By Stephen Yorkstone

Motivations for lean in higher education are familiar. As with every industry, money is increasingly tight and the world is inevitably changing. In 2011, Professor Zoe Radnor and Giovanni Bucci wrote a report for the Association of Business Schools that described the emerging state of lean in UK HE. Although their reflections showed positive outcomes in regards to staff and student experience: “very little evidence was found regarding the costs and savings of implementing the lean approach – this is something that needs to be addressed to support the development and sustainability of lean in the longer term”. Can it be demonstrated that lean is making a difference for universities? If the benefits can’t be seen, what is the long term future for lean in this sector?

In the UK the Government is continuing its austerity drive, and universities – largely publicly funded – are high on the agenda as an area to make savings. Many universities have been actively looking to grow their earnings from other sources of income. Already UK HE takes a significant income from charities and the private sector(£4.5 billion or 16.2 per cent of overall funding).

It isn’t just in the UK where the financial picture is a concern. I’m not an expert in North American universities, but things appear troubled. Last year both the New York Times and Forbes Magazine reported the financial struggles faced by US universities, citing keeping up with competitors, updating ageing campuses and the creation of improved amenities as reasons for colleges increasing their borrowing. In this changing funding picture, the HE marketplace is also shifting.

Most obviously, the change in the marketplace for HE is visible in the move to online education, primarily Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). Most commentators think it’s too soon to conclude on how MOOC will change HE and on the trajectory MOOCS will take.

MOOCS are not yet having a deep impact on traditional HE, mostly as they appeal to a different demographic than the standard student body. Rather than opening up education to a new generation, most students on MOOCs already have a degree. Most MOOCS report a huge noncompletion rate, and are not as highly regarded as traditional degrees.

That said, small colleges like Southern New Hampshire University “The Amazon of Higher Education” are able to use the power of online learning to turn their businesses around and make the most of the non-traditional market for higher education, albeit still with a high drop-out rate (around 50 per cent).

There is a counter-reaction to MOOCS, with faculty arguing the benefits of teaching face to face. It is accepted that MOOCS are excellent at increasing the access to education; but the sector is resisting the day when a teacher, responding to a group of students working on a problem, in the same place, in real time, can be altogether replaced by a detached, distant, computer based interaction.

What perhaps is the most important area to watch is the changing global demand for HE, specifically concerning internationalisation (importing students) and transnational education (exporting lecturers). How countries that currently send large numbers of students to Western Universities for degrees might develop local provisions to meet their need is tipped to present a large change ahead.

So, against that background, what benefits can be seen to prove that universities are using lean to engage with this changing world? What costs and savings have been seen?

Lean in HE is a growing movement, which itself is evidence of success. People wouldn’t keep doing it if they didn’t see it as worthwhile. While in the UK lean is not ubiquitous, there is an established core of universities that are implementing lean by name, or in nature (by which I understand applying continuous improvement and respect for people, along with some of the familiar tools and techniques).

Some have been doing so since 2006, and a growing number of universities are joining them in setting out on a lean journey. In Scotland nine out of 19 of our universities are represented on the Scottish Higher Education Improvement Forum, each working to implement lean in its own way.

This activity has started to generate some data around benefits. A report by Universities Scotland lists savings made by just four projects run by the University of St Andrews’ lean team as producing recurring savings of £404,000 annually, not bad for a relatively small organisation.

Cardiff University is a notable lean university in the UK. There, in 2011, it reported internally that in one of its business areas alone it saved over £202,000. Non-financial numerical indicators for Cardiff include reductions in movement, increases in response time, and decreases in failure rate. As each of these measures are from different areas, it would be misleading to combine them.

So, there are some examples of savings, and while these savings aren’t easy to compare across institutions, they clearly support improvements within each university. Still, if there is a lack of clarity around quantitative measures, in what way can we conclude whether lean works in HE?

Where the benefits of a lean approach have been most apparent is in the qualitative changes seen in UK HE. I’ve included here some feedback from a redesign of our registration process at my home institution. Participants from all levels and all areas of the university were asked to anonymously note what they would take from the event:

  • “A confidence that disparate teams can come together and really achieve something in a relatively short period of time.”
  • “Much respect for the other colleagues and knowledge of their roles.”
  • “Deeper appreciation of tasks involved to undertake this activity. Reinforces the knowledge I have and its impact on others.”
  • “Large-scale process change, and how this
    can happen.”

Responses like these are common across lean implementations in this sector, and it is this kind of motivation that is spreading lean thinking in UK HE. There is growing evidence for lean in HE. Lean improvements to administration in HE are increasingly common; applying lean principles to the core business of learning, teaching and research are rarer, but not unknown. Learning, teaching and research is where the real test still lies, to show how capable the sector really is at transforming its core “products”.

Lean in HE looks and feels different from lean in manufacturing (the absence of Japanese words for a start), but the principles seen are the same. This shouldn’t be a surprise given the differences between manufacturing and education, the comparatively short time universities have been working to achieve lean, and the need to tailor lean’s core concepts to each organisation.

While there is some evidence of lean activity measures in HE as a whole, there remains one real challenge the sector faces: if measuring the effectiveness of lean is proving difficult, it may only be able to achieve efficiency, and institutions could end up doing the wrong things faster. If, like many universities, an organisation’s culture isn’t one driven by measures and KPIs, we can’t expect those lean implementations to conform to measures and KPIs we may be familiar with, however, this does prevent lean happening.

Of course, the only real yardstick for improvement is against yourself over time. This way, you can compare like for like, and properly appreciate change. Here universities do need the integrity to look inwardly at their own performance, and realise the need to change, as even without motivation to improve, change for HE is unavoidable.

When lean does fail, and it can in any industry, it is when people accept the status quo. The sense I get from staff I speak to about their implementations is that they are prepared for the challenges ahead. There is a growing sense of belief in lean as an approach for HE, and a growing number of staff members who are ready to go to work, show respect, and support their colleagues to make things better; because it is the right thing to do.

At the moment, then, the prospects for lean in HE are good. An online blogging service recently popularised a quote from Confucius, which I think reflects where the sector is now. I hope it holds true for lean in HE, or even lean in any industry, especially when resilience is required: “it does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop”.

Let’s go to work!