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Bob Emiliani


Methodological Errors in Lean for Higher Ed

There is no lean without kaizen

Published: Tuesday, August 25, 2015 - 15:11

As both a participant and witness to the practice of lean management in higher education, I’d like to point out methodological errors in relation to how lean is practiced in industry.

People in industry who practice lean management correctly provide us with a standard to which we can compare the practice of lean in higher education. This comparison is fair because lean management, fundamentally, is a system for processing information. All organizations process information, whether for profit, not-for-profit, government, or NGO.

With the industry standard in mind, here are 12 methodological errors in the practice of lean management in higher education that need to be corrected:

1. Program or initiative: Lean is seen as a “program” or “initiative.” It’s not a program or initiative. It’s the replacement of your university-wide batch-and-queue information processing system with a flow (i.e., lean) information processing system. Lean is a new management system in which improvement has no end, not a program or initiative which has an endpoint.

2. Projects: Improvement activities are seen as discrete “projects.” The term “projects” is a carryover from conventional management practices, which have a start and end. In lean, we practice kaizen, which never ends. Replace “project” with “kaizen.” Projects have executive “sponsors.” These people don’t actually do anything. Replace “sponsor” with “kaizen participant.”

3. Map every process: Many universities require process improvement teams to map the process before efforts to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness can begin. This isn’t necessary and causes delays. Instead, proceed directly to kaizen. If mapping is necessary, do it quickly during the kaizen.

4. Kaizen events: An “event” has a start and end. An event is infrequent. Kaizen has no end, and kaizen must occur every day. Say “kaizen” instead of “kaizen event.” Click here and here to learn about kaizen.

5. 5S events: Breaking kaizen up into smaller bits, such as 5S events or value stream mapping events, is incorrect and a carryover from conventional management practices. Don’t atomize kaizen. Done correctly, kaizen results in more than a dozen improvements in different aspects of a work process, to get information to flow, not one single aspect such as 5S.

6. Suggestion system: Suggestion systems and quality circles are important continuous improvement methods, but the huge gains in productivity can only be achieved through traditional industrial engineering-based kaizen. Universities must do this, especially in administrative processes where there is significant division of labor. There is no lean without kaizen.

7. Recommendations: The result of projects and events are recommendations to management about what improvements the team would like to make. This is a carryover from conventional management practices. Kaizen teams don’t study an abnormal condition and then make recommendations to management. This introduces a delay. Instead, they quickly study an abnormal condition and then immediately make improvements. Management, from the start, empowers kaizen teams to eliminate waste, unevenness, and unreasonableness without needing to seek permission to do so.

8. Reporting to the CFO: The head of the “lean office” reports to the chief financial officer (CFO). This is incorrect. It’s a common error because lean is understood narrowly by university leaders as cost savings. Instead, the head of the lean office should report to the most senior person responsible for the value-creating activity of the organization. In higher education, this would be the provost or president.

9. Savings to justify my position: The head of the lean office says: “I have to find savings to justify my position.” While cost reduction is indeed important, the head of the lean office is also responsible for improving the value proposition for students and payers, guiding faculty and staff on how to improve information flow, organizational learning, and so on.

10. Change management: Continuous improvement leaders in higher education think they have to invoke complicated change management protocols rooted in organizational behavior and organizational development. This is a carryover from conventional management practices. Ignore change management. Kaizen, itself, is the change management practice. Change management programs on top of kaizen simply add cost and create delays. Instead, do kaizen—lots of kaizen.

11. Lean in administration: Colleges and universities engaged with lean limit its practice to administration. This is the opposite of the early days of lean in industry, where company leaders thought lean was a “manufacturing thing” and limited its application to operations. That was a huge mistake. It took more than 20 years to convince non-manufacturing departments that lean principles and practices applied to them as well. College and university leaders must avoid making the same mistake. Lean applies to academic processes as well.

12. Time required to make improvements: The results universities get and the speed that they get them depend upon leaders’ understanding of lean management and the processes they use to improve. In every case that I know of, leaders’ understanding of lean management is poor, and the processes used are poor or incomplete. The result is very slow process improvement. Improvements made in higher education that occur over the course of five years are done within two or three months in industry. Nothing can justify such a great difference.

If these methodological errors aren’t corrected, then your understanding of lean will remain static. As a result, you won’t learn and evolve, and you’ll never realize the full potential of lean management.

© Bob Emiliani. First published July 28, 2015, on Bob Emiliani’s The Lean Professor blog.


About The Author

Bob Emiliani’s picture

Bob Emiliani

Professor M.L. “Bob” Emiliani is an engineer, researcher, author, historian of progressive management, educational reformer, and executive trainer. A long-time Toyota Production System (TPS)/lean practitioner he was the first to focus on lean leadership as an area of scholarly study. Prior to joining academia, he worked in industry for 15 years in engineering (R&D, new product development) and operations, including implementing TPS (manufacturing and supply chain). Emiliani is the author or co-author of 19 books, 48 peer-reviewed papers, and 540+ blog posts on lean leadership, management, organizational development, supply chain, materials engineering, and more. Emiliani has bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in engineering.