The Case for Lean Higher Education

For most American colleges and universities, the pendulum has swung from the heyday of growth, prosperity, and public favor to new times that call for institutions to adapt themselves to current, harsher realities.... The challenges of institutional change presented by the new environment are daunting. For institutions to be successful, change must be both intentional and continuous.1

In the current low-growth period, market competition has become increasingly fierce - a battle of life and death. In such an environment, strengthening the character of business is an absolute requirement for survival.2

The opening quote from the 2010 edition of our book remains just as relevant today as when it first appeared 20 years ago. Worldwide, higher education faces a growing number of challenges that threaten to disrupt the success - and survival - of institutions. The second quote is from Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System, from which Lean has evolved and grown. Lean has been successfully applied in every business and industry sector, including higher education.3

The Need for Change in Higher Education

The case for change in higher education is compelling. Consider the following three scenarios based on actual experiences encountered by faculty, staff, and students.

Scenario 1: Approval of a New or Modified Course

Professor Chippen prides himself in maintaining a strong relationship with program alumni and past employers of successful graduates from the applied psychology program. He is also involved with recruiting new students to the college and scans the professional and disciplinary environment for new trends and enhancements to update his program. In response to the growing popularity of “CSI” (Crime Scene Investigation) and other police-related dramas on television, Dr. Chippen feels there would be a strong interest in revamping the existing forensic psychology course, modifying some of the course’s content and creating a second, more advanced level course for students planning to specialize in this area in graduate school. Knowing that those in the course- approval process at the university like to see if there is student interest in new or revised courses, Dr. Chippen was careful to pilot the new course twice over two semesters to demonstrate student demand for both courses.

The university uses a standardized form and process for requests to modify and create new courses, with ultimate approval by the Office of the Provost. The process allows other academic units affected by the course change to weigh in early before any decision is made. Dr. Chippen completes the course change request form, which includes six major sections with a total of 23 open-ended responses and 11 closed-ended responses (depending on the closed-ended responses, he may be asked to provide additional supporting open-ended responses). Dr. Chippen then routes this completed document with the required cover sheet (which contains a number of “check off” responses and fill-in items completed during the routing process) to his department chair. The chair routes the proposal to the department’s curriculum committee for review prior to his endorsing, and Dr. Chippen makes minor changes to the proposal in response to the committee’s questions and concerns. With the department chair’s signature, the university library reviews the course request to ensure that library holdings are adequate to support this new course. The routing form notes that the library review is a time-consuming step, so Dr. Chippen waits patiently. When the form returns with the library’s endorsement, it is next forwarded to the college curriculum committee, which reviews the request at its next bimonthly meeting. Some questions are raised, requiring some small modifications and a 2-week wait for a second review and approval. The form is then forwarded on to the college dean for her endorsement (which is based on a review and recommendation by the associate dean who oversees academic issues for the college).

Eleven copies of the signed routing document and request form are sent to the Office of the Provost, which distributes them to each of the colleges for their review. This review ensures that there is no curriculum encroachment by the proposed course (e.g., the dean of the business college could register his concern regarding curriculum infringement if the word “management” appeared in the course title or description). The deans invariably take the full 14days they have to respond. Because the new course could have a “substantial impact” on students in other programs, 32 paper copies of the proposal are forwarded to the Office of the Provost to distribute to members of the university-wide undergraduate curriculum committee. Unfortunately, an accumulation of agenda items prevented the committee from holding a first reading of the proposal at their next meeting. Two weeks later, the undergraduate curriculum committee raised a few concerns when they met that required a written response and additional revision from Dr. Chippen (fortunately, the level of concerns did not require that the revised proposal be sent back to the beginning of the review process). At the next bimonthly meeting, the curriculum committee endorsed the proposal.

Finally, the Office of the Provost receives the fully reviewed proposal for final endorsement. Following a positive review and recommendation from the associate Provost who oversees academic issues for the university, the Provost approves the new course. Approximately 10 months after beginning the process to update offerings in forensic psychology in response to student interest and disciplinary changes, Dr. Chippen finally sees the fruit of his labors.

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