Linking Lean Thinking to Education


    For those interested in lean applications to education, there is an upcoming conference that you may want to check out.

    The conference is co-hosted by The Lean Aerospace Initiative Education Network (EdNet) and the Lean Education Academic Network (LEAN). The conference will be held from October 16 to 18 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester Massachusetts and features Jim Womack as a keynote speaker.

    The educational theme of the conference will be supported by presentations and discussions around how to apply lean principles to education in both an academic and industrial setting. Here's the link for more information and the detailed agenda.

    Along with John Shevlin, a teaching colleague of mine, I will be participating in the contributed sessions with a presentation on how we have applied a lean mindset to Operations Management curriculum at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield Mi. Our talk is titled “Learning Through Lean” and we will be sharing details of our approach using lean tools to develop and deliver coursework with a clear focus on value from the students' perspective. In addition to creating a very streamlined and efficient course, all course materials and activities serve as an immediate example of lean in a non-manufacturing environment. Because students are all too familiar with ‘mass thinking' in education, this is a great way to engage students and teach the benefits of lean thinking.

    I'll be sure to use the blog to post ideas shared at the conference, as well as to report on anything else I learn or pick up on from other lean thinkers in attendance.

    Please check out my main blog page at

    The RSS feed content you are reading is copyrighted by the author, Mark Graban.

    , , , on the author's copyright.

    What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

    Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

    Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

    Get New Posts Sent To You

    Select list(s):
    Previous articleSome Detailed NASA Standard Work
    Next articleOK, So It’s Not the "Lean Travel" Blog
    Luke Van Dongen
    Luke, an auto industry engineering veteran, blogged here from 2005 to 2006.


    1. Luke, I’m certainly interested in anything you can share. I’ve had a few people email me this year asking about how to apply lean to education… maybe this will help. I assume you are looking at how to apply lean not just for a lean class, but any type of class?

      What makes “lean teaching” lean?

    2. Mark asks, “What makes ‘lean teaching’ lean?”

      I won’t presume to answer for Luke and his colleagues at Lawrence Tech, but I can make an observation relative to the computer programming courses that I teach. When writing computer programs, students need to keep in mind the syntax and semantics of the language as well as the domain requirements for a solution. As students work through the semester, they must build a core of understanding vis-a-vis the syntax, semantics, and patterns of use within the language.

      We start them with a fairly simple problem domain, as they lack the tools to understand how to approach more complex problems. A JIT delivery of technology and technique should match the pull from increasingly “real world” problem domains. For instance, initial programs will iinternally provide all data needed to produce a result, via hard-coded values. Later, after introducing simple file-based input/output, we can have them refine their programs to accept data from an external source and save processed data to an output sink. Eventually we guide them into simple database usage, getting the problem domain closer to a real world work environment such as they will face after graduation. At each level, we want them following a “Standardized Work” approach to deriving and implementing a solution (using standard patterns that fall into categories like “creational” (e.g., factory), “structural” (e.g., facade), “behavioral” (e.g., mediator) that provide a skeleton for thinking about what makes a workable solution). As they gain competence, we show them how to refactor (i.e., kaizen) their solutions for increased effectiveness or reduced error potential (i.e., increased quality).

      A place to look for a better answer to Mark’s question (IMHO) is iin the work that Joe Bergin has done at Pace University on the Pedagogical Patterns Project:


    3. Mark – thanks for your comments on lean teaching, and the link!

      I agree that there are many great opportunities to apply lean tools to the organization and delivery of course material. These do help create a more effective, streamlined class. Thanks for sharing some of your examples. I’ll be sharing mine on the blog very soon.

      For me, the point of differentiation that makes a class (or education) lean is the focus on delivering value. It’s an approach to the entire value stream of organizing and devering content to meet learning objectives that are valuable to the students. Of course, this also involves eliminating as much waste as possible along the way.

    4. Another question to explore maybe, Luke — who is the “customer” in education? It seems like healthcare, where the patient, doctors, family, insurance providers, etc. are all sometimes considered customers, with competing interests. I think it’s best to err on the side of treating the patient as the customer. Is the student the primary customer for education, or is the customer future employers, society, who?

      If we only teach stuff that students want to learn (value defined by that customer), don’t we have to make sure we’re teaching stuff that is worthwhile to learn, as defined by society?

    5. You make some very good points. Often times it can be confusing who the ‘primary’ customer is (or should be). Thanks for helping keep me on my toes!

      In my case, I view the students as the primary customer and consider all other constituents partners.

      You are also correct to point out a potential pitfall in only teaching things that students want to learn. In this case of education it is also important to keep in mind that there is also another lean principle in play.

      There are educational standards students expect to be met. Students rely on their instructors to show them what must be learned in various subject areas so they can be competitive with students and graduates from other schools and institutions. Employers also expect that these standards are met. This element is certainly part of the educational value equation.

      It’s important to keep in mind that students don’t know what they don’t know. Within each subject area there are certain basic lessons that must be learned, but there are also endless opportunities to explore. It is at this discovery point where listening to students and adjusting where possible is appropriate.

      It’s also important to teach through asking questions rather than dictating answers.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.