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Continuous Improvement in Higher Education

Posted by Jake Sussman

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Feb 7, 2017 8:20:00 AM

academic-1822683_640.jpgAn increasing number of institutes of higher education are introducing the principles of Lean and other continuous improvement methodologies in order to improve efficiency and operational effectiveness. This might be surprising - even a bit controversial - in a sector that doesn’t produce products per se, but the underlying principles of respect for people, incremental change, and the elimination of processes and activities that do not add value absolutely have a place in an educational environment. In higher education, there is an interesting coalition of students, faculty, administrators, public officials and potential employers that all have a stake in achieving the best possible outcomes.

Continuous improvement principles and practices can be applied to both academic services and administrative processes. It is an effective way to address new demands on colleges and universities including responding to heightened expectations and reigning in rising costs. Organizations may have a cohesive approach to improvement across the institution or they may choose to implement programs at the department or unit level.

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In his book Lean Higher Education: Increasing the Value and Performance of University Processes, William Blazer, Professor of Industrial-Organizational Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University and Dean at the BGSU Firelands College, explained why the continuous improvement approach is being embraced in the higher ed sector.

“For most American colleges and universities, the pendulum has swung from the heyday of growth, prosperity, and public favor to new times that call for institutions to adapt themselves to current harsher realities … The challenges of institutional change presented by the new environment are daunting. For institutions to be successful, change must be both intentional and continuous.”


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The Principles of Continuous Improvement

The concept of continuous improvement has been applied for decades in the manufacturing sector to reduce waste and smooth the path to customer value. It was made famous by the Japanese auto manufacturing industry after World War II. The approach gave rise to several specific business methodologies including Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and the Toyota Production System (TPS). Recently it has been applied to other sectors including healthcare and software development. Leaders in higher education also realize that embracing innovation and improvement have advantages for them as well. The key ideas are:

Every Employee Can Contribute to Positive Change

Continuous improvement is not a top-down proposition. Every member of the staff, from academic faculty to those responsible for facility maintenance and administrative processes can propose innovative ideas for improvement.

Small Improvements Lead to Big Results

Radical, destabilizing change is avoided in higher education with good reason, but this doesn’t mean that improvement can’t be achieved. Incremental adjustments can have a positive impact and result in better outcomes and lower costs over the long term.

It is Necessary to Measure the Impact of Improvement

Colleges and universities don’t decide to improve for the sake of doing it. Rather they do so to have a measurable impact on quantifiable results like student achievement, recruiting, community outreach, costs, safety, health, and innovation.

Is Continuous Improvement Different in Higher Education?

These principles work in higher education much the same as they do in every other sector. Although the mission is different in higher education, fundamentally teaching and administration include a set of repeatable, transactional processes that can be documented, measured and improved. Curriculum development can be approached much like product development with an aim to maximize value to students and future employers. As in other industries, there is a set of financial and non-financial metrics that can inform priorities around improvement and set the basis for success.

How Colleges and Universities Implement Continuous Improvement

Like their counterparts in the business sector, higher education leaders are turning to software designed to support incremental improvement efforts. The most popular solutions include features that:

  1. Make it easy for faculty, administration and staff to suggest ideas for improvement
  2. Support collaboration as opportunities for improvement are evaluated and action plans developed
  3. Ensure forward progress with active alerts and notifications
  4. Create a repository of institutional knowledge and capture best practices
  5. Simplify assessing the impact of implemented improvements
  6. Broadcast success
  7. Give leaders insight into the health of improvement culture across the entire institution

In addition to the right technology, the success of continuous improvement efforts in higher education depends on the development of a culture that treasures employee ideas, respects the process of innovation, and embraces the idea that there is always room for positive change.  

Continuous improvement in higher education is not a fad. It is a necessary response to complex challenges, multiple sets of stakeholders, and limited resources. Don’t be surprised if you start to hear more about it at a school near you.

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Topics: Spread Continuous Improvement

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