Education, Improved

Lean Six Sigma has arrived on a few campuses. Will more follow?

Taran March @ Quality Digest

February 5, 2020

At the University of California at San Diego, lean concepts have taken hold. Along with its process improvement curriculum, the university applies what it teaches through initiatives around campus. Projects both complex and simple tackle the snags, waste, and bottlenecks of academic life. Students, as both customers and process output, learn about lean Six Sigma (LSS) tools and use them to improve their college experience. UC San Diego has become, in effect, its own moonshine shop.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for most public schools and colleges elsewhere in the country.

Although many high schools, vocational schools, and higher education institutions teach process improvement methodologies such as lean and Six Sigma, few of them use the concepts outside their classrooms. Less than 1 percent of school districts nationwide actively consider some sort of process improvement methodology. This is a missed opportunity, since many schools struggle with the very issues that lean is so effective at solving.

Among problems facing educators is declining public funding for operational costs, increased classroom sizes, and staffing cuts that require teachers and administrators to take on multiple titles. Meanwhile, mandated requirements keep shifting, and new protocols must be instituted. In such a climate, even basic output measurements such as student literacy and satisfaction can founder.

You’d think that universities, at least, with the knowledge of effective lean tools available on their own campuses, could readily apply them, especially since other solutions are in short supply, and the need for improvement is obvious to all stakeholders. What’s preventing so many schools from using process improvement techniques for their own benefit? Twenty years into the 21st century, here’s a look at how colleges perceive, and in some cases avail themselves of, lean and process improvement practices.

Problems unique to academia

“Higher education suffers from customer-centric and process-based problems ideally suited to lean Six Sigma,” says Timothy Winders, vice chancellor of information services at Purdue University. “However, higher education is not manufacturing. Where LSS has been introduced in higher education without adjusting the models used in manufacturing, success was limited.”

Some of the difficulties that impede LSS adoption will sound familiar to business executives, not least of which is a lack of leadership buy-in or process ownership. There’s also the inevitable time constraints on people already dealing with the pressures that lack of funding and regulated operating requirements impose. With so many separate scholastic agendas, it’s difficult to create a compelling reason to implement changes across the institution. Training in process improvement skills requires time and money, both in short supply. Selecting the right projects and implementing the solutions in a diverse environment is problematic.

But unique to education is the notion of academic freedom. Differing viewpoints and specialized arenas of expertise are cherished characteristics of higher learning and are rightly protected in university settings. However, they do create silos and increase the difficulty of instituting organizationwide change.

Then there are the differing key performance indicators (KPIs) for education, including mandates from accrediting agencies, state and federal legislatures, boards of education, and trustees. How should these be linked with lean KPIs such as average lead time, reducing inventory, and nonconformances? Or should they?

Building a business case

In 1993, W. Edwards Deming published The New Economics, in which he details the system of transformation underlying his 14 Points for Management. The education system, he believed, could be improved by applying the same principles used to improve processes and systems in other industries. Ten years and some practical experimentation later, ASQ published a brief titled “The Business Case for Lean in Higher Education.” It’s a summary of process improvement initiatives carried out at two Michigan universities.

“At these schools, LSS has been introduced as a customized Green Belt program,” writes Norma Simon, former chair of the ASQ education division, and a reliability engineer and Black Belt. “In each case, the program was delivered to the executive group—the president and other key decision makers. Several other groups were trained—60 individuals and 40 individuals at each organization, respectively.”

The goals were clear:
• Meet accreditation requirements
• Create template for problem solving
• Promote involvement
• Establish measures
• Make processes visible
• Listen to the voice of the customer
• Reduce hidden costs

The results were quite promising, Simon noted. “The business case for LSS is that the method outlines a direction that is not only a means to strengthen academic programs, but a way to support effective and efficient operations and cost reduction… the progress these organizations made shows LSS can help higher education unearth issues that have existed and plagued the institution for some time and provide a path for growth.”

In classroom projects and pilot programs such as those in Michigan, LSS has proven its value. During the last decade, more schools have offered lean, Six Sigma, and other process improvement training as part of their business curricula. A few, like the University of Miami-Ohio, have turned the tools on themselves. Miami University has been called one of the most efficient schools in the country because of its work with LSS principles. Its projects have ranged from campus-wide initiatives to small improvements like digitizing the fingerprinting processes used by campus police.


A University of Miami poster promoting a lean event

Diminishing funding has been a keen motivator. “Because state support for universities is low in Ohio, you’ll find several of Ohio’s public universities on the ‘most expensive’ list,” says university spokeswoman Claire Wagner. “But our outcomes are so strong. Alumni are getting accepted to medical and law school at rates far higher than the norm, and 91.1 percent of our graduates are employed or in graduate school a year after graduating.”

