4.27.2020

Why is Lean Needed in Higher Education?

A few days before William Balzer published the second edition of his groundbreaking book Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes, I had a chat with him about the successful applications of Lean concepts at major universities. During the conversation, I asked him directly: "Why is Lean needed in higher education?” Here is his complete answer:

Lean provides a proven problem-solving framework to address challenges in any organization or business sector, and higher education is no exception. Universities must be more responsive, efficient, and effective to address the growing number of external challenges disrupting higher education including: 


  • Eroding financial support from the government coupled with freezes or caps on cost increases.
  • Rising costs at universities to maintain their educational mission coupled to the growing price sensitivity of students and families worried about the long-term burden of student loan debt.
  • Attracting and retaining the best faculty and staff in a labor-intensive operations where we have not resolved how equitable compensation increases can be offset with gains in productivity.
  • Greater competition such as online universities and free Massively Open Online Courses that compete for a shrinking demographic of college-aged students and employers who question whether a college education is really the best preparation. 

As we speak, COVID-19 is already sending shock waves through the higher education community.

The application of Lean to improve processes in higher education, grounded in the principles of continuous improvement and respect for people, offers a way forward, as documented in my book by 16 exemplar universities from around the world that are using Lean. When correctly implemented, practiced, and sustained, Lean Higher Education (LHE) will meet – and even exceed – the expectations of those served by these processes, engage and develop university faculty and staff who deliver critical academic and support processes (including teaching, curriculum development, and research), and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the university through cost avoidance, cost reduction, and greater revenue generation. 

The potential of LHE is great at any university regardless of mission, size, and resources; in the 10 years since the publication of the first edition of Lean Higher Education, LHE has demonstrated that it can help universities reinvent themselves to earn or grow their reputations as preeminent institutions that should be valued and supported. 

Are any readers affiliated with universities or colleges that have implemented some type of Lean initiative?  Have you experienced the benefits that William Balzer described? 

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