Skip to content

Blog Post

Seven questions about Lean from leaders in higher education

In our work with college and university leaders who are seeking new ways to drive change and innovation at their institutions, we hear many recurring questions about Lean. To dispel some Lean myths and provide clarity, we’ve decided to address the most frequently asked questions we hear from these leaders, and provide guidance on applying Lean in higher education:

1. What is Lean and why is it so well-suited for higher education?

Let’s start with what Lean is not. Lean is not limited to manufacturing or construction industries or just a way to cut costs and be more efficient.

Most simply, Lean is a systematic way of engaging people to identify the root causes of problems and then work together to solve them. Much like higher education, using Lean stimulates growth and empowers people to create change. Lean is driven by the employees’ commitment to learn, make improvements to their everyday work and drive sustainable change-whether they are leaders, managers, or boots-on-the-ground staff.

The higher education problem-solving mindset and focus on innovation and collaboration make campuses a great setting for a Lean approach. Colleges and universities have longstanding committed employees with a wealth of institutional knowledge and ideas. When your most valuable employees are not only armed with a new and better way of tackling problems, but then also empowered to do so, they emerge as ambassadors for change and drive innovation throughout your institution.

2.  How can incremental improvement to everyday work be a springboard for cultural change and innovation?

Incremental change helps people see beyond the status quo-to stop being complacent about “what management does” or “the bureaucracy that’s in the way” — and helps them to envision a future state and plan a course to get there. When we empower people we also develop a culture of problem solving and collaboration that not only improves efficiency and incremental results, but propels innovation forward.

3. How will I know if Lean can help my institution?

Consistent with many approaches to learning, the best way to find out if Lean is a good fit for your institution is to just try it, and learn as you go. The most effective way to get buy-in for experimenting with Lean in this way will vary from campus to campus. For example, some universities respond well to broad initiatives that are introduced by management, while others respond better to smaller, grassroots efforts. Either way, an initial Lean experiment doesn’t have to cost a lot-just pick a problem that you’ve struggled with to solve, identify the people who are involved, and find a Lean coach to help get you started.

4. Are there downsides to trying a Lean project?

There really are no downsides to engaging people to learn about Lean while they improve their day-to-day work. At a minimum, a Lean project initiates new conversations, provides new perspectives on issues, and supports improved teamwork and collaboration. And once your team implements their identified solutions, they’re already fully invested in fostering its effectiveness and results. Who doesn’t want that?

Some colleges and universities have learned that starting with classroom-based training can make it difficult for people to apply what they’ve learned to solve problems in their own work. In that case, your investment in training may not pay off. Sometimes it’s just better to teach the basics and then allow people to immediately incorporate Lean into the way they conduct their day to day work. This “learn by doing” approach fosters learning and generates improvement results more quickly.

5. Why do I need Lean — why can’t I just implement industry best practices?

There are two reasons: First, it’s important to keep in mind that what works at one college may not necessarily work the same way at yours. Lean is a way of identifying what is at the core of best practices, and then adapting them to what actually happens at your own institution with your own people. Second, people are more likely to adopt and sustain change when they are the ones who develop the ideas that drive the change process. Even if an industry best practice is the right thing for your campus, empowering your people to rapidly identify that for themselves will set you up for long-term success in adopting that practice.

6. What type of results can I expect from Lean? And how long does it take to see them?

Lean results really come in three phases. The first results will directly impact your people. By simply working in a new way together, your staff will see things differently and communicate more effectively-and those results can happen immediately, even during a first working session. The next results will occur when you implement incremental changes to your processes. You’ll reduce waste, improve efficiency, make work better for those who do it, and have a positive impact on your customers. This second phase of results can happen immediately for a quick improvement, or can take a longer time for a more complex improvement; it depends on the problem you’re tackling.

Transformational results come later and require a long-term investment in empowering more people, improving more processes, and developing your staff as problem solvers. This is why it is important to think of Lean as a journey, not a race.

7. It sounds good, but I really need to understand what we actually do to use Lean?  

This is a tough question to answer briefly. There are many different methods and places to start within the framework of developing people to solve problems.  Through our experiences in our own organization and in our work with our colleagues in higher education, we’ve learned that the most effective way to drive business results and innovation is to not simply teach people new tools, but to invest in their capacity to work together to learn and solve problems through Lean. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the  great work being done by people in Facilities and Administration!

Published: 2/25/2016


Melissa McEwen

Service Leader, Lean Consulting