In 2006, applying lean in UK universities began in earnest. At the time, the global economy and funding for education were in a very different place. That is when we began to feel that things might be too good to be true, and that something was about to change. I was working as one of the first lean practitioners in UK universities, as we set off on an adventure to release waste and create value in our industry.

At that time there was little understanding of lean thinking in higher education (HE), certainly in the UK. There was many a blank look as we worked to relate this foreign thinking to colleagues inside HE. At industry events, as experts from other sectors reflected on the difficulties of managing change in universities, I often ended up facing looks of incredulity.

A good few years and a good number of universities later, I can see that the UK higher education sector is getting to grips with what lean might mean, but there are still some looks of surprise, and perhaps with good cause. Now seems the right time to reflect on the journey here so far, and think about where universities might go next.

The stereotypical university

It is worth putting some context around what we mean by universities, and by doing so the HE sector. Universities, of course, primarily deliver teaching and research.

The typical university takes in a big batch of students each autumn, and a few years later releases a bunch of graduates into the job market.

Research in universities is harder to classify. Each research project is aiming at doing something new and unique, to add something novel to the sum of human knowledge. The common thread is that research is typically run on a project basis, identifying funding at the outset to meet agreed outcomes.

Research projects range from the huge-budget multi-national to the highly intimate and esoteric. Teaching ranges from traditional chalk-and-talk through to technologically-advanced e-learning.

HE institution models

As independent bodies, universities are established in many different ways. There are a number of models that take account of these varying types of university. A common one classifies them on two axis, one of scale and subject balance (i.e. from small/specialist to large/multidisciplinary), and one around the approach of the university, say from applied/vocational to research-intensive.

This accepts that some institutions will focus on a narrowly-defined target market and others will be more broad brush. That some universities will deliver to individual students, and close-to-market research, and that other universities will seek to influence societies and cultures and deliver research at an abstract, theoretical level.

All this could look an awful lot like waste, unnecessary variation between organisations established to do basically the same thing. However, a key quality of universities is that they are creative organisations and we know that creativity requires divergent thinking, freedom of thought, and perhaps that freedom of thought needs some messiness.

The other key quality that defines the sector is academic freedom. For example, the right (even the necessity) of the academic to pursue the interests of the field without prejudice, regardless of whatever the line management and perhaps even the strategy of the organisation might say or be.

Identifying the customer

There is a debate that has raged within the higher education sector, and it is one that sheds some revealing light on how the cultures within universities support lean innovations (or otherwise). The debate may seem rather foolish to outsiders. It is around who the “customer” of HE is.

If universities are in the business of teaching and undertaking research, it would seem like a simple matter to identify their customers – those who pay for the services received, i.e. students and research funders.

Research funders tend to be councils disbursing public monies, charitable organisations, private companies, or a mixture of these. Although it is the students at undergraduate and postgraduate level  that institutions teach, funding is often provided through family, loans, government or employer support.

For some, using the word “customer” in relation to people who interact with universities is seen as offensive and even damaging. Some of those people are students themselves. There is a belief that universities interact very differently with their stakeholders than through a transactional customer relationship.

Even if we choose to accept that universities have customers, whether those customers are indeed students or research funders, is not always a given, I’m afraid.

Some argue that it is not the students themselves that are the customers. We have identified that they are not always self-funding. It could be said that perhaps the employers of those students after graduation are the real customers. Indeed, some would go further to argue that the customer of a university is society at large and that it is the role of HE to hold a mirror to social realities through the arts, humanities and sciences.

I don’t want to make light of this genuine discussion, but the truth as I see it is that different universities engage with all these stakeholders as customers in different ways. There is no one simple customer for the sector and the relationships between funders and students are far from simple transactions.

Learning from the customer debate

In the debate around who the customers of universities are, we can observe something crucial to the culture of higher education: the pervasive analysis and deconstruction of ideas.

As with many experts in their field, one of the real problems when engaging with academics is getting them to take off their analytical hat and engage with taking action. This is not at all surprising, as their employment is essentially for the purpose of analysis.

This is a real skills waste, i.e. when the intellectual effort of deconstruction is applied inappropriately, effectively getting stuck in the define, measure, analyse stages of the DMAIC process, without ever moving forward to improve and control.

Another important aspect in universities is, of course, the creativity required to innovate in research alongside the freedom to do so. With this, we find ourselves back at the importance of academic freedom. This is clearly vital when it comes to the creative process of teaching and research. The challenge here is to bring enough standardisation to ensure that the customers of processes in HE get the value they deserve.

Implementations in higher education

So, what do lean implementations look like in such a context? What practitioners are doing in HE is to pragmatically identify who each process is for, and work to these peoples’ interests. This has resulted in benefits being delivered for both process user and those stakeholders, demonstrating the power of lean thinking and leveraging further change.

Data around this is not conclusive, but as an example at institutional level, between 2006 and 2012, the University of St Andrews published time savings in excess of 7,500 annual recurring staff days (equivalent to around 2% of the university’s total staff time).

One specific project from Edinburgh Napier University is around moving student financial aid to an online process. This has offered opportunities to make things more efficient and accessible.

