The conventional view of accreditation among those outside higher education (and some inside) is that it punishes those universities and departments that try to do things differently. In my experience, accreditation – nothing more than an audit to a standard – gives universities and departments lots of room to do things differently. So maybe accreditation bodies are not the problem, at least in these terms.
Doing something different – striving to exceed the standard or create a new standard – requires someone to write a justification. Most administrators and faculty don’t want to take the time and effort to do that. If the justification is poor, then they risk being criticized by the accreditors, which, in turn, generates more work for administrators and faculty (e.g. follow-up reports, etc.). Accreditation makes Deans and faculty more conservative and less willing to take risks. The path of least resistance (conformance to explicit requirements) wins favor in colleges and universities, just as it does in most other organizations.
In my view, the shortcoming of accreditation is not that they punish those universities and departments that try to do things differently. Instead, accreditation bodies fail to criticize universities or departments that keep doing the same thing or who fail to continuously improve or innovate (in both pedagogy, courses topics, and course content). They reward stasis, but instead need to criticize it in order to provide incentive and motivation for improvement.
The term “continuous improvement,” as understood in higher ed, is pitifully weak compared to how the term is understood in the context of Lean management. Since most accreditors (faculty auditors) have no clue what continuous improvement is in the Lean context, universities and departments can satisfy requirements by doing the minimum and win favorable ratings from accreditors.
Additionally, accreditation is a time-consuming process. Faculty spend many hours writing reports and gathering teaching materials in preparation for accreditation visits. These can be easily manipulated to give the appearance of conformity. In Lean management, no such preparation is needed because audit readiness is part of daily work activities – mostly through visual management, which is much harder to manipulate.
Management practice in higher education clearly lacks any concept of the Lean principle, “Respect for People.” Not surprisingly, accreditation processes suffer from the same shortcoming. As a result, faculty and administration time is wasted and the benefits of accreditation to students and payers is, in reality, small.
For accreditation to be helpful, it must drive administrators and faculty towards continuous improvement, innovation, cost reduction, and value expansion. Further, accreditors should share their findings with other schools so they can learn from one another. Better yet, accreditation bodies could drive college and universities to adopt Lean management in both academics and administration.