Lean education is here to stay – and going global

Inspired by a system identified at Toyota, the Lean approach to improving the processes of production is now influencing higher education, with professionals seeking to implement Lean in their institutions meeting in Canada last month to share experiences. Dr Vincent Wiegel reports on the event.

It’s been a month now since the Lean Higher Education Conference ‘Driving Lean change’ was staged at Waterloo University in Canada. Impressions have sunk in and now is a good moment to reflect on the conference. It was unobtrusively run, the hallmark of good organisation. With some 180 participants, it was also well attended.

The conference took the baton from previous Scottish, English and Dutch conferences on Lean in higher education. It shows that interest is growing not just in Europe, UK foremost, but also in northern America. Some pioneers from Australia were also present.

All in all, I think it is safe to state that Lean education has taken off and is here to stay. The conference in Stirling next year will bear witness to this I’m sure. With help of the Lean HE Hub leadership I hope to see growth towards a broader and more diverse basis.

There were various high quality presentations, focusing on the results that have been achieved. Remarkably honest and useful insights were shared.

In forums like this, one also witnesses a growing disparity among institutions that have been applying Lean for a while now and organisations that are new to the idea. The conference catered nicely for both audiences through for example in in-depth presentation from the University of Sheffield on data collection on the one hand and a fine introduction to Lean by Tarrant County College on the other.

Some experiences shared, for example those of Macquarie and St Andrews, were helpful in building the expectations of organisations embarking on their Lean journey. The conference also provided ample opportunity to mingle, share experiences and forge important personal relationships. The open mind-set and willingness to share is always a pleasant and stimulating surprise. Waterloo proved no exception.

No problem = problem

But there is no Lean without what the Japanese call “Hansei”, or critical self-reflection (no problem = problem, remember). Moving forward as a community of practice, as the Lean HE Hub chair rightly framed us, we face a few challenges:

Firstly, we need to relate to the primary processes of education. These were by and large absent from the examples. If we do not manage to include them, what are we but Lean services applied in the domain of education? This is in and of itself a legitimate endeavour, but one that is also deemed to remain marginal.

Secondly, we are each of us trying to find our ways forward with little systematically shared approaches. As a consequence, we waste time and we miss the evidence to make the case for Lean education, as was clearly argued in a presentation by Bowling Green State University. Bringing in a more systematic and scientific angle would help.

We all are on a road that will take decades in travelling. Waterloo proved an encouraging, stimulating milestone on that road. Taking that momentum and energy, I would urge everyone to engage each other and join this growing community at the Lean HE Hub.

Vincent Wiegel
Co-chair lean and world class performance research group, HAN University of Applied Sciences