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: Cardiff University (Wales), Edinburgh Napier University (Scotland), Michigan Technological University (USA), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (USA), University of Aberdeen (Scotland), University of Central Oklahoma (USA), University of St. Andrews (Scotland), Winona State University (USA) and others. A group of universities in the U.K. have formed LeanHEHub [6]. In Scotland, the Scottish Higher Education Improvement Network (SHEIN) is a collaborative network of HE professionals working within the area of continuous improvement. SHEIN exists to encourage the sharing of resources and best practice, online and face-to-face.

Lean principles 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 challenging for management to implement, because most managers have risen to their level of responsibility based on their superior "fire-fighting" skills. With Lean, managers are coaches who guide their employees through a problem solving process. The employee learns how to ask themselves the questions that enable them to solve problems on their own, with the same or better quality that the manager would have achieved. Problems occur when managers cannot relinquish control, 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 plus-sum (win-win) manner. The "Respect for People" principle is required in order to sustain continuous improvement [7].

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 do 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]

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 empirical 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 to 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.[14] Workers may view Lean management as undesirable if it is incorrectly implemented, because it could make them work harder, they might have less time to spend with customers, and, ultimately, they could lose their jobs. These criticisms, which will surely be voiced by faculty and staff in HE, are predictable [15] and the result of zero-sum (win-lose) application of Lean management by senior managers.

Supporters of Lean might assert that Lean management can be conducted in a non-zero-sum (win-win) manner—the criticism is simply a result of misapplication of the central concepts.

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
  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 [4]
  13. ^ Zoe Radnor & Giovanni Bucci (2011) "Analysis of Lean Implementation in UK Business Schools and Universities", Association of Business Schools [5]
  14. ^ Emiliani (2014) "Same Six Criticisms of Lean"
  15. ^ Emiliani (2013) "Lean Must Do No Harm"
  • Emiliani, B. (2005) "Lean in Higher Education", LeanCEO [8]
  • Moore, M., Nash, M., and Henderson, K. (2007) "Becoming a Lean University", University of Central Oklahoma [9]
  • Emiliani, B. (2015) Lean University: A Guide to Renewal and Prosperity, [10]
  • Emiliani, B. (2015) Lean Teaching: A Guide to Becoming a Better Teacher, [11]
  • Stephen Yorkstone (2013) "Lean Goes Back to School", Lean Management Journal (subscription required), [12]

External links[edit]