A “Lean Machine” – University of Dayton Uses Lean to Improve Back Office Operations


Dayton Lean

I have a warm place in my heart for Dayton, Ohio considering I was born there and lived in the area through kindergarten. My dad got his MBA from the University of Dayton. I was happy to get an email from the U of D telling me about their application of Lean principles toward the improvement of university operations.

I sometimes get asked about using Lean in academic settings. I've always thought that you might not get much buy-in from professors to use Lean methods in the classroom (Bob Emiliani might, thankfully, disagree and has been working hard to promote Lean thinking in the classroom), but you could certainly use Lean to improve the back office operations of a college and that's what it appears they are doing in Dayton.

From their press release:

Tactics to improve efficiency and work quality with roots on shop floors and assembly lines are paying dividends for the University of Dayton on the business side of serving students.

That's a good start realizing, correctly, that Lean is about both efficiency AND quality.

The university talks of their focus on the students and the desire to “relentlessly focus on improving their experiences.”

What are their results so far?

Using Lean Six Sigma activities, the bookstore reduced the number of new textbook returns by 5 percent, freeing staff to focus more on customers. Dining services consolidated salad prep and now is able to serve more locations. Other areas around campus have saved on printing costs by using reusable printer cartridges and consolidating printers and copiers.

Thursday, I will be recording a podcast with Paul Piechota, director of the University of Dayton School of Engineering's Center for Competitive Change and a Lean Six Sigma champion and black belt, who says:

“Through Lean Six Sigma activities, organizations adopt a philosophy of engaging employees and using data to solve problems. The entire focus is on customers. It's not just a manufacturing tool. It's been used in banks and hospitals. This can be used in our business operations.”

U of D is getting students involved in the projects, as they expand their program:

The University rolled out the initiative in the bookstore, dining services and facilities management in July. It hopes to expand the initiative into 40 areas next semester and to eventually reach a total of 200.

University of Dayton students will work with each area. Through their work in the projects and completion of the University's Six Sigma green belt class, they will earn their industry Six Sigma certification.

The focus on customers (students instead of patients, as we'd talk about in healthcare), the focus on reducing waste (instead of slashing costs) reminds me of good Lean healthcare work. Some of their approach reminds me of the mission at Catholic health systems (like the system where my Healthcare Kaizen co-author Joe Swartz works):

“In our Catholic, Marianist tradition, we're trying to be even better stewards of our resources and adapt to the changing economic times,” Burkhardt said. “To remain at the top of our game, we need to exponentially improve our students' experiences.”

When I did some pro-bono consulting work for Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, they had a similar mission-driven reason for doing quality improvement work… the biblical requirement to be good stewards of the resources given to them (by donors).

The podcast with Paul, from U of D, will be coming out soon. Stay tuned. If you have any questions for me to ask Paul, leave a comment on this post.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark forgot one other important connection to the University of Dayton. He attended their pre-school program, run by their early childhood department, so I guess you can say he was a bit of a guinea pig for their professors and students. It was a great program, and Mark’s first academic experience beyond that of Sesame Street with Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, etc.

  2. Nice to hear that Lean is making inroads in education. I get a fair number of contacts about using it in the administrative side of things, but still haven’t seen a good example of it in the classroom.
    One thought on your article, though. I would say that consolidating printers is anti-Lean. It would be like saying “Let’s put all the drill presses in one location to save on machining costs.”

    • I wasn’t clear in my post… I suspect that it’s hard to get professors to see the opportunity to apply Lean to their own work (much as it’s sometimes difficult to get physicians to see opportunities to improve their clinical work).

      I am guessing we agree that there’s currently a very small percentage of professors and colleges who see it your way right now, Bob? That’s the curse of being way ahead of the curve, eh?

  3. Yes, despite many years of Lean teaching practice, documenting everything I’ve done, and making it all available to others (with unparalleled transparency in teaching methods and results), it remains a challenge to get others to see the benefits.

    It seems that both university administrators and professors don’t know there is a teaching problem (see the survey I mentioned above) or they don’t realize there are better ways to improve teaching that what they traditionally do. Some profs don’t care, but great majority do.

    Much like healthcare, higher education has a pressing need to improve all aspects of its services: enrollment, teaching, back office, leadership processes, etc. The Lean teaching pedagogy I developed and continue to improve is a blessing. Hopefully, the curse of being way ahead will disappear soon.

    • I’d agree most profs “care” about their work and their results. The question is do they think *they* can (or should) change?

      Many doctors think change is necessary in medicine… they’d just rather have everyone else go first (you know, the surgeons who actually make mistakes, but not them).

      • Generally, it is similar to the MD problem you describe. Though some, perhaps many, profs don’t think any change is necessary in higher ed. Specific mistakes may be less obvious to profs, and the feedback cycle to know if you did your job can be much longer (and clouded by other factors). My survey illuminates the mistakes that every teacher makes. Lean is very effective at eliminating those mistakes. The result is better teaching and better learning.

  4. Hi Mark

    I have zero doubt that Lean, Six Sigma, or for that matter any other improve system can deliver results in almost any situation. The only true problem is finding people will to first implement a change and than sustain it. Unfortunately far to often, the will, desire and drive are missing when it comes to changing anything for the better.

    But I will congratulate anyone the truly tries so good job to the U of Daytona.


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