Challenges to the Broader Adoption of LHE
The Need for Further Research on LHE
Research on Lean is quite extensive, encompassing studies published on all business and industry sectors (predominantly manufacturing). As might be expected, as a subarea of this larger domain, the amount of research on LHE is more limited. A review of LHE publications between 2000 and 2015 identified a total of 64 publications':
■ 52% were case studies
■ 32% were conceptual papers
■ 9% were empirical research.
Of the six empirical research publications, none evaluated the effectiveness of the implementation of LHE. Overall, the limited amount of research (four articles per year), no empirical studies of the implementation of LHE, and the preponderance of case studies underscore the need for more rigorous empirically based research on LHE) This is not to dismiss the contributions made by the case studies, which are very informative about the practice of LHE; however, their research designs and collected data limit any scientific conclusions that may be reached. Just as a person would not wish to cross a bridge or fly in a plane that was designed and evaluated without scientific rigor, the LHE community should seek to provide a comparable level of confidence in the effectiveness of LHE to university leadership and its comparable effectiveness to other large-scale change initiatives to improve higher education. For example, if a gifted Rapid Improvement Event (RIE) facilitator conducts a large number of events (at their own institution or as a consultant to other institutions), it is impossible to determine whether the improvement was due to LHE, the facilitator, or both. As a second example, the well-documented “Hawthorne Effect” makes it difficult to determine whether any intervention (including a placebo) would have resulted in similar levels of positive responses from participants as the LHE activity itself.
What might contribute to the limited amount of published research on LHE? One explanation is the proportion of practitioners to faculty members working in LHE. The field of LHE is represented by a large number of skilled and experienced practitioners, many of whom were practitioners of Lean in other business and industry sectors prior to their involvement in higher education. Faculty members appear to be less represented in the field. As an indicator, a review of presenters at a recent “Lean in Higher Education” conference found that only 12% held faculty ranks/appointments. Given that practitioners may lack the time to conduct research, a support system to conduct research, a reward structure for publishing research, and possibly currency in their methodological and statistical skills to design and analyze research, it should not be surprising that while LHE practice is strong, LHE research is limited. Therefore, collaborations between practitioners of LHE and faculty researchers offer many opportunities to advance research in LHE. Three areas are noted below.
Measurement of LHE Perceptions and Attitudes. Frameworks for measuring the benefits of LHE activities recommend incorporating measures of the perceptions and attitudes of the beneficiaries and providers to assess effectiveness (e.g., increased staff engagement with process, enhanced awareness and understanding of end-to-end process, improved staff satisfaction, increased clarity of roles and responsibilities, more satisfying applicant experience, improvements in beneficiary and provider satisfaction).6 A review of the LHE literature found few studies that directly examined the impact of improved processes on the individuals who were supposed to benefit. For example, employees’ participation in LHE projects might affect their perceptions of control over their work (level of autonomy and project prioritization), cognitive demands (expanded problem-solving), and accountability (responsibility for the process). Practitioners may wish to include these and similar measures to assess LHE impact.7 Other potential benefits to employees that could be measured include employee health and well-being, perceptions of leadership behaviors and support for LHE, assessment of the effectiveness of ad hoc work teams (e.g., RIE teams), and institutional climate and culture. Faculty members can help with identifying or developing reliable and valid measures to accurately measure and document changes in perceptions and attitudes.
Designing Studies to Demonstrate LHE Effectiveness. Measuring large-scale organizational change is difficult, and research assessing the effectiveness of LHE is no exception. Case studies, while informative, are not sufficient to test whether LHE was the actual cause of improvements given plausible alternative explanations for demonstrated change. For example, the absence of a randomly assigned control group (i.e., employees who did not participate in a structured activity to improve a similar process or participated in a “placebo” structured activity to improve the process) does not rule out spurious changes caused by the Hawthorne Effect, other institutional events that occurred during the time period (e.g., senior leader communication about student complaints), alternative developmental experiences of employees (e.g., participation in a professional development workshop on quality), and other competing explanations. While true experimental research designs that establish a clear causal link between and intervention and institutional outcomes are rare in practice, faculty researchers can help design more rigorous research studies to document the effectiveness of LHE with greater clarity and confidence.8
Improving the LHE Process. There is no commonly accepted definition of Lean,9 and the absence of a definition of LHE led to the proposed definition introduced in Chapter 1. Similarly, there is no “standard work” for LHE activities. For example, Table 5.1 listed various RIE models, and different Lean tools are used within various stages of these RIE models (e.g., the Quad of Aims, SIPOC Chart, and BOSCARD Planning Tool are used interchangeably during the project scoping step for the RIE). Applying continuous improvement to the process of LHE may help us identify traditional forms of waste and poor flow, unevenness, and overburdening. For example, recognizing that RIE events are scheduled for three and five full days, do the additional two days add value or waste? Given the daily wages and benefits of employees, are larger RIE teams adding waste or value to the outcome? Does the choice of a speedier Lean tool to prioritize improvement solutions (e.g., a PICK Chart vs. a Prioritization Matrix that evaluates every solution on multiple criteria) maintain value and improve the flow of the RIE?10 Other aspects of study to understand and improve the LHE process might examine whether differences in RIE facilitators affect the outcomes of LHE activities.
If the outcomes of an RIE depend on whether the gifted facilitator noted above conducts the RIE, should a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis be completed to help us identify what facilitator characteristics (content knowledge, level of experience conducting RIEs, interpersonal style) are critical to RIE success and should be required of all facilitators? And finally, and more broadly, if LHE fails, LHE principles and practices (Five Whys, Cause- and-Effects Diagram) should be used to identify the root cause of failure and make improvements.11 This latter point is discussed in greater detail in Section 91-3-
Summary. Overall, there is a need to continue to expand research on LHE to document its success using evidence-based practices (and, where appropriate, failure).12 Consortia of practitioners and faculty (and graduate student) researchers can band together to design the studies and analyze results, with the accumulation of findings used to continuously improve the process of applying LHE activities to increase the value and performance of university processes. Appendix A provides the names of professional organizations and conferences that may be good resources for creating practitioner-scientist teams to collaborate on this important challenge.