Thoughts on Lean Higher Ed Conference

At the 2nd International Lean Six Sigma Conference for Higher Education (click to read Day 1 and Day 2 highlights), three speakers presented the view that Lean in higher education is failing or that higher education is distinct from other application domains and adjustments have not been made by practitioners that are necessary to succeed. The context is principally Lean in administrative processes, as there are few professors applying Lean principles and practices to their teaching.

Are we really failing? What are the perceived failure mechanisms? Are these the actual failure mechanisms? If so, what modifications should we make to our efforts? Allow me to share with you my thoughts on this matter.

Dr. Vincent Wiegel
Dr. Wiegel suggested that there is a lack of Lean progress in higher education compared to other application domains. This, in turn, suggests that Lean may have to be adapted to specific domains such as higher education in order to make more progress. Dr. Wiegel proposes a contingency framework to determine the utility of Lean concepts and tools for higher education and identify areas of adjustment.

Emiliani’s Comments
The proposition put forth by Dr. Wiegel and others is as follows: Lean was developed for a specific situation: manufacturing. Higher education is not manufacturing. Therefore, Lean management applied to higher education must be different from Lean as applied to manufacturing, where progress has been much quicker [or is perceived to have been much quicker]. This is an example of where correlation does not imply causation.

At the macro level, it can appear that Lean management was developed for manufacturing. It would be more precise to say that Lean management was developed in manufacturing, for the purpose of improving processes (which, in turn, led to many other benefits). To the extent that differences exist, service processes tend to be less visible (harder to see) than processes in manufacturing operations. But they exist nonetheless.

Think about this: The later an industry sector is to Lean, the less Lean they will actually do because of dilution, de-evolution, misunderstanding, and misuse.

Lean progress in higher education is slow because higher education is late to comprehending and adopting Lean management. But, more importantly, higher education has not actually been practicing Lean management. Slow Lean almost always means no Lean. In other words, there is a lack of Lean progress because people are not doing Lean (and, in particular, not doing kaizen or not doing kaizen correctly). They are doing something else – derivatives of Lean management that are force-fit into conventional management practice and which, therefore, results in very slow progress. That, in turn, can make it appear that higher education is a different domain in which Lean requires modification. In a backwards sense, that is true – higher education needs to modify its practice of Lean from low fidelity derivative forms to high fidelity Lean.

The intent of Lean management is to replace conventional management, whether in higher education or elsewhere; it cannot not be force-fit into conventional management, or made to coexist, and still function properly. This is a mistake that most leaders make.

In the bigger picture, Lean management is nothing more than the (non-zero-sum) application of the Scientific Methods to management; to any type problem that any business (or process) encounters. Lean management itself does not fall short in higher education; it is Lean practice that falls short, much in the same way that musicians who do not practice do not make good music. The erroneous practice of Lean in higher education is the result of learning from others who have also erroneously practiced Lean in higher education or elsewhere.

Regarding the contingency framework, Lean management done right drives each contingency from a state of high uncertainty towards a state of lower certainty, and also makes abnormal conditions visible so that people can rapidly engage in structured problem-solving processes.

Dr. Zoe Radnor
Dr. Radnor suggested that Lean will fall short if Lean from manufacturing is applied to public service environments such as higher education. If I understand her argument correctly, that is because the public sector context is different and because service logic argues placing the user at the heart of the service. Also, production and consumption occur simultaneously in service businesses but not in manufacturing – which is seen as a significant difference.

Emiliani’s Comments
Having worked in manufacturing operations, internal services (purchasing), and in public service environments, I see no significant distinction in the application of Lean management to manufacturing and service. The user – the customer – is at the heart of the product or service (whether kanban internally or voice of the customer externally). All work is made up of processes. All processes can be improved using Lean principles, methods, and tools. Higher education manufactures a service. Adaptation may be necessary, but it is mostly minor and not normally the cause of failure. Instead, incorrect understanding of Lean management and improper application of Lean principles and practices are invariably the problem.

Remember, kaizen teams correctly constituted are comprised of people from various disciplines. So, in the cause of a manufacturing business, team members come from manufacturing operations, as well as internal service units such as information technology, purchasing, finance, human resources, etc. Also, manufacturing, when viewed as an outsourced activity, is considered a service. The distinction, therefore, is artificial, and more a source of confusion than of clarity.