First steps

Schools that apply lean tools to their processes quickly realize they must adapt the tools to suit an academic environment. “Due to demand variability (i.e., student enrollment fluctuations may not be predictable) and input variations (students are not uniform in background, age, gender, ethnicity, etc.), higher education institutions must evaluate the way LSS is applied and what tools are used,” says Winders. KPIs are different as well: university ranking; student completion rate, satisfaction, and attendance; quality of research; application processing time; and student housing are the big-ticket items.

But assuming an academic team has a grounding in LSS, either from experts at the institution or consultants who specialize in academic environments, the process improvement formula itself can follow similar steps to those used in manufacturing:
• Selecting projects. Schools must keep in mind accreditation requirements and their strategic plans, but each project has a business case and should demonstrably add value.
• Selecting a team. Cross-functional teams are especially important in academia’s ivory-tower culture.
• Customized training. As noted above, this could come from within the university or from outside experts. Blended learning is often used.
• Coaching. Project owners have recourse to mentors and experts to help develop strategies and use tools effectively.
• Project management. Gated reviews, sign-offs, reports, and presentations keep projects on track.

UC San Diego: Making it work

As well as ranking among the top schools in the country, UC San Diego is favored with a visionary chancellor. Gary May sees the university’s role in a global context with a responsibility to expand its reach. To help achieve this, the institution has chosen LSS as its methodology of choice for improving its business processes. One of the initial changes occurred within its IT department.

Mojgan Amini is the university’s director of process management and continuous improvement, and has been involved in what she sees as a cultural shift within the institution, from an organization interested in improving its processes to one that has learned to view everything it does through a continuous improvement lens. Even in the IT department, where she spends her time when not involved in a LSS initiative somewhere on campus, process improvement is an acknowledged, permanent presence.

“Once we get to a place where we’re mapping out a process and it’s staring them in the face, they can see where there’s room for improvement.”
—Mojgan Amini

In fact, the university’s improvement mindset started there, with a complicated project of merging several IT units into one. The dual goal was standardization and efficiency, and to achieve that, they decided from the outset to train all IT employees in basic LSS techniques. Given the typical range of anxiety and engagement about this decision, Amini found that LSS offered a particular “in” that could convince the reluctant: data.

“The methodology lends itself to being objective, looking at facts rather than personalities,” she says. “That works really well with IT folks, who like to be the ones who solve the problem. Once we get to a place where we’re mapping out a process and it’s staring them in the face, they can see where there’s room for improvement. The data speak for themselves.”

From that beginning, more than 1,500 people across the university have since been trained in LSS, 400 of them in IT. But the chancellor’s vision required more than under-the-hood tune-ups. The next objective was to transform enterprise systems to meet the university’s future goals. Rather than approaching this selectively, they decided to improve all its business processes simultaneously, everything from payroll to student services, to parking and all points in between.

“We were going to need an army of lean experts to facilitate this,” recalls Amini. “But we had trained 1,500. We thought: Why not tap into that?”

The Lean Bench Program evolved from that idea. With departmental blessings from their supervisors, university employees who trained in LSS and whose applications to the program are accepted now spend 20 percent of their working hours on university improvement initiatives, often in departments quite diverse from their own.

There’s also the Business Excellence Community of Practice, whose purpose is to enhance organizational insight, business judgement, and strategic acumen by capitalizing on the collective knowledge of the university’s program, project, and process initiatives. At its core are three mighty pillars of improvement: process management, process improvement, and organizational change management. Monthly workshops and mentorship programs are offered by a staff of 200 volunteers.

To engage students and reach newcomers, the university holds an annual Process Palooza, which showcases LSS with a 16-team competition to solve a university problem. The event includes a trade show and speakers.


Brainstorming improvement ideas at Process Palooza

“It was astonishing how we mingled and worked with a diverse group of strangers on a process we knew nothing about,” says Dhara Parekh, a process management student at the university who attended Process Palooza and is now a Green Belt. “As a student and a beginner in this field, I could have never imagined working together on a team comprised of a Black Belt, high-level managers, and immensely experienced professionals.”

The event will take place this year on March 26, 2020.

Word of UC San Diego’s successes has reached other universities in the UC system, including UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Merced. They have reached out for UC San Diego’s LSS recipe and support, widening the initiative’s sphere of influence. Chancellor May’s vision is growing.

For Amini, who has worked at UC San Diego for 13 years, the many changes she’s witnessed have evolved from a practical focus on improvement to creating a truly shared vision. “We went beyond LSS and became more about the change,” she says. “Changing the culture, always thinking about it.”

About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s executive editor. A 35-year veteran of publishing, March has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she usually can be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.