Michigan Technological University (United States)

Contributed by Ruth Archer

Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech; www.mtu.edu/) is a public university in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a global student body pursuing primarily engineering and science degrees. Approximately 475 faculty work closely with 7,300 undergraduate and graduate students, where a rigorous curriculum and numerous engagement opportunities prepare students with technical competence and leadership expertise for their future careers. In 2008, the university leadership at Michigan Tech endorsed the initiative to transform Michigan Tech to a Lean university on the recommendation of a member of the Board of Trustees who had applied Lean successfully in his business and saw its benefits in other organizations. An external consultant trained and coached a Lean implementation staff, and the university established the Office of Continuous Improvement (OCI; www.mtu.edu/ improvement/) under the VP for Administration. With the help of an external grant in 2011, OCI further expanded awareness of Lean and provided training to extend the reach of Lean efforts throughout the university. With public support from successive University Presidents and quarterly reports to the Board of Trustees, over 215 kaizen events involving 750+ employees and students have been completed as of October 2017.

A full-time Director of OCI sets the tone and pace for Lean activities across campus, coordinating campus-wide Lean activities, conducting Lean training programs, and leading and supporting process improvement work. Lean Implementation Leaders have the responsibility for promoting and supporting Lean transformation in their respective areas. These individuals, who advocate for continuous improvement and help cultivate a Lean culture at Michigan Tech, receive training on Lean concepts and tools, strategy deployment, and leadership skills.

Forty Lean facilitators, who are embedded in departments throughout the campus and commit time over and above their regular work to help other areas practice continuous improvement, lead kaizen improvement events. Lean facilitators have completed extensive training and applied experiences demonstrating mastery of Lean tools and facilitation skills. They are available to teach various topics to departments, facilitate kaizen events, coach others through a Lean project, and practice and share the Lean skills they have learned. In addition, five to six undergraduate students are employed in the OCI as Process Improvement Coordinators (PICs), who are available to support Lean facilitators (e.g., project scoping, pre-kaizen data gathering, kaizen participation) and work side by side with employees and students on projects using Lean tools and methods (as well as operational support for the OCI). PICs receive broad training and mentoring (e.g., online interactive training, shadowing) to prepare them for their roles, and their skills develop over their years of employment in the OCI. This unique experience provides PICs with valuable workplace skills they can use during their academic career, gives them an inside edge for internships and co-ops, and makes them highly sought-after candidates for future full-time employment.

One significant process improvement project led by student PICs was the Ski School at Michigan Tech’s Mont Ripley Ski Area. The Ski School was struggling organizationally. There was no shared understanding of the school’s processes among the Mont Ripley office, the Ski School director, the Ski School coordinator (a Michigan Tech student), instructors (mostly Michigan Tech students), and the mostly young customers and their parents. In addition, because of the absence of written practices and procedures (i.e., standard work), newly hired Ski School coordinators essentially recreated new practices and procedures when their predecessors graduated. Misunderstandings were common; for example, Ski School students were not going to the correct meeting location to begin lessons, parents did not understand arrival schedules for lessons, instructors failed to inform parents of student progress, and the curriculum for Ski School participants was unclear to instructors. Picking up rental equipment each week was creating a huge bottleneck, and the Ski School coordinator spent considerable time connecting students with their instructors and bringing late students to their correct group.

Two student PICs who worked at the ski area, one as Ski School coordinator and one as a Ski School instructor, served in the roles of Lean facilitator and improvement team leader and initiated an improvement event for the ski area. The team to improve the ski area’s Ski School program included four Michigan Tech students and six employees, including the ski area manager. This kaizen improvement event consisted of four separate meetings, each 2 hours long. The team created a process map of the current state and used “swim lanes” to visualize the role of every stakeholder in a given process (i.e., their steps and responsibilities and how their tasks interacted). The process map helped the team see areas of waste or inefficiencies (“kaizen bursts”), and root cause analysis helped establish countermeasures to correct them. The improvement event resulted in the implementation of several changes, including the following:

■ In consultation with parents of Ski School students, registration forms were simplified and reworded for clarity.

