The Psychology of Lean

Psychology, and particularly its subfields of applied psychology (e.g., industrial-organizational psychology), can play a helpful role in providing a richer framework for advancing the development, application, and assessment of LHE. Jim Womack (one of the originators of the term “Lean”) commented ironically over 20 years ago that, “... the analysis of lean production in comparison with the previous dominant industrial paradigm of mass production is perhaps weakest in the area of applied psychology.”13 A recent review confirms little change over the past 20+ years: much of the research is written in engineering journals by engineers, with a focus on the “continuous improvement” pillar of Lean.1' For example, none of the more than 175 research articles published between 1990 and 2009 were in any of the top work-related psychology journals. And while some of these published articles will address aspects of the “respect for people” pillar of Lean, their expertise on these social science concepts (studying workplace attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors) is limited. Similar observations have been noted in the LHE research literature.15

There are several ways psychology might contribute to the advancement of LHE (in addition to improvements in measurement and research design noted in the previous section).

Topic Areas of Relevance to LHE. Table 9-1 lists a number of well-studied topic areas in psychology that may be relevant to the design, implementation, and success of LHE. These and other topics, including those identified as important institutional practices in Chapter 4 (e.g., job design and roles, personnel practices) may bring some value to understanding, predicting, and improving the successful implementation of LHE. For example, training and development

Table 9.1 Psychology Topic Areas of Relevance to LHE: Examples

Example Topic Area

Relevance to LHE

Research Questions Informing Practice

Training and Development (T&D)

T&D on LHE principles and practices, Lean tools, and leadership practices are needed to transform university to LHE management system

What evidence-based T&D practices are most effective in implementing LHE? Should T&D encompass content beyond LHE (e.g., conflict management)?




Employees differ in knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, personality, attitudes, motivators, etc.

Do ID play a role in an employee's acceptance of LHE? Can we use ID to select leaders and employees who will thrive under LHE?

Employee Health and Well-Being (EH&WB)

LHE should contribute to EH&WB (e.g., fewer complaints due to bad processes, less overburdening employees with wasteful work processes)

What aspects of LHE contribute to EH&WB? Do employees need to participate in LHE to benefit from EH&WB?


Table 9.1 (Continued) Psychology Topic Areas of Relevance to LHE: Examples

Example Topic Area

Relevance to LHE

Research Questions Informing Practice

Leadership and Influence (L&l)

LHE relies on L&l to empower employees to implement; differences in L&l behaviors between traditional and LHE leaders

What L&l behaviors most influence continuous improvement and respect for people for the successful adoption of LHE? Does level of trust in management mediate the relationship between L&l behaviors and the success of LHE?

Work Croups and Teams (WC&T)

WG&T are used for RIEs, work cells, daily huddles, etc.

What member characteristics are important for creating effective WG&T? Are leader-led or self- directed WG&T more effective for daily huddles?

Climate and Culture (C&C)

C&C play important role in creating a long-term and sustainable work environment committed to respect for people and continuous improvement

Is there a preferred C&C "profile" to support a university's transition to LHE? Can the implementation of LHE management practices create a new HE C&C or must the C&C be changed first?

Judgment and Decision Making (J&DM)

LHE shifts significant J&DM responsibilities for work processes from managers and supervisors to individual or groups of employees

What new findings in J&DM suggest improvements in Lean tools (e.g., brainstorming)? Do heuristics and biases contribute to the failure of LHE?

activities include training provided to RIE team members. There are considerable differences among universities in the content (e.g., focus on LHE technical skills vs. inclusive of “soft skills” training), timing (e.g., multiday training workshops vs. “just-in-time” training interspersed during the RIE), and format of training (e.g., facilitator-led vs. active engagement of trainees). For example, at Miami University of Ohio, team members are trained in “Lean Service Tools” prior to the start of the RIE. In contrast, Bowling Green State University uses “just-in-time” training for team members as the specific knowledge or skill is applied during the RIE (e.g., training on waste immediately prior to reviewing the completed current state process map). How might psychology be useful? Consider some of the recommended best practices before, during, and after training (based on evidence-based psychological research) for maximizing training effectiveness16:

The learning climate can affect the application of training. Research shows that skill decay is a major problem in training, where overall retention decreases dramatically with longer periods of nonuse or lack of practice. Skill decay can be reduced by having employees attend training shortly before they will have a chance to use what they have learned and provide refresher training when decay cannot be avoided. In addition, supervisors, mentors, and team leaders should be involved early in understanding the need for training and can be encouraged to have conversations with employees prior to training to motivate and support them-which reduces skill decay.

