Event Report on Lean HE Hub Seminar: Overcoming Barriers to Change

Notes from Lean HE Hub seminar on overcoming barriers to change. 8 March 2016, University of Manchester

Lean is is a philosophy for improving workplace activity. Lean is based on two concepts (respect for people and continuous improvement) and five principles:

  1. Identify Value
  2. Map the Value Stream
  3. Create Flow
  4. Establish Pull
  5. Seek Perfection

Lean is about…

  • Adding value and removing unnecessary burdens.
  • Empowering people to improve the ways they work.
  • Always remembering who the beneficiary is of the work.

The Lean HE Hub is a networking organisation for Lean practitioners in HE to share experiences and good practice. They have a LinkedIn group, website run regular seminars and conferences hosted by different institutions.

I attended this seminar as we’re currently thinking about how we can develop our Lean capability within the Business Engagement and Transformation team at UoR and how we can use Lean principles and techniques when facilitating business change whether radical (Kaikaku) or continual (Kaizen). As I’ve little prior experience with Lean it provided an opportunity to:

  • Learn more about Lean in general
  • Find out how other universities are using Lean and share in their know how
  • Think about how Lean can support the Student Experience
  • Meet other process improvement and change management folk in the sector

This event was kindly and ably hosted by the University of Manchester. some of their business change drivers included: the student experience, IT transformation, faculty and school restructuring and accommodation moves. Practically everyone in the room shared at least one of those.

The event was divided into three main activities:

  1. An interactive exercise brainstorming the barriers to change in HE
  2. An interactive e exercise discussing how to make Lean terms more meaningful in HE
  3. A talk by Dr Tim Westlake, Director for the Student Experience at Manchester on their Student Lifecycle change programme and how Lean might help with that challenge

These activities not only prompted interesting and wide ranging discussion, but also allowed us to “eat our own dog food” and try out some of the techniques in practice as workshop participants.

Barriers to Change in HE

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The first activity used Affinity Diagramming to find themes and patterns on what obstacles we face when implementing change in HE. Starting with silent brainstorming, a good technique to avoid groupthink or dominant voices, we noted our individual thoughts on post-its. We then shared shared our thoughts within the group placing our post-its in a piece of flip chart paper as we did so. Finally we began to look for patterns and relationships between the barriers we’d contributed and grouped them. Finally, we labelled the groups we’d identified to categories. During plenary feedback a spokesman from each group outlined the categories we’d identified whilst a facilitator drew these onto a consolidated affinity diagram depicting the key themes and connections we’d identified.

Evernote Camera Roll 20160309 093723 (1)

Some of the key themes that emerged were:

  • people and culture (fear; attitudes; politics; time; resources; skills; basically a big shout out to the Wall of Excuses)
  • governance and leadership
  • clarity (getting the ‘big picture’; strategy; knowledge and know-how)
  • engagement
  • change methodology (either lack of or over-complicated)

The Language of Lean HE

Good communication is one wayof overcoming barriers to shared understanding. In the next activity we discussed some common Lean concepts and tool definitions and considered how to make them more relevant, comfortable and environmentally-friendly for HE.

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Affinty Diagram – “a graphical representation of relted concepts or statements to find patterns

In our discussion of Affinity Diagram we had difficulty deciding whether we were defining the technique or the diagram themselves, both seem to get wrapped together in our definition. We also noted the relationship with other diagrams such as spider diagrams, relationships diagrams and most of all mind maps.

Muda – “what can be taken away whilst still delivering value”

The second term my group tackled was Muda. This is often translated as waste or something that is not value adding. We discussed the potentially negative connotations of the word waste (it is potentially demotivating to point out waste everywhere). In the feedback another group noted they negated this by defining it as an improvement opportunity. In looking up the dictionary definition we found it covered things like futility, uselessness, idleness and superfluity and we decided it was a bit more existential and holistic that simply ‘not needed’ or the more pragmatic process driven English translations and we admired the simplicity of a single word conveying such richness – a bit like taking a dip in a small but perfectly formed Murakami phrase. Whether this helps us use it or not in HE is a moot point!

An example from another table is Hansei which can be translated as reflection but is really a portal to a much deeper philosophy. Lean provides us with a rich language that helps us access Lean culture, not a simple set of terms. There was an interest across the groups in learning new terms but also sharing how other people interpret them and what that allows us to learn about different perspectives and accumulated ‘know-how’

Some of the key themes that emerged in the plenary feedback were:

  • The need to adapt terminology to specific contexts
  • The purpose of controlling vocabulary
  • Should we use ‘snappy jargon’ or richer descriptions?

