David E. Francis, Ph.D. Department of Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan

Timothy C. Krehbiel, Ph.D. (Corresponding Author) Professor of Management, Miami University

William K. Balzer, Ph.D. Vice President, Faculty Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, Bowling Green State University








Lean Applications in Higher Education

We believe the first reference to Lean Higher Education (LHE) to be a publication in 2000 describing an initiative to systematically improve curriculum materials. Since then, the worldwide growth of communities of practice and research publications about LHE has demonstrated its wider adoption to the enhancement of institutional quality. In this article, we share practitioner experiences at our own institutions to highlight the unique and complementary approaches possible for LHE initiatives. We then share findings from our recent review of the published literature, providing insights about LHE’s historical development and suggesting future directions to improve both practice and research.

LHE Practitioner Experiences

As LHE practitioners, we have observed significant growth of this approach to continuous improvement over the past decade within our own institutions. In this section, we offer brief summaries of our institutional experiences, noting that variations in implementation reflect a need to customise approaches to an institution’s culture, climate, and overall strategic direction.

Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, OH, USA). Bowling Green State University (BGSU) is a Carnegie classified high research public university setting with approximately 20,000 students. LHE was introduced through a number of demonstration projects in the Division of Student Affairs beginning in 2006. In one project, the time for students to receive psychological assessment and counselling services was reduced from a typical range of 14-21 days to immediate “walk in” service with no additional staffing resources. In a second project, the number of hours students waited for health care services was reduced by 1400 hours per semester. These notable successes led to additional Kaizen events and positive results across virtually all divisions of the university, such as an 88% reduction in the time required to transfer funds to the university’s Education Abroad programs, significant improvements in contracting faculty for extension and summer courses, the redesign of new Student Orientation program that played a significant role in a 6% increase in fall-to-fall student retention, and significant reductions in time needed to fill faculty and professional staff positions. Since 2006, LHE continued under the leadership of a “Lean champion” who voluntarily led Kaizen events when opportunities were presented. More recently, responsibilities for LHE and other strategic initiatives were added to one of the vice presidential areas of the university, coupled with statements in the university’s strategic plan to improve efficiency and effectiveness through the application of Lean principles and practices.

Overall, the development of LHE at BGSU has been slow and deliberate, shaped by the University’s institutional readiness. As leadership support and financial stability continues to strengthen, the opportunity to introduce a more centralised and systematic effort to adopt Lean practices more broadly is anticipated. Nevertheless, the success at BGSU shows that localised LHE initiatives can have a significant impact on efficiency and effectiveness of the university until the opportunity for a more expanded application of LHE is possible.

Miami University (Oxford, Ohio, USA). Miami University is a public university with an enrollment of approximately 24,000 students. After the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, Miami hired an external Lean consultant to explore the application of Lean Service to ensure the university’s long-term financial stability. Shortly thereafter, the consultant was hired as the Director of a new institutional-wide initiative now known as MU-Lean. It was determined that MU-Lean’s mission would be to support Miami University’s mission and focus on five breakthrough objectives: increasing revenue, reducing costs, increasing cost avoidance, increasing productivity, and supporting the university’s environmental sustainability initiative. In essence, MU-Lean was tasked with increasing the university’s financial efficiency, without negatively affecting its academic quality.

The Director of MU-Lean and two part-time support staff oversee a robust, four-level certification program. The university has in excess of 450 Lean Leaders, employees who have completed 16-hours of training and participated in at least one project; 43 Senior Lean Leaders, employees completing a 24-30 month program involving an additional 40 hours of training, participation in five projects and serving as the leader in three of those projects; 13 employees have been promoted to Department Lean Leaders; and two employees have been appointed as Divisional Lean Leaders. (Miami has nine divisions and the goal is to have one Divisional Lean Leader in each). Currently, over 2500 employees have received over 27,000 hours of Lean training.

Since its conception in 2009, a total of 833 completed projects have accumulated $40.4M in financial improvements ($25.6M in cost avoidance, $9M in cost reduction, and $5.8M in increased revenue), and more than 75% of the completed projects have documented evidence of productivity improvement. Completed projects have addressed a wide range of topics, including reducing energy costs, minimising food waste in the cafeterias, streamlining and digitising the undergraduate change of major process, and equipping all campus police officers with tablets. In 2013, U.S. News & World Report ranked Miami as the most highly-efficient university in the U.S. (rankings are based on schools’ ability to efficiently spend their limited resources in order to produce the highest possible educational quality).

More than 300 of the 833 completed LHE projects have supported Miami’s environmental sustainability efforts. Specific examples of improvements include reducing custodial chemical use, reducing energy and water consumption, recovering helium gas in labs, and increasing on-campus fresh herb production for use in the campus’s dining facilities.