Instructional strategies and principles matter. It has long been recognized that traditional, stand-up lectures are an ineffective and unengaging strategy for developing knowledge and skills. So what does effective training look like? Research identifies four critical concepts that should be incorporated in all training: information on the concepts, facts, and information they need to learn; demonstrations of the desired behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes; opportunities to practice what was learned; and feedback to employees with respect to their learning (and built-in opportunities for remediation). In addition, practice opportunities should require trainees to engage in the same thought processes and activities they will need to engage in when they bring what they have learned back to their jobs. These effective approaches should be demonstrated during training by the trainer based on research-supported behavioral modeling practices.

Promoting greater transfer of training to the job. There is considerable evidence that, despite trainees’ performance during the training program and testimonials of its effectiveness (e.g., it will help me do my job), trained competencies rarely make it back to the workplace. Research has identified a number of strategies that increases the transfer from training workshop to on-the-job performance, including: provide supervisors and team leaders with tools, training, and support to coach employees and use their work assignments to reinforce their training and continue their learning and skill development; and supervisors should be reinforce the benefits of training and remove obstacles to ensure opportunities for employees to apply what they have learned and receive feedback and prepare trainees to use post-training resources (e.g., information sources, access to tools, peer coaches) when they return to the job.

Overall, evidence-based research in applied psychology, and related disciplines on topic areas of relevance to LHE can help improve the effectiveness of LHE initiatives and activities. Benchmarking LHE against “best practices” based on science will be a significant improvement over benchmarking against “best practices” based simply on what other universities are doing.

Effective Models of Large-Scale Change. The decision to adopt LHE university-wide sets in motion a significant undertaking by the institution that fundamentally changes how work will be done going forward: new institutional values (respect for people and continuous improvement); a new management system (“no blame,” adoption of a common problem-solving framework across the institution); changes to job responsibilities and expectations (employees as process owners, supervisors as coaches and mentors); and much more. Senior leadership’s adoption of the decision to implement LHE is an important first step. This is followed by the key challenge during implementation of managing complex human, political, and cultural issues to support the successful transition to an LHE university. This challenge has been well articulated:

Successful implementation of organizational interventions requires careful planning and coordination during all stages of design, development, implementation, and institutionalization. Finding the best way to ensure successful implementation and achieve the intended results is not a particularly straightforward process because numerous individual, organizational, and environmental variables are likely to have an effect.. ..general guidance does not provide specific steps and strategies that will help practitioners to ensure the success of their interventions .. ,”17

It is sobering to note that the probability of the full adoption and eventual long-term success of the chosen intervention (here, LHE) is unrelated to its demonstrated effectiveness.

The psychology literature (including other related organizational science disciplines, e.g., organizational development and change) can offer tested and proven models for implementing LHE division-or universitywide. Documented reasons in the research literature for potential resistance to organizational change (e.g., disturbs the existing vested interests of organizational members, fear of uncertainty over established expectations and responsibilities, social disruption to established patterns of interaction) can help develop countermeasures that contribute to the interventions acceptance, institutionalization, and long-term success.1,4 However, evidence for evidence-based large-scale change is thin, given its infancy in the evidence-based movement and the difficulty of conducting rigorous cross- organizational research studies.19 Best practices may need to suffice at this point in time while the scientific basis underlying organizational development and change develops. But the key take away is that large-scale change is difficult and risky, and drawing on the expertise of researchers and practitioners in this domain can help avoid LHE failures - discussed below.

Summary. The discipline of psychology and related organizational sciences can provide a rich framework that can supplement and support efforts on the development, application, and assessment of LHE.20 It may be particularly helpful in enhancing and expanding LHE’s important contributions to “respect for people,” where key concepts are well studied by applied psychologists and closely related organizational science disciplines. This research offers evidence- based recommendations that may help improve LHE practices and tools across all types of LHE activities (e.g., RIEs, Lean Stand-Ups, structured problem-solving) bringing greater and more consistent benefits to those served by higher education institutions. In addition, psychology and related disciplines’ expertise in organizational development and change can provide the steps, processes, and best practices for large-scale change that contributes to a timely, efficient, and effective transformation to an LHE university. This additional expertise may be found in academic units across campus under a variety of names (e.g., psychology, management sciences, organizational behavior, organizational development) as well as staff within administrative units. External consultants might also be helpful, but their expertise in successfully implementing LHE as large-scale change should play a background role while the actual deployment of LHE initiatives is conducted by long-term university employees with LHE expertise who will build in-house expertise throughout the institution. Overall, these collaborative discussions, short-term projects, and long-term partnerships will help advance both the science and practice of LHE.

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