Visions for Change

I work in a university system beginning to undergo change in response to changes in its environment. I am a witness to this change in real-time. It is exciting to see, even if it is change borne of conventionally-minded leadership.

The president of our Board of Regents for Higher Education has the following plan for improving the financial condition and academic operations of the university system:

“To address the need for financial reform, I plan to aggressively seek greater state support, explore greater system wide efficiency efforts and simply to begin asking people and companies for financial support.”

“Under the plan, which is early in development… each of the state’s four regional state universities would focus on an academic specialty that would ideally raise their image as ‘centers of excellence’ and attract students from the entire Northeast. “

The “Pathway to Excellence” plan as its stands today is to ask people for money, centralize activities such as admissions, purchasing, etc., to gain cost savings, and create “centers of excellence” where each of the regional campuses focus on a on a particular academic area such as engineering, liberal arts, allied health programs, and the arts. Excellence and greatness are the new focus. If all you knew were conventional leadership, you would say, “an exciting plan” and “visionary leadership.”

Yet, that vision for change that does not recognize a change in the value proposition by students and payers nor the change in higher education from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market. Seen another way, the “Pathway to Excellence” plan is to copy what other public university systems have done. Because other universities like ours have done this, we can do it too. Don’t try to do anything new. And, get it done by managing appearances and egos to gain support for the plan from key players.

What would a Lean leader do to reform a public university system facing these major changes? First, the Lean leader would not would ask people for more money. The university would earn it. Second, they would not see declining enrollment as a primary problem. They would see that the value proposition needs to be better understood and strengthened by improving all administrative and academic processes. Problem identification and elimination would be the new focus. We would listen to students and prioritize budgets and other resources to improve students’ academic and administrative experiences.

The Lean leader knows that all processes must be improved, starting with the core value-creating processes in academics, while simultaneously improving administrative processes. The Lean leader also knows that changing or centralizing processes such as admissions, purchasing, etc. is not the same improving processes. In fact, the opposite, process decline, is the likely outcome when top leaders cannot distinguish between value-added work, work that is non-value added but necessary, and work that is waste.

The Lean leader knows the value of human creativity and imagination and would access it by, among other things, assuring all university personnel, in writing, that nobody will become unemployed as a result of process improvement. Continuous improvement can never be a win-lose proposition for any stakeholder.

The Lean leader would do more than ask people for feedback on a plan developed by top leaders. They would immediately engage people in kaizen to begin reducing costs, improving quality, improving service, and improving value. They would do this by eliminating waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness in all processes. That is the core of the plan, from which may emerge ideas for larger scale improvements such as “centers of excellence” or consolidating back-office services – but only after the true nature of problems are understood.

The Lean leader would personally lead cross-functional kaizen teams to teach people how to improve processes and to demonstrate its value and importance for maintaining a healthy university whose academic programs, degrees, and related services provide value to students and payers that exceed price. University personnel, along with students, alumni, and people from area businesses, would learn how to improve processes every day, not just when a crisis emerges.

Excellence and greatness are immaterial to the Lean Leader. Instead, the Lean leader cares about university personnel, listening and responding to feedback from students and other key stakeholders, continuous improvement, and the learning that comes by applying the scientific method to all problems: managerial, academic, and administrative. The Lean leader’s focus would not be on managing appearances and egos, but instead to answer questions and help people overcome barriers to continuous improvement in higher education.

Organizations that have enjoyed past success struggle to adapt to changing times because they try to do more of the same, only harder. Sometimes that works, but more often it does not. Structural changes in the value proposition of higher education and a shift from a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market means that doing more of the same is unlikely to yield the desired outcomes.

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