■ A Ski School Parent Packet was created, containing lesson schedules and arrival times (emphasizing the necessity of early arrival for rental equipment pickup).

■ Parents were invited to a Meet & Greet with the staff and instructors to learn more details and answer questions.

■ A large team of Ski School instructors developed common lesson plans and instructor expectations for each level and each week of ski instruction. The broad engagement of instructors increased their buy-in.

■ Ski helmet covers in vibrant colors were purchased, one color for each level/lesson group. The helmet covers provided a visual aid (easily seen from a distance) to help the Ski School coordinator make sure students were in their appropriate groups. The helmet covers also promoted safety because the students had to keep their helmets on to display the cover.

■ A fixed location for starting lessons and better visual management on the ski hill improved the assembly of instructors with their students at the beginning of the lesson.

Overall, the Ski School program flowed more smoothly on all levels. The standardized curriculum promoted a higher level of consistent progression for each student, allowed the flexibility to incorporate some fun days into the lessons, and increased customer satisfaction. The improvements were well received at a Report Out to the leadership team for Auxiliary Services. Importantly, Michigan Tech students on the improvement team learned valuable Lean and organizational change skills that will be useful to their careers and future employers.

Other successful Lean projects at Michigan Tech include the following:

■ The VP for Research led a multi-university6 kaizen to improve the reporting process for certifying faculty effort on federally funded grants. The kaizen team recommended shifting from the current “Effort Reporting Certification” (i.e., accurately reflecting the investigator’s percentage of effort during the period) to a future “Payroll Certification” (i.e., accurately reflecting the salary and wage charges in relation to the work performed during the period). Table 3-3 shows the results. The number of certifications distributed per year was reduced over 90% and late submittal of certifications dropped to virtually zero using the new Payroll Certification process. Approximately 80% of grant Pis surveyed preferred the new Payroll Certification process (although they were more evenly split on whether the new process was easier to understand than the Effort Reporting Certification process). Furthermore, an audit of the Payroll Certification process by the Federal Office of Inspector General reported that the new process provided accountability over federal funds.

■ The Geological and Mining Engineering Department graduate student admission process was time-consuming and inefficient. The 33-step process included problems with incomplete application packets, redundant data entry, multiple emails and email reminders, a lot of waiting,

Table 3.3 Scorecard Performance: Improvements to Grant Certification Reporting


Current State: "Effort Reporting Certification"

Future State: “Payroll Certification"

Certifications distributed per year



% not returned on time



# not returned on time per year



contacts from students checking on their applications, and persistent rework. During application processing, office staff would fall behind in their other responsibilities. In addition, the application decision process was lengthy, which led to delays in notifying applicants of their status, and there was no process for following up. The improved process reduced the number of steps from 33 to 24. More importantly, the number of days to respond to an applicant dropped from 50 to 15. Visual controls and a checklist were created, and a shared drive was designated for all application materials. A list of faculty was developed for specialty reviews, and one applicant approval layer was removed from the process.

Overall, the Lean initiative at Michigan Tech has been adopted in all divisions of the university, although its impact in academic affairs currently is limited to support processes. The OCI is working to develop appropriate metrics to document cost reduction and cost avoidance from Lean initiatives, although some preliminary data suggest that savings are significant (e.g., improvements to standardize the process of employing partners of recently hired faculty members to improve retention are estimated to save $400,000 in startup funding and recruitment cost per faculty member retained). Continuous improvement plans for the Lean program include an immersive laboratory experience to create an active learning environment that simulates manufacturing and service processes for experimentation in applying Lean, a Lean certification program (e.g., Lean Facilitator, Senior Lean Facilitator, Master Lean Facilitator) to develop and grow advanced levels of Lean expertise, and a “Leanasium” to create an on-campus setting for all employees and students to hone their individual and team problem-solving skills. Lean continues as Michigan Tech transitions to a new President and CFO, with Lean practices and continuous improvement efforts leveraged to identify and prioritize strategic initiatives.

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