9.25.2019

Lean and Higher Education -- Can It Work?

In August, I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen Yorkstone shortly after the publication of his new book, Global Lean for Higher Education: A Themed Anthology of Case Studies, Approaches, and Tools. Stephen's book reflects the state-of-the-art in the global practical application of Lean for higher education. It demonstrates the diverse applications of Lean in universities inspiring others to deeply engage with Lean thinking in their own unique context and to drive successful, sustainable, Lean work. 

During our conversation, I asked him: "Where is the application of Lean most prevalent in higher education? Where is it most effective?" Here is his complete answer:


Universities are curious places to think about as Lean organizations. They are connected to every industry, while being idiosyncratic all of their own.

Given that, as you might expect, there isn't one clear pattern to the kind of universities that successfully apply Lean. There are institutions with under 10,000 students making a big difference with Lean, and universities with tens of thousands of students equally making advances.

There are clusters of practice however. Where I live in Scotland, a large proportion of the universities have Lean type work going on, there is a growing momentum behind Lean in the United Kingdom higher education, a large and highly influential group of Australian practitioners, and there are examples of great and well established practice in North America and across Europe.

The pattern of growth of Lean in universities seems to spread organically, from a few pioneers outwards. It's fair to say not all activity to embed Lean in higher education is successful, however, and it can be challenging to estimate this. The existence of a named "Lean" team while on the one hand is clear evidence of a deep organizational commitment of one kind, it on the other hand doesn't guarantee that that university is itself highly Lean. Conversely, the absence of such a team doesn't indicate a university is not in fact advanced in applying Lean thinking.

There are a number of maturity models that look to solve this problem and allow institutions to benchmark against each other. However, given the higher education sector is hugely diverse, simplistic comparisons can be unhelpful. "Paralysis by analysis" is a real risk. Perhaps a practical approach is better.

It's a practical approach that is behind the successful Lean applications in universities. We see use of classic lean tools like visual display boards and team huddles, rapid improvement type activity, lean linked with project boards and technology. However, it's not one way of "doing" lean that works in universities, but "being" Lean that works. Lean in higher education works where institutions don't slavishly adhere to one particular tool or product; but rather when they reflect deeply on their purpose, take action to improve, learn, and always do so with respect for people.

And isn't this the right thing to focus on, regardless of the industry we work in?

Lean in higher education is only growing, and it has already been applied both to administrative and academic services. What do you think of Stephen's perspective? Do you feel that Lean can have a significant and measurable impact in higher education?

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