Introducing Lean

A Quick overview of lean

Lean is a term for an approach to continuously improving workplace activity. Lean can seem deceptively simple to do, even "just common sense", but in practice it is a significant commitment to implement

Lean springs from two concepts:
  • respect for people and 
  • continuous improvement
and has five principles:
  • Identify Value
  • Map the Value Stream
  • Create Flow
  • Establish Pull
  • Seek Perfection
These are described in more detail by the Lean Enterprise Institute.

The term "lean"

The term "lean" is not an acronym. Lean activity aims to increase value adding activity and decrease non-value-adding activity, or waste; so the work becomes "leaner".

Lean and engaging with people

A mark of true lean is that it benefits all stakeholders. This means using the resources released by redesigning processes to increase the good of all.

Lean is therefore properly thought of as non-zero sum or win-win. In order to achieve this, lean works through front-line staff, management and leadership in the following ways:
  • Front-line staff have the knowledge and skills required to improve work
  • Management are required to reinvest gains for the benefit of all
  • Leadership need to set the organisational culture to allow for empowerment towards vision

Lean origins and ownership

Lean originated in manufacturing and comes from a background of Scientific Management, but it is now globally evident across a variety of industries.

There is no one organisation that owns "lean" or accredits it as a concept.

Organisations like the Lean Enterprise Institute are seen as authorities, however, through common recognition.

Lean in Higher Education

What we mean by lean in Higher Education

Higher Education

By Higher Education (HE) we mean education at a high level educational organisation, which results in the awarding of degrees.

We also use the term to refer to the University sector, so therefore include organisations that undertake research.

Lean in Higher Education

In this context lean by name has been used since 2004 in the USA and 2006 in the UK.

Most commonly lean approaches are applied to service activity in Universities (finance, libraries, accommodation, etc), however they are increasingly being used to improve teaching and research activity directly.

Lean has been named as a successful approach by the UK umbrella bodies:
  • Universities UK, and 
  • Universities Scotland

Lean teaching

Lean teaching is the application of lean to the design and delivery of courses, academic programs and academic processes to improve all aspects related to teaching and student learning outcomes in a way that is beneficial to all parties. 

It is consistent with the raison d‘etre of lean management, i.e. to elevate the human condition over the long-term through learning and improving.

For more information about lean teaching, see Bob Emiliani’s Lean Professor blog.

Other improvement approaches

There are a number of other improvement approaches in use, including, for example, Six Sigma.  

Each of these have distinctions from lean, some further distinguished by being consultancy owned brands.

Peer practitioners

Who we are here for

We are aware of value of best practice from other sectors and areas, and we continue to be open to new ideas. 

Working with colleagues who have experience of how lean operates in HE, however, has considerable benefits.


By practitioners we mean:
  • people employed in Higher Education Institutions who are
  • working to implement lean or similar approaches

In different areas

Originally most of the Lean HE Steering Group was based in Western Europe. We are passionate about networking globally, accepting and learning from the nuances of differences between Universities in many cultures.

In 2016 we formally launched three Continental Divisions: for Europe, the Americas, and Australasia; which will further develop a local programme of activities to meet the needs of the sector's people in these areas and beyond.

We are also open to supporting staff in other areas of tertiary education, such as colleges, although the majority of our expertise comes from working within University environments.

Interactive World Map

The University of St Andrews has created an interactive world map of over 70 Universities with Continuous Improvement teams. Know of someone else to add to the map? Drop them a line on

Not lean... but?

Lean HE also aims to support staff in improvement approaches other than lean, but uses the term "lean" because:
  • lean's principles are generally applicable
  • lean has become a recognised term in the sector and as such
  • we believe it will provide a solid foundation for collaborative work

Subpages (1): Glossary