Applying Lean Tools to University Courses: Go & See


By Luke Van Dongen

Next in the blog series on the topic of applying lean tools to university courses is ‘Go & See', which I personally believe can never be overdone.

Getting back to our example from the Operations course at LTU, one of our greatest challenges when teaching OM & Lean is that all of our MBA level students have different backgrounds and experience to draw from. Additionally, we found the overwhelming preconception is that Lean & Operations are only applicable to manufacturing. Quickly overcoming this to create a broad view of Operations as any transformation process that creates value through processes is critical to successful student learning.

Explaining this, along with the fact that all work activities are processes (documented or not) is the first step and is relatively straight forward. Compelling the students to believe that operations and lean is relevant to them and their work is the second and more difficult step. This involves internalizing the information we are presenting by thinking of it in terms of personal experience.

We have discovered that creating a common experience in the classroom is absolutely essential. To accomplish this we implemented a modified production simulation exercise and in doing so, bring the opportunity to Go & See to the students. These types of simulations are quite common and are usually done with building blocks or paper airplanes. We chose paper airplanes and created a simulation that we run with the class as part of our very first class session. The exercise takes about 4 hours to run, during which time students build paper airplanes in groups of 4 or 5.

The template we use for the plane involves cutting, folding and gluing processes as well as drawing a logo and installing an engine (paperclip). Students have the ability to set up their processes the best way they see fit before running the first ‘shift' of production. During production they are required to keep records on safety, quality and delivery. Cost metrics are calculated at the end of the ‘shift'. We also introduce several random variables to the exercise. These include not supplying enough templates (raw material), disorganizing the templates, creating noise and distractions, equipment breakdowns (i.e. scissors need maintenance) as well as several others designed to mimic real life situations.

After the first shift we discuss the results from each group. Planes are inspected by the customer who determines which are of acceptable quality. Students are also given an opportunity to make changes to improve their performance before we run the next round. Usually performance improves, but after 3 years of conducting the exercise nobody has yet to apply lean to their production process.

I'm sure several blog readers have participated in, and possibly run very similar simulations or exercises. It really is a great way to introduce some of the issues with the mass production mindset, to have some fun and to create some excitement around the class. While these lessons are certainly beneficial, we get the real value out of the exercise as we continue with the course.

The paper plane simulation exercise is the first and most heavily used example throughout our course. When we talk about pull systems, we talk about the simulation and what it was like. Students are able to think back to their own experience and relate to how a pull system would have changed how they organized and performed their work as airplane builders. The same is true for our Value Stream Map exercise where the airplane production process becomes the current state map and we work together as a class on designing the future state. The productivity and quality data collected is used to fill in the data boxes on the map.

Similarly the simulation is used in discussions on the Theory of Constraints and identifying the bottleneck. We use it to explain the concept of waste vs. value add. It's used when we teach quality systems and Six Sigma and when we consider the importance of respecting and valuing all employees and partners. We can easily initiate these discussions by asking simple questions such as, “Remember when you were cutting out paper planes and you were being yelled at to work harder? Did this cause you to produce more? Did your quality improve after being motivated?” These particular questions always generate a lively and emotional response from the class; maybe I'm too rough on them…

It is this integration into the balance of course material that has allowed us to more easily ask questions of the students and to explain the concepts and principles we seek to teach in the course. This common experience is invaluable as the first example. Students relate to their common experience and to each other then test their understanding by discussing and sharing additional examples from their work and life. We always end up with a rich cross-section of manufacturing, service and business process examples that serve to further engrain our learning objectives and create meaning.

We have yet to run the simulation at the end of the class, but I am working on finding time for this in a future class. I'm curious to see the improvements in action and I believe giving students an opportunity to do it the right way will create a lasting impression on the benefits of lean.

Next in the Applying Lean Tools to University Courses series is ‘Classroom Kaizen'.

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


  1. It sounds like elements of Deming’s “red bead” experiment were used, if you were yelling at them for more productivity and more quality without any sort of process improvement. That’s class “mass production” management style, that I’m sure you were trying to illustrate. Was it directly inspired by Deming and his exercises, or just adapted from all-too-common real world “leadership” examples?

  2. Luke mentions having issues with his students sharing “the overwhelming preconception is that Lean & Operations are only applicable to manufacturing”. He then goes on to describe creating a common experience via paper airplane simulation of production processes. I can see where this facilitates bringing the students to a common experience. What’s not so clear to me is how Luke and John [Shevlin, his teaching colleague] can then leverage that experience to break down the barrier to seeing lean potential in non-manufacturing situations. I wonder if Hal Macomber could suggest any construction-based simulations, or Mark Graban any health care related simulations, that would both create a common experience and break the manufacturing mold? Or some form of a batch-and-queue product delivery exercise? Or doing a system design (compare the OSI model’s lack of delivered product despite decades of collaboration to design an complete end-to-end network vs. TCP/IP’s working code trumps design with iteration via the RFC route).

  3. Thanks for your comments. There are many things we do to address your your question about breaking down barriers to see lean potential in non-manufacturing situations. I also like your idea to incorporate a non-manufacturing simulation.

    The key with the simulation is to create that first, common experience that everyone can easily relate to. Once this is established we discuss several other examples usually drawn from case studies or articles.

    We also bring in guest speakers from other industries to talk about their experiences and lessons learned.

    If anyone has any specific examples, non-manufacturing process simulations or ideas for articles, guest speakers or other resources I would love to hear from you. You can either post additional comments on the blog or email me using the link on my profile.

    The more quality examples we can bring into the class, the better chance we have of making a meaningful connection with the students.

    Thanks !

  4. I’m not sure if this is a “healthcare example”, but one general lean exercise that has worked well with healthcare audiences is an “envelope stuffing” exercise. You create multiple steps — folding a letter, stuffing, sealing, addressing, etc and do it in batch or single-piece flow. It’s generic enough that it could work for any type of audience.


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