Applying Lean to Education
Lean methodologies are a tried and proven concept in many areas – from manufacturing, to the military. It makes sense that people would try applying them in many different contexts, and, as it turns out, there is actually a lot one can do when this line of thinking is applied to education.
Higher education can benefit from the proper introduction of lean practices, and it’s important for more institutions to grasp this concept as quickly as possible. We’re entering an age when education is quickly falling behind technology in many aspects, and the sooner we address this, the more productive our future generations can be.
Adapting lean to the context of education
It’s important to take on a whole new approach to thinking if lean is to be applied to higher education. That’s because of the intricate requirements of most educational systems compared to, say, a production plant. The fact that the government is directly involved in the operation of those institutions only serves to add complexity of the whole situation. Like most service organizations, making the processes visible is an important first step.
The speed at which the school can process students’ requests is a common area that can be addressed with lean methodologies, and these administrative benefits can often propagate to other areas of the school very easily. Other areas for opportunity include: admissions process, student advising scheduling/effectiveness, individual course sign ups and cancellations, cafeteria scheduling, degree program progress and tracking, student services availability, and tuition payments.
What other areas have you experienced inefficiency in education?
There have been some concerns about the possibility of overworking teachers and professors (referred to as muri or overburden) when lean methodologies are applied to education. As classroom sizes grow, pay cuts become more prevalent, and higher expectations are placed on test scores, this overburdening of teachers can lead to teacher shortages, turnovers, transfers or loss of talent into other professions. While it’s true that some lean concepts can help address this waste, it’s also important to remember that lean practices have to be applied selectively, and with careful consideration of their context.
A modern outlook
Indeed, we’re seeing many new ideas in lean methodologies, especially when it comes to higher education. There have been some exciting developments on that front, although the concepts are still seeing relatively little application in education overall, so it’s hard to tell how much faster we can expect them to evolve.
Another point worth considering is that lean can be difficult to apply to an institution that’s already been in operation for a while, especially if it has some deep-rooted beliefs about the way it should be run. This, again, is particularly problematic in the context of government institutions, but it’s a problem that can be seen in private ones as well.
Lean Education Expertise
One of the pioneers of lean in education is Bob Emiliani, who runs a website called LeanProfessor.com. Not only does he promote the idea of teaching lean in the classroom, but applying lean to the continual improvement of course development/delivery, and processes that provide services to the students (admissions, course sign up, etc).
He promotes 5 key areas for educators to consider, in order to increase student satisfaction and provide good quality training.
You can download his latest Lean Teaching Visual Control handout from his website, which provides the results of a survey he conducted with former students, to identify what teachers did to provide excellent teaching in these 5 key areas.
The handout provides the top 3 and bottom 3 techniques rated by students (the customer).
- Top 3: Small weekly assignments, practical problem-solving, and individual projects.
- Bottom 3: Pop quizzes, team projects, and in-class tests.
We previously featured an interview with Bob back in Oct 2014 about real and fake lean leadership.
Many higher education organizations are now offering Lean and Six Sigma training and certification, to better prepare students for employers that value those skills. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology offers Six Sigma training, but the real value is the student-led projects on campus, working on problems that directly impact them. They have conducted multiple projects focused on recycling, such as improving recycling rates at academic buildings and reducing food waste in the cafeteria.
Lean beyond administration
Last but not least, teaching institutions applying lean to their operations should consider how they can affect a larger portion of their teaching staff and the teaching process as a whole, instead of focusing on the administrative layer of the school/university. Basically, are the administrators leading the teachers using lean principles and concepts (coaching and mentoring), or are they using traditional management methods (telling them what to do)?
This is still a major problem in some places trying to apply lean. The important thing is that lean continues to see adoption in as many institutions as possible (both in the administration and in the classroom), so that more minds can work on evolving its ideas, and pushing the whole concept forward.
Teachers should be open in expressing their concerns about this as well. It’s not rare that the teaching staff of the school would just accept the new situation without voicing any concerns about it, and this can lead to a cascading effect ,where everyone continues to be disappointed by the way things are evolving. Using proper change management techniques is essential to making improvements in education. In fact, obtaining feedback from teachers, and using that to improve the way the school operates, is an excellent place for an improvement program to get started.
Considering that communication is one of the main points of impact addressed by lean, an institution that applies these ideas properly should see continuous improvement instead of continuing to run into the same problems.
Lean can be a major boost to the productivity of any education organization that applies it properly, regardless of the size of the school or number of students. The important thing is that the main concepts behind lean are applied to all levels of the education, from students to teachers to administration, parent organizations, and support staff (janitorial, cafeteria, maintenance, etc). The goal should be to allow all employees to provide their input on ways to make the education better for the students.
It’s also important for the education organization to strive for continuous improvement, and to constantly look for new developments in the area of lean methodologies, especially how it’s applied specifically within education.