Sloppy Drunk on STEM

The Lean professor – educated for 12 years as an engineer (3 degrees, mechanical, chemical, materials, plus applied math major), in practice for 7 years, and author of 10 research papers published in top-tier materials engineering journals – loves the humanities, and so should you.

Lately it has become common for people to view college and university education as nothing more than training for the purpose of landing a job. The humanities erode while STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) come into vogue as the majors that students should select to get good-paying jobs. These are economically relevant majors, while nearly all others are not (exceptions include business and nursing, for example).

University are merging STEM departments to create STEM schools and gain unknown synergies and other vague benefits. University budgets and federal research funds are being directed to STEM fields at the expense the humanities. Zero-sum thinking is not Lean thinking. Disrespecting people in pursuit of a new identity is not Lean.

While I am an engineer, I am also a musician, artist, and historian. I paint (combination of conceptual, abstract, gestural, and minimalism), I play bass guitar (metal-rap is my favorite), and I am a historian of progressive management (antecedents to Lean). My interest in these wonderful humanities disciplines has greatly informed my engineering, business, research, and teaching perspectives. I love the humanities because they give me greater insight and balance my engineering mind.


The concept of “balance” is so important in Lean management that it is infused throughout its principles and practices. Likewise, balance is important to education, at all degree levels. To be educated in imbalanced ways leads to many problems, such as ignoring people judged to be of lesser technical capability or disregarding the opinions or interests of others (who may in fact be much better critical thinkers that STEM people). This, of course, undercuts teamwork. A world filled with narrowly-focused STEM people in the workplace might have difficulty getting important things done over the long haul.

We know that a balanced nutritional diet consists of appropriate portions of protein, vegetables and fruit, and starch. A balanced diet is an important part of overall good health. Unfortunately, STEM advocates – educators, politicians, and business leaders (many of whom were educated in the humanities) – ignore the importance of having a balanced intellectual diet, one that consists of both technical and humanities. Focus too much on the technical (STEM) and one’s view will be narrow to a fault, unable to effectively see connections or synthesize information, ideas, and concepts. False assumptions, abuse of expertise, and political expediency allow STEM advocates to forget the importance of balance.

Lean people would ask the question: “What problem are we trying to solve?” Is it high unemployment among college graduates? What is the root cause? Is is not clear to me that STEM is the solution. Not too long ago, companies simply hired educated people. They hired English, philosophy, and history majors, and trained them to meet the company’s specific needs. What has changed? Most companies don’t do that training anymore, to save money.

Does anyone really think that STEM graduates need no company-specific training? You better believe they do. They need lots and lots of training, such as: business processes, teamwork, finance for non-financial managers, negotiation, listening, conflict management, diversity, cost estimating, budgeting, program planning and control, time management, compliance, supply chain management, coaching, process improvement, supervision-management-leadership, and so on. Get the picture?

Finally, don’t forget about supply and demand. Produce too many STEM graduates and they too will be unemployed or underemployed just as humanities graduates are today. Want to guess which majors will be in vogue then (and less expensive to hire)?

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