Lean HE Conference 2016 – Day 1

Notes from the Lean HE Conference ‘People, Culture and Lean in Higher Education’ 1-3 November 2016 held at the University of Stirling

Getting started with Lean

Lean is all around us in various guises. It doesn’t matter what you call it; it is about asking the question: how can we look at our work and structure it in the best possible way to meet the needs of the people we provide services to?

Lean is a management system based on continual improvement of every process at every level. It’s as much about culture change as implementing a new system. Important you look at culture change then effectiveness and then efficiency. For a process to be more effective does it need to be more engaging or more efficient? You may want to leave some inefficiency in where it aids the customer experience (the role of physical queues for student orientation during matriculation vs the automation of enrolment through online services is a common example here). First you create the mindset, then look at providing value from the perspective of the customer and then streamlining processes.

Lean is becoming increasingly popular in higher education because:

  • changing customer expectations
  • everything can get better
  • operating within shrinking resources
  • pressure for greater accountability and transparency

Lean terminology can be split into procedures and tools. We are introduced to some key Lean procedures and tools we will encounter over the next few days.

History of Lean

Lean started in 1805 with Henry Maudsley thinking about standardisation and interchangeable parts and was adopted in higher education from about 2011. In between a number of innovations were introduced at various times that come together as The House of Lean.

The House of Lean comprises:

  • Standardisation
  • Stability
  • Involvement
  • JIT
  • Jidoka
  • Customer Service

Around 1890 the Toyoda family improved loom manufacture by introducing Jidoka, mistake proofing automation with a human touch, from observing loom operators do their work. In 1945 just in time (JIT) was popularised by Shigeo Shinko to streamline supply chains. In the 1970s Motorola was a major player in improving customer service through improving quality and manufacturing everything to the same high quality with minimal defects. In the 1990s Womack & Jones captured the Toyota Production Process in their book The Machine that Changed the World (involvement). In 2011 the Diamond Report addressed efficiency and effectiveness in our environment, higher education (stability).

The 5 principles of Lean

  1. Identify customers and specify value
  2. Identify and map the value stream
  3. Create flow by eliminating waste
  4. Respond to customer pull
  5. Pursue perfection

The primary driver of lean in HE is the customer experience. Whilst our delivery is mainly through projects or activities we want to build capability in the units we work with so they can continue improvement after the initial activity. At the moment Lean is seen as a good thing to do but we want it to be the way we work. It should be a mandatory programme not an optional commitment.

The importance of leadership commitment

It is crucially important to have an institutional champion with decision making authority.

  • internal support and sponsorship
  • finding your own fit
  • building internal capacity
  • showing success where it’s noticed

Things you can do starting today

There are things we can do individually rather than institutionally to start with Lean and practice procedures and tools:

  • begin to apply lean thinking in your own work (you are empowered to take control of how you do your work)
  • try a lean tool you find out more about int the next 2 days
  • 5S your desk, network drive, work area
  • ask your customers what’s working and not from their perspective

A Tale of Three Cities – Chapter Two

Aberdeen, Strathclyde and Stirling presented at the Lean Conference 2015 on their Lean initiatives. Here they summarised where they were in 2015 and how they have evolved and worked together over the last 12 months.


At Aberdeen, instead of a portfolio of Lean projects they wanted to add Lean capability to all projects. They want to be strategic, integrated with the big change agendas and influencing how those changes happen.

Over the last 12 months have developed strategic alignment. The involvement of business change professionals on each project enables the team to see connections across projects and put people together. As a lot of projects have an IT component they have also developed their alignment with IT without being seen as part of IT. The team is also in increasingly involved in Lean training.


At Strathclyde, they had tried a number of approaches to continuous improvements dating back to 2005/6. Most of those approaches failed, partly because of their ad hoc, project by project nature. In 2013 they established a central team of four people with great domain knowledge and a group of consultants to develop capability by training the team in Lean. Focus of work was strategically led projects. The success they achieved enabled to team to expand to seven people. They now also work with more organic projects and daily work improvements.

Over the last 12 months, they have been asked to deliver more quickly with same/less resources. Emphasis has shifted to training Lean leaders and developing a community of practice across the institution. Also working with the senior management team on coordinating methodology across their strategic projects. They are now an directorate in the university so are an autonomous entity outside HR.


At Stirling, Lean thinking originated with an organisational restructure about five years ago. Leaders of that restructure asked for change management skills and thought about how to support these leaders and identified Lean as a suitable tool. Lean is embedded int he leadership development at the university. These are leaders who do Lean as part of their day to day job.

The Lean for Leaders programme is a 5 day programme accredited by the ILM. Each participant has to deliver a Lean project. Have been developing a community of practice consisting of about 65 Lean leaders across the university. Are now delivering master classes to this community to refresh their capability. The Lean champion is a deputy principal. There is a real critical mass of Lean leaders being trained up with demand for more.


Last year after the conference talked about how to work together especially to build on training delivery and a bigger community of practice. In March 2016 brought together five delegates from each university on a collaborative Lean leadership programme. The Lean teams learnt a lot about refining the training that is given and the managers were able to work together to enhance their learning.

Benefits for participants include:

  • increased ability to identify ares for improvement in their work area
  • tools to identify improvements
  • peer network
  • changing team behaviour/ culture
  • permission to change
  • confidence to change
  • energy
  • reduce single points of failure

Benefits for institutional are:

  • cultural
  • reputational
  • tangible

Many institutions have focused on the tangible benefits, and making efficiencies, that may deliver short term benefit but reduce the longer term benefit. You do need to mindful to be relevant and demonstrate a return on investment in a Lean team, so align with your institutions strategic plan and shape your story to fit but don’t neglect the other benefits and the longer term commitment to cultural change and effectiveness through developing a community of practice and capability.

Land and expand approach to justifying investment: show the impact of small wins rather than put business cases together for Lean. Lean leaders have resisted writing a business case for everything they want to do because it is hard to tell up front in a document and easier to show afterwards by demonstrating impact and then requesting further resource.

There also sorts of change agents in a university who need to work together to deliver ‘Lean capability’ such as managers and leaders, PMOs, organisation development teams, lean teams and similar.


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