LMJ Editorial board member Joseph Paris responds to Stephen Yorkstone’s piece form the October issues about the implementation of lean in higher education.


People often ask me, “So you and your company provide Continuous Improvement (including LEAN) consultancy services. In what industries do you engage?” And my normal canned response is, “Every industry except government, healthcare, and education.”

When pressed to explain, I simply state that, “Every organisation has a need – but I can only help those who have
a want. And although government, healthcare and education have a need – arguably even a desperate need – they lack the want.” My opinion is that they lack this want because they are not pressured by competition – not really.

And so, with my years of experience being on the advisory board of a university in the States, I read Stephen Yorkstone’s article Lean goes back to school, with great interest. First, how do we identify and quantify the needs, then how do we convert those involved into having a want?

The author spends time early in his article talking about who the customer of the university might be and offers some debate; the student who pays the tuition, the organisation who funds the research, the employer who will offer jobs to those who graduate, or even society at large. With so many variables and interested parties, it is difficult to establish the voice of the customer and the resultant value stream map.

I believe it is critically important in general, and especially so with respect to lean, that there exists a clarity of purpose. It is my opinion that the customer of any university is the organisation that will hire the student once they graduate. Consider, if you will, the graphic below:

“Students are the raw material being fed into the scholastic production process of the university factory.”

The students are the raw material being fed into the scholastic production process of the university factory. Here, the students are acted upon by educators, research opportunities, other students, activities, etc., with each one adding value to the students along the way until the finished good (in the form of an employee or entrepreneur) is produced. Certainly, there are by-products and co-products that are realised as a result of the scholastic production process, such as the cashflow generated by the awarding of research grants and patents created as a result of research, among others. And of course, society is the omnibus environment through which and in which all parties belong.

If successful, the scholastic production process will generate expansive thinkers, innovators and leaders. But all too often, the university will develop tendencies towards group-think and skills in politicking (reflective of the university’s culture and values) in their students. The “defective” students will either opt-out on their own (as evidenced by the number of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs who have found their fortune after dropping out of university) or be beaten into, as Pink Floyd referred to them in The Wall, soulless cogs.

Throughout the article, the author appears to go at length to accept and even defend, that academia is a uniquely challenging and different type of organisation, and its idiosyncrasies and “quirkiness” is acceptable – seemingly, even required. He writes that; “Often, academics work in a high-pressure and competitive environment…” as if only academics feel such stress and endure a heightened level of anxiety and the rest of the world has it free and easy.

He further delves into what I would refer to as the “culture of academia” with two seemingly contradictory perceptions of that culture. The first perception of this when he writes, “As with many experts in their field, one of the real problems when engaging academics is getting them to take off their analytical hat and engage with taking action”, appears to argue that academics suffer from paralysis by analysis, and are capable of studying some topic, but unable to take action.

And this seemingly contradicts the second perception immediately following where he writes, “Another important aspect of universities is… the creativity required to innovate in research alongside the freedom to do so… This is clearly vital when it comes to the creative process of teaching and research.” I am left wondering; is the author trying to tell me that academics can dream, they just can’t do?

Reading the article, the approach to lean initiatives and its success in deployment seems to be confined to spot improvements in lower-level administrative duties. An example given is a project involving the automation of the student financial aid application process. The net-net of the lean effort was a saving of $800 in office supplies and 22.3 working days per calendar year. Even assuming a burdened savings of $1,000 per working day, the total savings in the first year would be a mere $23,000 (with subsequent years being $22,300). There was an additional benefit to the student of having their waiting time reduced by 3.5 days, but this had no real cost associated with it, and the author did not make clear this was a benefit of significant importance to the student. This case study is hardly a compelling argument for launching a lean initiative at a university – or even that those in academia are ready for the conversation.

Towards the article’s conclusion, the author speaks about the “… growing number of senior leaders in higher education who are starting to challenge the way things are done…”, that academia is “… starting to see leaders setting a vision for radical change in how universities do business”, and that there are “many examples of lean programmes increasing value and minimizing waste in higher education.” But the author fails to address any specific initiatives – not to mention any change which would be considered transformational – and leaves the reader with the sense that the university culture is about getting others to change, and not themselves.

“MOOC’s are being readily adopted by a greater range of well-respected institutions of higher learning that recognise the opportunity and embrace the vision.”

Remarkably, and even though the author goes at great length in discussing the inefficiencies and unevenness of batch-and-queue cycles of teaching (where each class starts, reaches milestones, and concludes at the same time), he only superficially addresses the potential of online learning and its quick evolution into truly one-piece flow of education delivery.

The most glaring example of this is his ignoring the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), which are online courses designed for large-scale delivery of education to students.

MOOC’s are designed so students can enroll in courses and progress through the material as their schedules fit. Being delivered via the internet, they are untethered by facility or geographical requirements and without restriction to time-zones – thus “leaning” the delivery of education and creating a one-piece flow production environment.

MOOC’s are being readily adopted by a greater range of well-respected institutions of higher learning that recognise the opportunity and embrace the vision. Some of the institutions that have fully incorporated the potential of MOOC’s include Stanford University, University of California at Berkley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Harvard University. Interestingly, it would appear that universities in the United States are quicker to adopt MOOC’s as an education delivery platform than those elsewhere – with universities in Europe specifically lagging.

The author concludes his article by stating that, “How Lean interacts with universities still has the potential to surprise.” Indeed.