We faced the challenge of taking some obscure terms, often in Japanese, and using them meaningfully in our work. Should we change the term itself or stick with the more ambiguous term but provide a clear definition and scope note? If we change the definition too much we lose the richness: sometimes our definitions took us away from the language of lean towards the language of something else e.g. process engineering. We also have to balance the need for practitioners to have a common vocabulary so we can share good practice (Geek Speak!) with the need for our stakeholders to converse in their language not our language.

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As a recent #citylis graduate this was really territory for me, especially recognition of the need to elevate a glossary to a thesaurus in order to understand the relationships between these concepts.

Lean and the Student Experience

Dr Tim Westlake is responsible for University of Manchester students from first contact to 6 months after they graduate. This is c. 38, 000 students every year. He spoke to us about the work they have been doing at Manchester to improve the student experience and related it to Lean by showing examples of People, Purpose and Process. Tim also stressed that he would always put People and Purpose before Processes.

To start, when the new directorate for student experience was established in 2011 the priority was to build trust by demonstrating your own team can deliver first.

This was achieved through:

1. Clear Leadership and Governance
Provides clarity of purpose and accountability. This involves identifying the core things that will make a difference . This should be research-led and evidence-based i.e. not what you think will make a difference, or you hope will make a difference, or you really want to make a difference because it’s what you want to work on but guided by data. Alignment of governance bodies will provide clarity around accountability. Universities are large and complex with intricate committee structures but there should be no governance gaps and no governance overlaps. Be clear about who is accountable for what.

2. Clear Focus and Single Team Working
The other aspect of having a clear purpose is truly focusing on your core things by dedicating resources to them. Tim is an advocate for Single Team Working, arguing that people are capable of coming together and working on problems regardless of what they are ‘trained’ for.

“good people can deliver lots of different things”

As an example of the power of clear purpose and focused people, Tim told us a dedicated team consolidated Manchester’s five student portals into one in just a few weeks without requiring extra resource. Wow.

3. Continuous Improvement
Tim outlined the iterative development of Welcome Week from designating clear ownership, to establishing AskMe amabassadors and adding a greater variety of Welcome Week activities such as lectures (attended by over 600 students) by asking a simple question

“What differences will the next set of students see?”

4. Working with Students
Using co-design to not just consult students but actively engage them in what the Student Portal should look like. This development with students enabled allows the portal to reflect their language not the university’s functional architecture. For example, the term Your Future was chosen over Careers as it more closely reflects how students think.

“A new partnership with students is essential

People, Purpose then Processes

Tim stressed that this early work focused on Purpose and People (because people and purpose wins heart and minds not processes). The first thing he had to do was get the University to care about Students and win the argument that everyone has a role to play in the student experience. The next stage of development was bringing in the whole university by expanding single team working, sharing eight cross-cutting themes and ensuring every area of the university has Student Experience Action Plans.

Another key point is don’t use jargon. Universities are full of bright, dedicated people who are sceptical about management methodologies. Talk about improving the student experience. This advice provied directly relevant to the discussions we’d had during the Lean terminology activity.

Student Lifecycle Programme

Future work is now looking at the university’s business requirements for supporting the student journey. Having created clear Purpose and empowered People the student experience work is directing its attention towards Processes

“It’s never as simple as you think”

The programme is looking to standardise processes and provide a more consistent quality of service, without uniformity: all those students mean there are c. 38,000 individual strategies to support but they should all receive a consistently excellent and rewarding quality of service. Success requires individual student strategies built on standard, shared and co-designed services.

Other drivers include reducing the maintenance overhead of all the customisation in the Student Record System and deficit reduction. The initial project in the problem is mapping and reviewing current processes to scope the work and prepare the business case for the full programme. This also includes defining objectives and design principles up front. The programme will again emphasise single team working over organisational structure with various Manchester staff seconded to the project to work with consultants.

Tim was quick to point out that supporting services can only dissatisfy or prepare to satisfy students. It is Academics that can satisfy them and it is usually their Academic experience that mostly influences their NSS scores.

All enabling service providers can aim for is to Not Dissatisfy.

Lean Learning: My Reflections on the Day

Lean is not a ‘thing’, it’s a Shared Journey.
These journeys happen at many levels: team, unit, institution and it was great to join the sector journey and meet fellow travellers.

Striving for perfection … doesn’t mean we are rubbish now.
We can be confident and assertive about what we do well and our commitment to always ask “what will be different next time?”

Shared Purpose is important
Focus, Clarity, Single Minded and Single Team Working are factors that can help overcome the barriers to change

Shared Language and Culture is important
But, it has to be rich and meaningful in context. Practitioners enable shared best practice by using agreed terms but when working with stakeholders need to talk their language.



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