Lean higher education

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Lean Higher Education is the adaptation of the Lean thinking to Higher Education (HE) both in administration and academic activities (as distinct from teaching Lean principles and practices in HE courses). Though the application of Lean management in higher education has become more prevalent in administrative processes (for example in: admissions, add/drop, purchasing, facilities, hiring, budgeting), it has been applied to academic processes (for example, course design and teaching,[1] improving degree programs,[2] student feedback,[3] and handling of assignments) in an increasing number of cases. Pioneering academic institutions include: Edinburgh Napier University (Scotland), University of Central Oklahoma (USA), University of St. Andrews (Scotland), Cardiff University (Wales), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (USA), Winona State University (USA) and others. A group of universities in the U.K. have formed LeanHEHub [7].

Lean management can be applied to many different aspects of academic research and related work despite the high level of variability and unpredictability in the research process overall. Integrating Lean into research-intensive activities remains a new frontier.

Lean Principles[edit]

Of great importance in the application of Lean management in any organization is the recognition and daily practice of the Lean principles: "Continuous Improvement" and "Respect for People." The "Respect for People" principle is almost always ignored by senior management, resulting in zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes for people and inferior results. In other words, one party gains at another party's expense, and the losers are much less willing to participate in continuous improvement. This outcome impedes teamwork and information flows, and discourages daily efforts by administration, faculty, and staff to improve processes. In order to function properly, Lean management must be understood and practiced in a non-zero-sum (win-win) manner. It is not up to the discretion of senior administrators to ignore the "Respect for People" principle. This principle is required in order to sustain continuous improvement [8].

Lean Practices[edit]

The origins of Lean practices date from late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial engineering. Lean practices have evolved over the decades since then to become much easier for non-specialists to understand and use. It is now common for people with backgrounds and interests far from industrial engineering to become highly competent Lean management practitioners. Therefore, the Lean management system has the benefit that everyone in an organization can apply the practices without the need for specialists.

Seminal work in the application of Lean to academic processes was done by Prof. M.L. "Bob" Emiliani[4] when he was at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in the early 2000s and is described in two papers: M.L. "Bob" Emiliani (2004) "Improving Business School Courses by Applying Lean Principles and Practices,"[5] and M.L. "Bob" Emiliani (2005) "Using Kaizen to Improve Graduate Business School Degree Programs,".[6] The former paper describes what individual faculty can do to improve their courses and delivery using Lean principles and practices. The latter paper describes what teams of faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni, and employers can to improve their courses using kaizen (literal translation: "change for the better"). Prof. Emiliani also produced a Kaizen Team Leader's Manual for improving academic courses and programs based on his work.[7]

The use of Lean practices in academic processes are described in two papers written by Prof. Emiliani cited above (Refs. 2,3), and in the book Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes.[8]

Differences Between Lean in Higher Education and Lean in Other Sectors[edit]

Lean in HE follows the same principles and practices of Lean management as applied in service, manufacturing, or government sectors. Lean management readily takes into account the unique governance structures of higher education institutions.[9] Lean management is responsive to the needs of multiple stakeholders in a non-zero-sum fashion and is therefore well-suited for the governance and ongoing improvement of HEIs.

The business of teaching in, or the back office administration of, Higher Education Institutions (HEI's) is similar to Lean management practiced in other service sectors because teaching and administration consist of repeatable transactional processes, in whole or part. Guidance for Lean implementation in HE administration, and, to a lesser extent in teaching, is presented in the book Lean Higher Education, Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes,.[10]

The notion of customer is central to Lean management. While widely used in HE, the term "customer" is not without controversy - especially in teaching. In some HEIs, the term "student-customer" has gained acceptance. The term "customer" is important in Lean management because value is defined from the (end-use) customer's perspective. It has been argued that the end-use customer of a teaching institution is that student's employer (or its customers), while the student and payer(s) are also seen as important intermediate customers whose perception of value must be considered.

Research work in HEIs offers new opportunities for the application of Lean thinking.

