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A Beginner's Guide to Lean Management in Higher Education

9 min read

Joanna Hughes

Lean management is an approach typically associated with manufacturing, yet is frequently applied to many industries due to the universal nature of its underlying management principles.

In this article, we will review the five main principles of lean management from the perspective of higher education management, seeking inspiration to change the everyday way you and your colleagues work – particularly useful if you work in admissions or international student recruitment.

What Is Lean Management?

Lean management can be most simply referred to as a “universal tool for delivering value and optimizing work processes.” It was first recognized in popular theory as the driving force behind the Japanese Toyota Production System for motor vehicles as part of a MIT research study in the 1980s.

The primary goal of lean management theory is to "maximize customer value while minimizing waste." This is reinforced by two key pillars of thought, firstly continuous improvement or “kaizen, where processes can always be improved, becoming more efficient over time. The second is respect for people, consideration of human elements in all processes, and their effect on these process. Together, these concepts are designed to guide businesses to spark innovation and achieve improved process efficiency.

Pioneers in lean for higher education such Robinson and Yorkstone from the University of St Andrews have updated the concept of lean management for the higher education industry, defining it as “the right people continuously searching for the simplest and smoothest process in order to meet “customer” needs perfectly.” It is with this definition in mind that we take a brief tour through the five principles of lean management and consider how they can be applied within a higher education context.

The Five Principles of Lean Management


1. Define value

The first principle of lean management involves defining exactly what “value” means to the end “customer.” In this context, the phrase “customer” is used generally, as defining who the customer is forms a key part of this process. In the case of higher education, the role of “customer” can often be seen as the student but potentially also anyone impacted by the activities of a university. Some other "customers" within the university value chain could include parents, employees and the local community, or society itself.

The student as the customer: Traditionally academic standards were once considered the primary indicator of value for students attending university. However, in a very competitive higher education industry, universities must today work to deliver added value to their students, going further than academic quality in order to stand out. Today’s student aims to be an empowered and engaged partner in their own learning, with what they perceive as value often hinging on the entire student experience, the complete journey from application to alumni. What exactly contributes to this perceived value is just part of the challenge. In terms of students, potential value could be taken from experiences during:

- University and program selection

- Application, admissions processes and procedures

- New student orientation (both domestic and international)

- Student life whilst studying (administration, support services)

- Experience as alumni (network, events, post-graduation mentorship and guidance)

There is even more of a mandate as it pertains to international students to the number of institutions vying for their interest. When defining value in the context of international students, questions to ask may include the following: how can the international office help support students’ journeys; what do international students need before, during and after their studies; why do they want or need it; and when and how can you help them get it?

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2. Map out the process or “value stream”

Once you’ve defined value, the logical next step is to figure out the specific steps that are required to deliver that value, the process or “value” stream. According to LeanKit, value stream mapping allows teams to visualize how value flows through the organization, whether by looking at organization itself (i.e. the international office) or also the various processes within. This part is often best carried out in a simple fashion – actual physical mapping out key processes and flows in an informal group setting can be an excellent start. 

During this stage, it is an opportunity to highlight any gaps and inefficiencies in the process which might detract from the student experience. Within the context of higher education, this can range from analyzing high-level processes such the recruitment of faculty, or as granular as reducing the time taken to answer a student enquiry.

For many working in admissions or with international students, adopting a lean way of thinking from these principles can be a powerful yet simple start to making improvements to internal processes, without any need to go to the lengths of implementing a dedicated committee or "lean team." While the mapping process is a simple method to visualize your current processes, it can be powerful in helping to quickly identify where potential changes maybe be needed. This can demonstrate potential inefficiencies that may be occurring, saving both time and resources if fixed for yourself and your team, the entire department, or even the university itself. 

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3. Create flow with a new process

Now that you have mapped everything out, you should have a clear overview of the state of operations, or the chosen process you have decided to evaluate. The clearer this is, the more likely you are to potentially have ideas on how to improve current processes, as you now move towards improvement.

According to LeanKit, ask yourself “How can we think in a smart, streamlined way to reduce the steps needed to provide the most value to our customer?” Start by looking for potential inefficiencies or steps that maybe seem overloaded or too complex as you look for “waste” that can be removed from the value stream.