As far as production and consumption occur simultaneously in service businesses, the same can be true in manufacturing. In the limit, suppliers can set up production within their customer’s facility to supply goods or services in-time with their consumption. Therefore, it is not appropriate to cite this as a defining distinction of public services.

Overall, I feel it is a great error to make a distinction between Lean management as applied to manufacturing and service domains. Comprehending and applying Lean principles and practices to both manufacturing and service has expanded my thinking and taught me that there are far more similarities than differences. It is like learning two very similar languages (Spanish and Italian), resulting in greater intellectual acuity – something that learners, such as professors, should want to do.

In sum, apparent differences may not constitute actual differences.

Dr. William Balzer
Dr. Balzer also views Lean in higher education as failing and attributes it to four factors: 1) Our failure to speak the language used by higher education senior administrators, 2) failure to communicate the language of Lean higher education, 3) failure to demonstrate the effectiveness of Lean in higher education, and 4), failure to understand the dynamics of organization and change.

For each of these, Dr. Balzer proposes remedies: 1) Speak the language of higher education administrators, 2) use alternate, non-Lean terminology (e.g. “rapid improvement workshop,” not “kaizen”), 3) conduct rigorous scientific research to show the benefit of Lean in higher education, 4) conduct organizational diagnosis and engage in change management to better understand human behavior in organizations undergoing change.

Emiliani’s Comments
1) It is unwise for progressive Lean practitioners in higher education to conform to the static language of senior administrators (inclusive of metrics) that define the shortcomings and failures of higher education that we see today. Further, Lean management requires those who are familiar with conventional management to learn and do new things, including the establishment of new metrics that better represent the customer’s perception of value and the actual condition of the institution. Senior higher education administrators, if they wish to be educated about Lean and seen as leaders, must rise to this elementary challenge.

2) The use of alternate terms, such as “rapid improvement workshop” instead of “kaizen” results in changes in meaning that negatively affect practice. If one wants or expects skilled practice of Lean management, so that positive (non-zero-sum) change occurs rapidly, then one cannot freely substitute new terminology. Further, Lean terminology is part of the deep learning that happily takes place when one participates in kaizen (done right).

3) Rigorous scientific research takes a long time. Do we have a long time to improve higher education? No, we do not. Instead of research, we need to start improving quickly. When you think of Lean management, the word “fast” should come to mind, not “slow.” People who do not want to improve will cite a lack of scientific research as an excuse to justify inaction. Most leaders do not want to improve, despite what they say. If scientific research is provided, then there will be lengthy arguments about method and interpretation, again delaying action. These are the lessons we have learned from the many manufacturing leaders who have resisted Lean management over the last 30 years, and from which higher education should learn. Proof is unconvincing to those who do not want to change.

A senior leader asked his kaizen teacher this question: “We have been doing kaizen since 2009. What is the method to evaluate our kaizen achievements?” The sensei, with 50 years of experience, answered: “Go to the genba to see how you have changed it.” Convincing leaders is best achieve through their participation in kaizen (seeing is believing) rather than by reading research papers.

In Lean, the proof of the benefit of change is found by going to the gemba (the workplace), to see with one’s own eyes the improvements that have been made. No further proof is needed, scientific or otherwise. Spend time improving processes instead of doing time-consuming research to confirm what one can easily see with one’s own eyes.

4) In the organizations where the adoption of Lean management has been most successful, the kaizen facilitators had no scholarly knowledge of or formal training in organizational behavior, organizational development, or change management. Empirical results inform us that neither organizational behavior and organizational development interventions nor change management protocols are necessary. Why is that?

Traditionally, kaizen facilitators’ process for organizational change is as follows: A day or so of classroom training in basic industrial engineering methods, then off to the gemba for 5-7 days of hands-on kaizen focused on converting batch-and-queue processes (in manufacturing or service work) to flow. And then repeat the improvement cycle over and over again to deepen and expand one’s learning.

Please think more deeply about kaizen and its importance in simultaneously developing people while improving processes.

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In closing, if Lean is failing in higher education, it is because people are not learning and doing what works. They are doing what looks like Lean, but which is not actually Lean. That is a problem. The challenge for educators, whether faculty or administrators, is to close the large gap between the current condition and desired condition.

I invite your comments and criticisms.

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