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

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

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








LHE Literature Review

We recently conducted the first systematic review of the published literature on LHE (see Balzer, Francis, Krehbiel, & Shea, 2016). The goals of our review were to document and describe the current state of research and practice in LHE and offer recommendations to help advance the understanding of both its promise and limitations. Our comprehensive review of the 64 publications on LHE beginning in 2000 through 2015 is summarized below.

The majority of publications described LHE initiatives related to improvements to business operations or student support services. Fewer publications described improvements to teaching or research processes, and fewer still described system-wide improvements beyond the unit or department level. Our review found no empirical studies that measured the effectiveness of institution-wide LHE: the vast majority of publications are presented as case studies.

Publications in the domain of higher education business operations (i.e., transactional processes such as financial services, human resources, and facility management) appeared well suited to LHE implementations. Common examples of processes improved were hiring, procurement, managing faculty contracts, billing, and general administrative services. Other application areas included conference planning, facilities maintenance, IT, and the operations of campus police departments. Administrative processes in higher education are quite similar to general business processes: perhaps because of this similarity, most colleges and universities report business processes to be a suitable starting point when considering where to begin LHE initiatives.

The second largest group of LHE studies focused on student support services such as class registration, financial aid, advising, fundraising, student housing, dining services, housing services, mental health counseling, which are somewhat unique in the mix of services found in institutions of higher education (as compared to more traditional businesses and organizations). Our review concluded that, similar to business operations, once again Lean principles and practices were typically implemented with few modifications to accommodate the organizational culture of higher education. One commonly noted area of implementation was within library systems. Libraries feature diverse services, ranging from highly transactional (e.g., circulation, interlibrary loan) through highly academic (e.g. research support, library instruction) and many improvements were found that broadly benefitted faculty, researchers, and students.

Our literature review noted fewer publications concerning LHE improvements to academic practices (such as curriculum development, course delivery, grading, etc.) in comparison to business operations or student support services. Most publications described the experiences of individual faculty members improving teaching or curriculum in their own courses or academic program rather than wider institutional efforts, making it difficult to assess the generalized impact of improvements at a departmental or institutional level. Moreover, these LHE applications appear to have more limited success and adoption, which might be attributed to the perceived paradigmatic differences between higher education and other sectors of the economy (e.g., students are not customers, education is not a product or service, etc.); however, the success of Lean in other related sectors such as healthcare might suggest otherwise. Thus, while there is general agreement that producing teaching materials or developing research proposals could benefit from Lean principles and practices to remove steps that add little or no value and improve the flow of service, aspects of individual and institutional culture can inhibit these programs.

Finally, across LHE initiatives in business operations, student support services, and academic practices, we found a healthy variety of approaches to implementation practices, such as:

  • Lean was typically used alone (i.e., independently of Six Sigma) as the philosophical framework for improving university processes.
  • Initiatives were led in various ways: from centralized Lean offices, through distributed responsibility across multiple departments, or, in some cases, organically, based on the efforts of a Lean champion or champions.
  • For institutions that reported about timelines, the majority of interventions were completed in a 3-6 months. Less typical were 5-7 day rapid improvement workshops (e.g., “Kaizen blitzes”).
  • Institutions reported results in various ways including cost savings, reductions in time for service, and client satisfaction.

Recommendations to Advance the Understanding and Implementation of LHE

The findings from our literature review, interpreted through the lens of our experiences as LHE practitioners, led us to offer a number of recommendations on how to best advance the understanding and implementation of LHE going forward. Broadly speaking, LHE must become part of the DNA of the institution – replicating and propagating in order to ensure continuity across changes in administration, a common approach to continuous improvement by employees at all levels of the institution, and the embedding of LHE into the strategic and operational practices of the college or university.

Recommendations to advance the understanding of LHE through research include:

  • Both conceptual and operational definitions of LHE principles and practices are needed to provide for the appropriate groupings among, and comparison across, LHE studies.
  • Studies should expand the measures used to understand the impact of initiatives beyond the process or service (e.g., number of steps) to include the impact on employees, customers, and overall ROI.
  • Studies should expand beyond case studies to include more rigorous research designs that provide a stronger test of LHE’s impact.

Recommendations to advance the implementation of LHE include:

  • Executive level support is essential to success, but it is at the grassroots where a culture of continuous improvement must be developed. The institution must embrace a culture of change, and early wins will motivate employees.
  • Improvement projects must align with the mission, goals, and strategic priorities of the institution.
  • Administrative operations are a natural starting place for improvements due to the transactional nature of processes and the ability to empirically measure success.
  • Until current states are fully understood, root causes of problems may remain elusive and indistinct from the symptoms. Some employees will resist documenting processes due to anxiety – this is natural and can be overcome.
  • Documenting and celebrating the success of improvements is not only motivating: it is essential to ensuring the momentum of a culture of improvement.
  • Even though cost savings will result from improvements, enhancing the quality of the academic environment and the student experience is the target.
  • Remember that the LHE journey is a marathon, not a sprint.


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.