Impact of Lean in Higher Education[edit]

The impact of Lean in HE (namely in academic activities), have been studied and found to be potentially beneficial. The benefits include lead-time reduction, increase in throughput, lower cost, increased student satisfaction scores, etc. Reports analyzing Lean in higher education indicate that Lean principles are being successfully applied. [11][12][13] Various HE stakeholders will likely perceive their organization to be substantially different or possess unique characteristics compared to other service organizations or businesses using Lean management. These reports, as well as a wide range of emprical results, show such perceptions to be erroneous.

While its origins are from industry, not academia, Lean management can be successfully applied to any organization. The challenge is for HE administrators, faculty, and staff accept the need for and benefits of process improvement; to better comprehend the Lean principles "Continuous Improvement" and "Respect for People;" to comprehend and practice non-zero-sum management; to engage in daily improvement (versus periodic improvement efforts); and to shift from a "results" focus to a "process + results" focus.

Criticisms of Lean Management[edit]

The principal criticisms of Lean management are well known, relatively few in number, and have been constant over time [9]. Workers often view Lean management as undesirable because it will make them work harder, they will have less time to spend with customers, it will burn them out, and, ultimately, cost them their jobs. They feel progressive management takes away worker creativity, while timing how long it takes workers to perform an activity in a process using a stopwatch is de-humanizing. These criticisms, which will surely be voiced by faculty and staff in HE, are predictable and the result of zero-sum (win-lose) application of Lean management by senior managers.

If, instead, management’s practice of Lean management is non-zero-sum (win-win), where both principles, “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People,” are correctly understood and applied, then the criticisms will mostly disappear. Workers and other stakeholders realize numerous personal and professional benefits including working in a no-blame environment, fewer errors, less re-work, less stress, cross-training and job rotation opportunities, growth, learning and development, and improved student and payer satisfaction.

A primary objective of progressive management is to improve all processes in ways that are good for the organization as well as its employees, suppliers, customers (students and payers), investors, and the community. The goal is to achieve flow so that material and information are processed immediately, rather than sitting is queues. Application of the “Respect for People” principle is essential to avoid criticism of Lean management and to create an environment where all workers, top to bottom, are eager to practice continuous improvement every day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M.L. "Bob" Emiliani (2004) "Improving Business School Courses by Applying Lean Principles and Practices,"
  2. ^ M.L. "Bob" Emiliani (2005) "Using Kaizen to Improve Graduate Business School Degree Programs,"
  3. ^ Edinburgh Napier University "SUSTAINABLE FUTURES BRIEFING: RAPID IMPROVEMENT EVENT (RIE) – Student Feedback (Business School)"
  4. ^ Prof. M.L. "Bob" Emiliani's faculty home page
  5. ^ M.L. "Bob" Emiliani (2004) "Improving Business School Courses by Applying Lean Principles and Practices" [1]
  6. ^ M.L. "Bob" Emiliani (2005) "Using Kaizen to Improve Graduate Business School Degree Programs" [2]
  7. ^ Bob Emiliani, "Improving Higher Education" (2009), unpublished work
  8. ^ [3] Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes
  9. ^ Alisa Salewski (2009) "How to Launch Lean in a University", ASQ
  10. ^ William K. Balzer (2010) Lean Higher Education, Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes, Productivity Press [4]
  11. ^ Tobias Langer(2011) "The Application of Lean thinking for Improving Processes in Higher Education Institutions; Evidence from three UK case studies", Queens University Belfast
  12. ^ Y.R. Parasmal, (2009) "Application of Lean Thinking in Higher Education", Strategum Consulting, India [5]
  13. ^ Zoe Radnor & Giovanni Bucci (2011) "Analysis of Lean Implementation in UK Business Schools and Universities", Association of Business Schools [6]
  • Emiliani, B. (2005) "Lean in Higher Education", LeanCEO [10]
  • Moore, M., Nash, M., and Henderson, K. (2007) "Becoming a Lean University", University of Central Oklahoma [11]
  • Emiliani, B. (2012) We Can Do It! Improving the Relevancy and Value of Higher Education Using Lean Management, [12]
  • Emiliani, B. (2013) The Lean Professor: Become a Better Teacher Using Lean Principles and Practices, [13]
  • Stephen Yorkstone (2013) "Lean Goes Back to School", Lean Management Journal (subscription required), [14]

External links[edit]