Lean in Higher Ed is maturing

In 2005, Bob Emiliani wrote "Lean in Higher Education" -- a fascinating dissection of the state of service in higher education at the time, and a snapshot of the then-strikingly brisk evolution of the for-profit education system. From Emiliani's piece:

University administrators – even those at top-tier U.S. schools – should be alarmed, because what could happen to higher education is no different than what has already happened to the U.S. steel, electronics, automotive, furniture, and textile industries. And the same thing is now happening to service industries such as customer support, financial analysis, and drug research. While it is true that market dynamics often provide a useful and necessary culling of the weak players, it also offers compelling opportunities to improve and become even stronger.

Indeed, we were seeing just such a transformation, due in no small part to the for profit expansion; new players were applying new tools of efficiency across departments. Enrollment teams were becoming more streamlined. Marketing and lead generation became more aggressive. Program definition more convoluted, leading to new programs which flew in the face of long-held academic tradition, all in an effort to drive the business bottom line.

This was a new reality for those of us working in higher education, one of an uneven playing field; we struggled to find the rulebook to teach us to engage this market effectively. Old processes could not hold up in a space ruled by a breed of educational institutions that had turned the model of delivering higher education on its proverbial ear.

The concepts that the for-profits were applying came from Lean manufacturing. For those not yet initiated in Lean, it was originally a production practice that carefully considered the cost of any expense in production. Any cost not directly related to delivering benefit to the customer is typically considered to be waste, and would be a target for cut.

From the perspective of a customer -- or student, in our case -- anything a student would be willing to pay for serves as a benefit to the Lean relationship. Any process or service the student receives that does not benefit the ongoing relationship, which that student would not be willing to pay for, becomes a target for cut as well.

The bottom line of the Lean approach to efficiency: how can we preserve customer value and decrease the burden of work on the organization.

Flash forward five years and we've settled into a new new reality. As it turns out, the application of Lean principles in education makes a lot of sense. In April, 2010, Michael Sinocchi interviewed William K. Balzer on this very subject. Balzer did, in fact, write the book on Lean in higher education (Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes), and currently serves as Dean at Bowling Green State University.

In their brief interview, Balzer had this to say regarding Lean Higher Education (LHE):

In fact, a growing number of applications of LHE demonstrate significant improvements in college and university processes that result in better service to students, reduced costs for the institution, and greater employee ownership over how their work is done. Overall, LHE holds great promise for improvements in higher education at a time where resources are declining, greater accountability is expected, and higher education’s role in economic development and quality of life is increasingly important.

Further ...

LHE strikes a balance between the long-term needs of the institution and its employees. The elimination of unnecessary steps and activities that add expense and no value to the university saves resources, and it also allows overburdened employees to redesign their work so that it is more meaningful and satisfying.

If we walk away with nothing else from an evaluation of Lean in higher education, we have to walk away with this: reducing waste in the work we do every day brings into alignment the processes, technology, and people on our teams. Lean provides a framework, one that has been applied to great affect across industries for many years. Our job now is to use this framework to diagnose the waste in our operation and build a culture of continuous, competitive improvement.