University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada). The University of Saskatchewan is a medical doctoral university serving 16,000 undergraduate students and nearly 3000 graduate students. The Province of Saskatchewan has taken a number of steps over the last 10 years to encourage the introduction of Lean in government departments and organisations tied to government funding (such as healthcare and higher education institutions, as both are viewed as Canadian provincial responsibilities). While the University is governed under specific legislation and traditional methods and bodies, funding levels supplied by the provincial government form a significant component of its operating and capital budgets. Therefore, government directives regarding efficiency influence university operations and directives to follow such approaches are conveyed to board chairs and presidents.
The University, after observing problematic Lean implementations within provincial healthcare organisations, has taken a circumspect approach to LHE. It avoids references to Lean in planning and public documents, opting instead for distributed training in LHE across mainly administrative departments, relying on local employees and initiatives to gain advantages. However, a disadvantage of not having senior administrators directly involved with LHE is that it lessens its potential momentum as an institutional directive. It also creates the problem of reduced central university support for LHE or prioritization of efficiency initiatives. This grassroots approach has been effective in gaining efficiency advantages across areas as diverse as procurement, financial services, the university bookstore, information technology, and enrolment management. Improvements have been reported in terms of fewer staff days to accomplish tasks, a reallocation of staff members to priority projects, an improved sense of workplace engagement, improved financial controls, and better health and safety practices.
As the University looks toward a future of increasing its worldwide research impact – and meeting the needs of 21st century learners – it will have the opportunity of defining its institutional strategy relating to efficiency and continuous improvement. Hiring new employees within both its professorial and administrative ranks will provide an advantage in decisions about how the University communicates its intentions about continuous improvement, the importance of LHE, and how improvements will benefit students, researchers, and administrative employees.
In summary, our LHE practitioner experiences suggest several critical factors that may contribute to the successful implementation of LHE. First, unwavering top-level administrative commitment to Lean’s fundamental pillars of continuous improvement and respect for employees is required. Through these two core philosophical tenets, LHE can then be successfully introduced, supported, and led as a long-term, strategic operational philosophy that impacts the mindset and responsibilities of all employees and not simply a set of tools to improve processes and cut costs. While the transformation to a Lean college or university is challenging and occasionally frustrating (one author has compared his plight to that of Sisyphus from Greek mythology), the introduction of LHE’s steadfast practice of continuous improvement and respect for employees at any level (divisional, collegiate, departmental) offers great promise to help colleges and universities survive and thrive as they fulfil their critical mission to society. 

Recommended Reading

Balzer, W.K. (2010). Lean higher education: Increasing the value and performance of university processes. New York: Productivity Press.

Balzer, W.K., Brodke, M.H., and Kizhakethalackal, E.T. (2015), “Lean higher education: Successes, challenges, and realizing potential”, International Journal of Quality and Reliability Management, Vol. 32 No. 9, pp. 924-933. doi: 10.1108/IJQRM-08-2014-0119

Balzer, W.K., Francis, D., Krehbiel, T. & Shea, N. (2016), “A review and perspective on Lean in higher education”, Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 24 No. 4, pp. 442-462. http://hdl.handle.net/2374.MIA/5995

Emiliani, B. (2015). Lean university: A guide to renewal and prosperity. Wethersfield, CT: The CLBM.

Finn, L., & Geraci, L. (2012). Implementing lean for process improvement: Strategies and recommendations for process improvement in financial affairs. Washington, DC: Education Advisory Board, University Business Executive Roundtable. Retrieved from Education Advisory Board website https://www.eab.com/research-and-insights/business-affairs-forum/custom/2012/09/implementing-lean-for-process-improvement

Francis, D.E. (2014, April 28), “Lean and the learning organization in higher education”, Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue 157, pp. 1-23.

Krehbiel, T.C., Ryan, A.W., and Miller, D.P. (2015), “Lean learning: University’s challenges lead to $27.2 million in cost improvements”, Quality Progress, Vol. 48 No. 2, pp. 39-45.

Radnor Z., & Bucci, G. (2011). Analysis of lean implementation in UK business school and universities. London: Association of Business Schools. Retrieved from https://www.york.ac.uk/admin/po/processreview/ABS%20Final%20Report%20final.pdf

Universities UK. (2011). Efficiency and effectiveness in higher education: A report by the universities UK efficiency and modernisation task group. Retrieved from http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Pages/EfficiencyinHigherEducation.aspx#.VbKbe2RVhBc

Yorkstone, S. (2016). Lean universities. In: Netland, T. & Powell, D. The Routledge Companion to Lean Management, Routledge, ISBN: 978-1138920590. In press.