Professor William Balzer and OhioLean identify some common types of waste as duplication of work, unnecessary phone calls and emails, mistakes and even stress. How do your own work processes rank? Are there any delays, and what is causing them? Are there any steps that are causing undue stress on your team, stress that can impact the delivery of value within other processes?

This is also an opportunity to promote clarity across the entire team. When everyone is “in the know” the flow is naturally smoother, so team involvement is important part of this principle, as well as all of the others, with “respect for people” at the core of lean management. Without champions and active participants dedicated to making change, exercises towards improvement can be set to fail. By holding an open forum or workshop designed to include your team, you can foster inclusivity, encourage ownership by all and receive rich feedback from multiple angles, discovering things that could be missed without involvement of the extended team.

The Open University in the UK demonstrates highly effective use of lean in their online course development. To stay ahead of the curve, they have adopted an experiment-driven approach which utilizes many methods and techniques all aimed at continuous development of new working processes. According to Matthew Moran, Head of Transformation, without a dynamic approach, competitors risk “losing out to small, new-entry and online competitors which are able to offer as-good or better experiences and credentials, and, very significantly, in-demand skills for employability and introductions to employers.

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4. Establish or respond to “pull”

The fourth principle, "establishing pull” can be tricky to understand. Put simply, this concepts involves influencing demand-driven production rather than merely “pushing” value out, with a focus on what the “student” or “customer” actually wants. According to Professor William Balzer, this principle is characterized by implementation of new processes and evaluat[ion of] how they perform with specific metrics.

Some questions to ask are:

- Are the needs of the student being addressed with the new processes?

- Is everything working the way it was planned? Should something be changed?

As waste reduction is vital to the lean management philosophy, it is argued that no more should be provided to the customer than is actually needed. In other words, “Deliver the right thing, of the right quantity and quality, at the right time, and in the right place. However, in higher education, this is one area where lean principles must be balanced in consideration of what “value” means to the student and the availability of resources to the department in question. Perceived value to the student is complex, and what may be deemed necessary by one student may not be for another.

A sensible suggestion is to carefully balance resources and delivery of value based upon the needs of the individual department. Taking the example of international student orientation - while one institution may host a full calendar packed with sponsored orientation events for new international students, another may choose to host a select number of official events – it is up to your team to judge your own resources, and determine an optimal delivery method to fits your department or school.

One example of this principle served in action presented is how Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute successfully redesigned its entire graduate program around actual student learning expectations and desired outcomes. By simply incorporating student feedback pertaining to the students own needs as part of their process improvement, this university was able make significant improvements to delivery of their program. In this example, Rensselaer adapted their process to meet the needs of the customer, instead of creating a program based upon their expectations as educators. 


5. Seek perfection

In the world of lean management, there is always room for improvement! According to this principle, no matter how perfect things may seem, there is always opportunity to discover new and more efficient ways of doing things. In this sense, lean management has no end; it is inherently cyclical. Whatever changes are implemented, feedback and evaluation is important to the successful application of lean management principles.

As in the last principle, feedback from colleagues can be vital to making future improvements as well as during process mapping. A simple method of ensuring continuous improvement can involve planning a review meeting a few months after implementation has occurred, ensuring the involvement of all concerned team members. Encouraging interactivity and an open dialogue can make a huge difference if your team is considering adopting lean philosophies. Perhaps even survey your current or new students, asking questions about their experience to help guide improvements.

“Ultimately, the goal is not perfection (which is unattainable), but rather, the pursuit of it [in continuous improvement]" concludes LeanKit. Setting up a feedback loop for employees and promoting visibility and openness across your entire team are two ways to facilitate this dynamic state. With this, you can continually improve not only your internal processes and organization, but also the way you think and conduct everyday work.

Altogether, the principles of lean management can be harnessed to drive innovation and process improvement for universities and businesses in a variety of ways, whether from top-level change to micro-level everyday process improvement. For some, lean management can also be incorporated as philosophy to guide everyday problem solving and decision-making at management level. A new way of thinking and approaching the way you and your colleagues work - bringing process improvement, team collaboration and value creation back into focus.   

One last thing to keep in mind about lean management? While it may take some upfront effort to get going, the payoffs are extensive -- not just for universities, but for the beneficiaries of the improved processes as well as for the employees conducting the processes. In the words of Balzer, it’s a “win-win-win.”

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