Linking Lean Thinking to Education – Conference Notes: Applying Lean Tools to University Courses

By Luke Van Dongen

For me, the topic of applying lean principles and tools to the classroom was the best part of the Linking Lean Thinking to Education conference. Admittedly, I am biased by the fact that this is the area that I presented on. My partner John Shevlin and I presented examples and results based on our work and experience at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield Michigan. We also met many others who were on a similar lean journey and it was great to learn from everyone’s examples and best practices.

There are many reasons to apply lean thinking to the classroom. You’ll recall from my initial post on the conference that there were 2 main themes; the need to incorporate lean into curriculum and the need to improve the quality of education by applying lean to the administration, organization and delivery of coursework. Applying lean to the classroom serves both of these objectives. It helps to improve learning, increase customer (student) satisfaction and eases the time burden on instructors. Additionally, when trying to teach lean it is important to run the course in a lean manner. By eliminating inconsistencies between what is taught and how it is taught the message of the importance of lean thinking is strengthened.

Before I get into some specific examples, it’s important to cover at least some of the context for our application. The class we teach is a 6 credit hour course focused on the Operations Management portion of MBA program requirements. Lean is a major component of the curriculum in addition to being the foundation upon which we’ve improved the course. We also include the Theory of Constraints, Quality Systems & Six Sigma, Systems Thinking, Change Management, as well as Capacity Planning & Scheduling. Like all other courses in the program at LTU, it is team taught with the goal of balancing academic and industry experience between the instructors. It’s also important to note that we are adjunct professors and teach on a part time basis.

John and I started teaching the course together in 2003. We weren’t thrilled with our performance or the feedback we received from students. We committed ourselves to improving the course and using lean as the framework for improvement was natural for us based on our day jobs in the auto industry. Since then we have seen a steady improvement in our assessment of student learning based on the results of Pre & Post-test evaluations. Student satisfaction is near 100% and we have been acknowledged as the benchmark course in the program.

After all that set up, we’re finally ready to get into some examples, with one small caveat. As with any other example of lean application it’s not enough to simply use the tools. None of what we have done would have been successful if we did not pursue the application of lean tools to the classroom with a true desire to serve the needs of students and to continually reflect on and adjust our approach. Motivation and mindset matter.

Here’s a list of the lean tools that we applied to our course. I’ll deal with each of these examples as a separate post on The Lean Blog:

1. The Lean Syllabus
2. Go and See in the classroom
3. Classroom Kaizen
4. Standardized Grading
5. Ensuring Value in Assignments
6. Stopping to Fix Problems
7. JIT Course Delivery
8. Level School Work-load
9. Visual Control

The slides from our presentation, Learning Through Lean are also now available online.

I look forward to all comments and discussions and ideas that may help to expand the application of lean to education and provide us with more opportunities for further growth and improvement. Hopefully some current and former students from our Operations class at LTU will also share some comments and insights from their perspective.


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Luke Van Dongen

Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.

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