Facilitated process design enabled the new financial aid process to better meet student needs. Direct cost savings were small, estimated at around £500 on paper materials to support the old process. Staff time released from the new process was significant, totalling about 22.3 working days per calendar year, which were repurposed to provide a better quality of support to applicants for financial support with face-to-face meetings. Upon implementation the process time was decreased by around 3.5 calendar days, an important gain for the approximately 2,000 students accessing financial support annually.

As with many improvements in this particular project, staff involved found it beneficial to work together with other departments, improving the process for the student customer while making better use of time.

“Some universities are experimenting with breaking down the batch-and-queue process as much as they can. However, outside the delivery of online learning, few universities are able to move to a truly one-piece flow for undergraduate teaching.”

Alongside this bottom-up approach of bringing about change, there is also a growing number of senior leaders in higher education who are starting to challenge the way that things are done to deliver improvements from the top down. We are starting to see leaders setting the vision for radical change in how universities do business.

Lean implementations in universities would be broadly familiar to practitioners from any sector. Lots of academic institutions are applying lean principles to their back office administrative processes. One of the next challenges for lean in universities lies in engaging with how learning happens and how research is generated, moving beyond lean service in universities to a truly lean education.

Where lean implementations have worked well in university contexts they have embraced a dilemma: tailoring their approaches to the HE sector while remaining true to the principles behind lean.

What does this mean? Well, there are number of different “methods” an organisation can adopt, but the nature of the sector means that there is an inescapable debate and many institutions find it hard to accept and integrate these fully-formed approaches wholesale. Not to say that that can’t happen, but there is the danger that the things that make higher education function well, creativity and innovation, means debate is to be expected and could even be embraced.

Respect for people is where the real challenge lies. Often academics work in a high-pressure and competitive environment, in a sector where being a nationally-recognised thought leader is a minimum level of achievement. When under pressure, respect for people is often the first thing to go, even though we know it is the foundation for continuous improvement.

Batch-and-queue education

Focusing on a practical rather than theoretical vision of a lean university, a number of embedded non-lean ways of working, unsurprisingly, abound. Perhaps we have already touched on the most obvious: that universities are deeply tied to batch-and-queue in their annual cycles of teaching.

This inefficiency happens throughout the length of the degree, each year of the degree, indeed each semester. It drives huge burden and unevenness in how processes are managed.

Some universities are experimenting with breaking down the batch-and-queue processes as much as they can (for example, by using technology to improve the enrolment process to be completed at the convenience of students prior to their arrival). However, outside the delivery of online learning, few universities are able to move to a truly one-piece flow for undergraduate teaching, often relying on the output of students from secondary education.

Supporting factors

The prospects for lean in higher education aren’t bleak, as there are lots of factors encouraging universities to embrace lean practices.

Universities are environments that can really nurture innovation and provide the space for creative solutions. They often have expert staff in lean and similar approaches that can support activity. There is a growing support for lean approaches across the sector, albeit this is at early stages.

The higher education sector is long lived, stretching back to the middle ages, and has had to be able to cope with change in order to survive. Part of the reason behind its ability to survive is perhaps the fact that universities have long been in the business of what has more recently been termed “co-creation of value” with their stakeholders, which brings us back to the customer debate.

Next steps

At the moment, there is a lot of discussion around integrated lean-type services and project management offices. The idea is to combine the redesign and implementation of new processes with the synergies that brings.

This looks like a great solution: mixing the benefits of a well-implemented lean-styled solution to ensure there is a slick process with the benefits of good project management to control the implementation. However, implementation is often where lean-type interventions have been documented as coming unstuck in HE.

An integrated problem-solving approach looks good for the staff who manage it, and easy for those who use the services. However, when I put my systems thinking hat on, I wonder how this helps with root-cause problem solving and with embedding the behaviours required to maintain healthy staff organisation. The danger is that these elements will not be seen as the core parts of business-as-usual that they are, for all staff to innovate and improve, but as the mere function of a few specialists.

Of course, there is a practical problem in making this happen, as having some individuals leading change is a logical necessity. As someone charged with bringing about lean in higher education, this is an issue of which I am constantly aware. How can I make sure that the interventions I lead allow the knowledge to be passed on to the people I am working with each time?

Here is the next challenge I see for lean in higher education: how to integrate the methodology in how we work, using the experience of analysis and the creative nature of the sector as points of strength rather than limitations, while moving towards lean as an enterprise-wide activity, as opposed to the preserve of a few appointed staff.

In order to do this, a lean leader needs an unusual mindset and the desire to see the organisation improve. However, they must not be seen taking any of the credit for success, instead taking the fall for failure. Perhaps this is the paradox of leadership: power is demonstrated by giving it away rather than flaunting it, which opposes our natural survival instincts of keeping things to ourselves when under threat. Higher education faces the same leadership challenges as any industry.

Looking back, despite the quirkiness of universities, there have been many examples of lean programmes increasing value and minimising waste in higher education, leading to a growing movement across the sector. No longer are there so many blank looks when I describe the importance of always innovating and always respecting people.

How lean interacts with universities still has the potential to surprise. The sector is at an early stage in its journey, but it is already clear that there is a lot that the methodology can do to support it, perhaps without quite as much waste of resources. More importantly, without the waste of human potential.