s is talented in what she teaches.” (Can do expertly what she teaches)
  • “Everything makes sense!”
  • “She’s laid back; logical.”
  • “She gives one-on-one attention.”
  • “Pleasant, down to earth.”

Notice that these comments pertain to respect, or lack thereof, for the student.

How many students do you think share similar perspectives about courses, in whatever the major field of study happens to be, and teachers? I am certain the number is great, which should serve as a catalyst for faculty to make many improvements in both curriculum and course delivery.

Need My Help?

If you want Lean management to truly take hold in your college or university, you are going to have to get faculty involved. Experience has shown time and again that highly educated people doing work on the front lines push back hard on change. Faculty are united in pushing back on what they perceive to be “corporatization” of the university or the adoption of management fads to academic work that they see as not subject to managerialism.

Who better to help convince your faculty to support Lean management and participate in process improvement than me, someone with 15 years of experience with lean in higher education and the author of scholarly works about Lean in higher education?

University faculty also dislike university funds spent on expensive consultants who duplicate internal expertise, do little actual work, and provide little or no value. I am not a consultant; I am a teacher as the graphic below shows:


If you need my help to gain faculty support for Lean and participation in improvement activities, I make the following offer to you. I will come to your campus and spend a few days with your faculty to teach them about Lean management and how it applies to academic work in higher education. The terms are as follows:

  • Fee of $1500 per day for a minimum of two and maximum of three working days in any six month period, paid for by the university president (personal check), the college or university’s foundation, private donors, or a combination of the three.
  • Reimbursement of domestic coach air travel, lodging (simple accommodations), and ground transportation (but not meals) by the above funding sources (not university funds).
  • At least one dinner meeting with the president, provost, chief financial officer, and vice president of human resources (president pays out of pocket; b.good, Noodles & Co., KFC, or Burger King is OK with me).
  • Commitment to return a large portion of the cost savings generated from process improvement to academic departments (especially the arts and humanities) and to students in the form of lower tuition prices.
  • List of area companies practicing Lean where students, faculty, staff, and administrators can go to participate in shop and office floor kaizen and experience hands-on learning.

I am happy to help any college or university whose top leaders are committed to learning and practicing Lean management. A little preparation would be helpful.

Finding Great Teachers After Graduation

It should be obvious that the purpose of higher education is not an instrument of the state or of private enterprise to prepare students for employment. That is a beneficial outcome for students, employers, and society. And, of course, teaching can be greatly improved to better prepare students for work and for life. I have talked much about this in this blog.

I have not talked as much about the fundamental purpose of a university, which is free and open inquiry in search of the truth; an activity pursued by faculty and students, and hopefully staff as well. It is difficult to succinctly describe how important this purpose is in relation to the advancement of all aspects of humanity. It is so important that one hopes that free and open inquiry in search of the truth goes beyond the confines of the university and penetrates deeply into the workplace and into one’s life.

This purpose of a university generates valuable outcomes such as knowledge of a discipline, critical thinking, reading and numerical literacy, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and so on. Yet, while we try to improve students capabilities in these and other areas, our efforts are often undone almost step for step by external influencers.

In 15 years of teaching, I remain surprised and dismayed at the lack of critical inquiry that I have seen from students. Most of my students are working professionals, and it seems that the time spent between completing their undergraduate degree and beginning their graduate studies has allowed their critical thinking skills to atrophy, perhaps even damaging them severely. What is the culprit? The workplace, which includes influential managers at all levels as well as peers.

Having worked in industry for 15 years prior to academia, I know well how a supervisor, mid-level manager, or executive can instantly shut down an inquiring mind. I also see more of that than I would like to see in university leadership, who is quick to blame others for problems, make excuses to deflect criticism, or make a questioner look stupid or uninformed to maintain control and reduce dissent. The hypocrisy is obvious. Unfortunately, we have many more role models for bad thinking than we have role models for good thinking.

I try to help my students retain the desire and motivation for critical inquiry by using visual controls. Students create visual controls to remind them of key things they learned in class and are committed to apply. I also give students in each course I teach a visual control that I create for them to use. These visual controls have been successful at helping students remember and apply what they learned in my courses. Many students post the visual control in their cubicle at work and often get asked about it by other workers to whom they explain certain features of this visual control, thereby maintaining a connection to me and the course years later.  (Here are two visual controls that you can use in support of your Lean teaching efforts).

pensI also give to students (at my expense) a pen at the end of the course to further remind them of me, my teachings, and to apply what they learned. The first generation pen is shown at the bottom and says: “Don’t forget the stuff I taught you.” This too has been a big hit with students, and they often get asked about the pen by their colleagues. I think it helps achieve the desired outcome.

A second generation pen is now available – in three colors! The new message is: Use your education. Put it into practice.” These words challenge students more broadly in their education than just my courses. I want to see students doing the best job they can, throughout their lives, of applying what they learned from as many courses as possible: knowledge of a discipline, critical thinking, reading and numerical literacy, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and so on.

But, I don’t want them to do that because I think everything learned in university is good or beneficial. Students will never know the quality of their education if they do not put it to use. By putting what they learn into use, they will find that some of the learnings work and some don’t. Some learnings work under all circumstances, some work under few or narrow circumstances, and some don’t work at all. By doing this, they will learn where they need more daily practice, additional formal education, or perhaps focused training obtained just-in-time to do a particular task.

To the extent that higher ed exists to prepare students for employment, I wish that educators would take a greater interest in Lean management because organizations that practice Lean well carry forward our teachings into the real world. In particular, knowledge of a discipline, critical thinking, reading and numerical literacy, communication skills, intellectual curiosity, and teamwork. Progressive management is an elegant solution to the fundamental problems that all organizations face. Solving one problem simultaneously solves multiple other problems. Lean management is consistent in nearly every way with what we teach our students.

Lean management is unique in that it requires managers to have the same discipline to good human relations and processes improvement that musicians have to music and performance – yet while creatively experimenting with new and better methods every day. Great Lean leaders are great teachers whom we should welcome as our most capable successors, in the never ending processing of education.

In contrast, there is much to dislike about conventional management (what most faculty experience!) because, for example, one solution to a problem always generates multiple other problems. Another thing to dislike is the large variability in its practice by managers at different levels. It seems the majority of our students, the product of our labors, are cast into an intellectual desert, performing tasks assigned by their workplace supervisor with comparatively little opportunity to generate new ideas, create, and innovate. Leaders skilled in conventional management are terrible teachers and therefore our least capable successors. Managers who lack interest in critical inquiry influence their subordinates to do exactly the same.

Lean management, done right, carries forward the essential outcomes of higher education and does so far more faithfully than conventional management. Lean management is good for our students both within higher education and outside of it.

2015 Lean In Higher Ed Conference

The University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) will host the 2015 Lean HE Hub Conference from from 9-11 September. The theme of this year’s conference is Driving Lean Change in Higher Education.

Conference organizers are inviting contributions for poster presentations, workshops, discussions or presentations on all areas of practical application of Lean in Higher Education. Presentation Submission/Proposal Deadline: May 1st, 2015.

For more information go to www.uwaterloo.ca/lean-conference. The full conference schedule will be available on the website on 15 May.

This will be another great conference in our shared efforts to introduce Lean management to higher education to improve academic and administrative processes. I hope you will attend!