I think it’s fair to say that most educators cringe at the idea of applying practices from the world of business to education. So many times we’ve read or heard someone talk about education as if it were a cursory transaction where students or parents simply purchase a product as an investment toward future earnings. Of course, one only needs to spend a few days trying to get students to learn something that contests their prior assumptions to know that viewing education through such a transactional lens leads to a gross misunderstanding of what we do and how education works. I’d love to see a list of all the times when a business framework was misapplied to an educational setting with disastrous results.
So, does this mean that everything developed in a business setting is guaranteed to fail in an educational setting? It’s okay if you’re inclined to say “yes” (especially if you’ve been down that road a few times). When President Bahls suggested that we could apply principles of lean management to improve a variety of processes at Augustana College, I’ll admit that I shuddered. Maybe like you, I imagined an internal apocalypse: budget cuts and position reductions with no changes in expectations. But after reading up on the concept of lean management and spending last week as a member of the first Rapid Improvement Team, I have to admit that my shudder was merely emblematic of my own ignorance. While lean management has its own set of terminology that might seem foreign to educators, the values embedded in a lean management philosophy embody the same values that we aspire to uphold in a collaborative and transparent organization dedicated to educating students. I found the framework and the process to be deeply gratifying and potentially applicable to the range of domains in which we operate.
First, “lean” doesn’t mean thinner. It’s not about losing weight, downsizing, or cutting out the fat. It’s not an acronym. The term refers to the degree to which processes are conducted efficiently while best serving the needs of the beneficiary (i.e., anyone who benefits from that process).
Second, lean management philosophy asserts that the people best positioned to make improvement happen are those who are intimately involved in that particular job or process. Not only do those folks know the ins and outs of that work better than anyone else; they also need to believe in the efficacy of any identified changes in order to give those changes the best chance of turning into demonstrable and lasting improvements. For these reasons, any attempt to improve a process must genuinely involve the people who do that work.
Third, lean management philosophy argues that improvement of a process is exemplified in those who benefit from that process. Although the beneficiaries of our work are often students, we often conduct operations that benefit more than just students. The beneficiaries of payroll are anyone who gets paid. The beneficiaries of the salad bar are anyone who eats a salad. As a result, the way to determine if we have improved a process is to identify clear means of demonstrating an improved impact on the beneficiaries of that process.
Fourth, lean management starts with the belief that the collective ability of an organization’s people can find and put in place substantial improvements to a process. Effective lean management begins by collaborating to develop a shared understanding of the current state of a process or problem. Only after the problem is fully understood as something worthy of improvement would an improvement team begin to consider potential solutions.
Fifth, lean management philosophy focuses on continual improvement, not perfection. There are simply too many external and unpredictable influences to expect perfection. Furthermore (especially in the work that we do), just when we find that a particularly education practices works well, the students change and we have to continue to adjust.
Everything the Rapid Improvement Team did last week reflected all of these values. I was impressed with the way the process was designed to keep them at the forefront while moving us toward a set of suggestions that were extremely likely to improve the process.
If you would like to see a recording of the presentation from the Rapid Improvement Team from last Friday, you can see it here.
Ultimately, the lesson I learned from this process was that it is possible (shocking, I know) for something that has been developed in the business world over the last several decades to be applied successfully in an educational institution in a way that actually strengthens our ability to enact the values we espouse. In addition, I (re)learned that we have some amazing people at Augustana who are willing to put their hearts into doing what we do better. I’m lucky to be a part of it.
Make it a good day,