Some years back I conducted a Lean Office Simulation workshop for the staff of the business school at an independent urban university in the Chicago area. My hats off to the Dean of the business school for having the foresight to see how important it was to introduce her staff to Lean Process Improvement. Many of the participants in the simulation came away with an enlightened view of how they could use lean to improve their office/administrative processes. They also gained a better understanding of value-added and non-value-added activities.
The rise in prices for a college education—often at rates that greatly exceed inflation—places a heavy burden on the university’s customers (students, parents, companies, state and federal agencies), and this burden is even more pronounced with the advent of remote learning as a consequence of COVID-19. This can’t go on forever. University administrators need to take a different approach to providing valuable educational service to their customers. They need to look at implementing Lean Process Improvement as a way to reduce costs, improve quality, simplify processes and better satisfy their customers.
While class closures, dips in enrollment at the beginning of a new semester and cancellations may be temporary, it’s hard to foresee whether the COVID-19 will result in long-term disruption to the higher education system.
There is a way to prepare for the disruption – Lean Process Improvement – doing more with less. Administrators, faculty and staff must avoid the trap of viewing higher education as unique, “The question is no longer, “Will Lean work for me?” but “How do I apply Lean to improve my business processes?”. They must overcome the bias that Lean is just for manufacturing and doesn’t apply to service businesses like higher education. There is so much room for improvement not only in the degree programs but also in the related student services such as admissions and registration.
Lean process improvement is not a new concept. There is no question there are differences between the products of a manufacturing assembly line and those of a higher education service. But there is a huge similarity in the value delivery systems of these organizations, delivery systems made up of thousands of complex processes. As such, many aspects of Lean process improvement methodologies can and do apply to improving the processes of delivering a degree.
University administrators interested in meeting today’s challenge of providing better services at the least cost should strongly consider Lean Process Improvement as an effective way of improving their institution’s performance. If not now, when?
Willie Carter has nearly four decades of continuous improvement experience, which have enabled him to be a good listener, teacher, coach and leader as he helps organizations do more with less to transform creative thought into organizational agility and excellence. In addition to his consulting practice, he is on the adjunct faculty at Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL.