Developed to cut out waste in car production in post-war Japan, the Lean method has been used at the University of St Andrews for more than a decade. We caught up with St Andrew’s change manager Fin Miller to find out how it works in practice.
Describe your role as a change manager. What does it involve on a day to day basis?
My role is currently in transition from change manager to leading the newly-formed portfolio office. My new role involves heading up the office that provides support services to organisational change across the university’s professional functions. In addition to supporting those delivering the university’s portfolio of change, including its constituent programmes and projects, our team is also home to a core of central staff responsible for the analysis and management of change initiatives.
On a day-to-day basis we provide a helpdesk service to university staff involved in change related activities, along with coordinating portfolio comms and maintaining the register of all ongoing initiatives, for example. As a relatively new function within the university, we are currently focussing a good deal of our attention on the development of existing and new services.
How does the philosophy of Lean relate to higher education?
Regardless of whether you are considering a modern translation of the Toyota Production System, or kaizen in its purest sense, Lean is fundamentally concerned with the removal of activities that add no value, as defined by the customer, and as such relates to any endeavour.
Whether you are selling cars or services, removing work that no one values can only be a good thing, and indeed can be a great thing, providing a business with a significant advantage in the marketplace without any redesign of the product having to take place. When you consider waste as muda (activities that don’t add value), muri (overburden) and mura (unevenness of burden), as Toyota’s kaizen consultants do, the search to rid the workplace of waste, and to establish new best practice standards, will always improve both the quality and delivery speed of any product or service.
A higher education institution is no different in this regard and indeed many universities around the world have already adopted Lean practices and witnessed significant successes. The main challenge we face within HE is ensuring we understand our customers, specifically what is value from their various perspectives, so that when we use Lean, we only remove the activities that can be considered waste. Additionally, it is important to note that redesigning the value-add in a product or service requires a different approach to Lean to be adopted.
How is the philosophy of Lean working in practice at St Andrews?
St Andrews created its own Lean team in 2006 and since then has run in excess of 100 Lean projects, or rapid improvement events (RIEs) as we call them. St Andrews has also developed its own eight step Lean method for running these interventions. In addition to focussing on the removal of waste and the creation of new working processes and practices, St Andrews Lean has always focussed on skills transfer and development and culture change.
In the early days there was scepticism from some staff involved, but for some time now the university has embraced the philosophy of Lean, thanks in a large part to the deliberately fun and creative approach of the Lean team. Many areas within the university now run their own RIEs without help from the Lean team, which was always the ultimate goal, with, as seen in Toyota, a Lean approach being considered by many staff as ‘just what we do’.
Tell me about some of the projects your team are delivering – what are your success stories?
Our most recent Lean RIEs have been looking at the processes that sit within the university’s Open Access service; the workflows by which our human resources department process staff absences, and most recently the processes through which we operate our own portfolio office helpdesk service. In regards to big successes over the years, the Lean Team has worked with the business to achieve significant efficiency and effectiveness gains in the areas of estates job tracking, library cataloguing and commercial services.
What are the biggest challenges that you have come across in creating a Lean university?
Speaking purely for myself, as other Lean facilitators within the university might think differently, a few of the big challenges have included; people’s negative perceptions about what Lean is (the word itself doesn’t help) and what it means for them; convincing managers that you have to take time in order to save time; establishing process ownership and creating a culture of ongoing continuous improvement; when considering scope, cleanly and succinctly distinguishing between process waste removal and change across the remaining organisational quadrants of organisation, technology and information; and finally convincing staff that change is ok, and that in fact it can be a fun, creative and liberating experience.
You began your career in journalism and you have also worked in IT services, what transferable skills did you bring from those roles to your current position?
Well, good question….I suppose journalism taught me how to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people, both through written and spoken comms, and often about sensitive subjects. It encouraged me to develop my analytical skills and, of course, working in a fast paced newsroom hammered home the importance of speed, accuracy, and working as a team.
Journalism also helped me to develop a strong focus on the customer, as what could be a clearer example of value-added activity than writing a news story people want to read. In regards to IT, the main skills I developed were in relation to the design, delivery, ownership and ongoing improvement of student facing services. Additionally, I developed my understanding of technology, and this still comes in handy, considering the significant part IT has to play in organisational change.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Mainly I enjoy spending time with my wife and children, and when I get the time playing guitar and occasionally getting out on the golf course. Then of course there’s always the garden…
Fin Miller is a change manager at the University of St Andrews