The Backstory – Lean Teaching

This is the backstory to the book Lean Teaching.

lt_smallUpon completing my Ph.D. in Engineering at Brown University, I decided to get a job in industry rather than an academic position at a university. I felt it was important to gain significant real-world work experience that I thought would be essential in case I returned to academia as a professor.

I am happy I made that decision. For several years, I worked as a materials engineer at Pratt & Whitney, but I started to get tired of that type of work and began looking for a job in manufacturing. I was fortunate to get hired as a business unit manager soon after Pratt’s operations had begun its Lean transformation. After that, I became a supply chain manager and helped introduce Lean to tier 1/2/3 suppliers.

The things I learned from Shingijutsu consultants, from the kaizens I participated in, from the kaizens I led, and other Lean activities forever changed my view of work processes, time, quality, and people. It was “change for the better,” as the new perspectives I gained help would help me succeed in my second career.

After fifteen years in industry, I started to look for a job in academia – but not in materials engineering. Instead, my interests were Lean leadership and Lean management. I wrote a few papers on the topic prior to leaving Pratt & Whitney and wanted to continue this line of research in academia. The logical place to look for an academic position was in a business school. I got lucky and found a business school that saw my Ph.D. in Engineering as an asset for educating technically-oriented students, not as a liability or job disqualifier (thank you Dick LeMay!).

I joined the business school in Fall of 1999 after teaching there as an adjunct for a few semesters prior to that. I soon realized that university academic and administrative processes were full of waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness. It was terrible, yet it was also the perfect place for me to apply Lean principles and practices. I did that for the administrative processes that I participated in, but I was far more interested in applying Lean principles and practices to academic work – especially teaching. So, I took what I learned on the shop floor and applied it to higher education. It was an exciting opportunity to experiment.

While many others had advocated Lean in higher education, nobody had actually done anything. With little or no modifications, I applied Lean principles and practices to the design and delivery of my own courses, and also led the first kaizens to improve a graduate degree program. I wrote this work up in two papers published in 2004 and 2005: “Improving Business School Courses by Applying Lean Principles and Practices” and “Using Kaizen to Improve Graduate Business School Degree Programs.” The papers describe ways to improve teaching and courses that can be applied to any course in any degree program in any school on a college or university.

Since those papers were published, I have expanded the use of Lean principles and practices to the design and delivery of my courses. I had made a lot of improvements since 2004 and wanted to inform people of them. So, I wrote The Lean Professor and published the first edition in June 2013. The second edition was published in December 2013 reflecting additional improvements. The paperback edition was published as Lean Teaching in 2015.

Like Lean leadership, Lean teaching is a subject that I am passionate about. We have all experienced many lousy teachers in K-12, in college, and in graduate school. For many different reasons, this cannot go on. Lean Teaching offers faculty practical and proven ways to improve their teaching and courses. It is a remarkably transparent and detailed accounting of the logic for making improvements, the methods used, and the results achieved.

Lean Teaching is a heartfelt effort to help faculty correctly understand Lean principles and practices and begin to apply them to their own courses. A motivation for wanting to do so is to recognize that academic courses and programs are a principal source of value creation in higher education. We transform a company to Lean for the benefit of customers. Higher education must do the same for the benefit of students.

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