Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes

Implementing Lean as a problem-solving framework and management system for increasing the value and performance of university processes can dramatically improve the effectiveness of higher education; several exemplars will be discussed in Chapter 3. Over the past two decades, an increasing number of universities throughout the world have embraced Lean as their approach to local or institution-wide change to influence institutional culture, redefine leadership practices, and provide a set of principles and practices to meet the needs of the university, its employees, and those it serves.

Lean: A Brief History

The term “Lean” was introduced in the early 1990s to describe the Japanese automobile manufacturing approach (i.e., “Toyota Production System” or “Toyota Way”) which removed wasteful overproduction and excessive inventories through small batch production with higher product quality (i.e., a leaner operation with less waste).16 Lean’s roots began during the rebuilding of Japanese industry following World War II, where industry leaders in Japan culled what they believed were the contemporaneous best practices from the US automotive manufacturing industry (e.g., the moving assembly line), the pioneer W. Edward Deming’s work on quality control and quality management, and the positive features of the turn of the century Scientific Management movement.17 Through the vision and insights of the leaders at Toyota, designers of the Toyota Way created a radically new approach to manufacturing that redesigned employee responsibilities and the role of leadership to implement the two pillars of operational excellence: continuous improvement and respect for people. As the success of the Toyota Way evolved into a more standardized management system committed to continuous improvement in the relentless pursuit of perfection, its application expanded to all areas of operation including sales, customer service and support, and research and product development, resulting in immediate, significant, and long-lasting improvements. Toyota openly shares its system with other organizations, based on their belief that a strong competitor will spur continuous improvement at Toyota.18

In the 1980s, Lean began to take root and grow in western countries and cultures,19 and case studies and testimonials documented its success in manufacturing and nonmanufacturing settings. Since then, its application has extended to virtually all for-profit and nonprofit business and industry sectors including health care, government, construction, service, retail, law, food banks, and education.20 The generalized findings of the effectiveness of Lean principles and practices across cultures, industry sectors, and professions have contributed to its growing application in higher education settings over the past 15+ years.

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