What is lean?

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

Lean springs from two concepts:

and has five principles:

These are described in more detail by the Lean Enterprise Institute.

Most importantly lean asks - how does this activity or step within a process or the way that we behave add value to the service we provide?

The aim of lean is to remove or reduce nonvalue adding activity or steps in a process, so that our work and approach to how we design our work becomes leaner.

Lean provides a number of tools to help us map the value stream within a process, and methods that enable us to ask for and respond to feedback. We then use this feedback to always be asking ourselves – what can we do to improve?

What do we mean by 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 having been applied to service activity in Universities (finance, libraries, accommodation, etc).  We are now seeing an increasing interest in embedding lean into our teaching and research activity. Academics who have embraced lean are very passionate about the benefits.

A lean culture embeds respect for people, and this needs to be foremost in our lean journeys, to engage our people and enthuse them with a sense of purpose to make our universities even better, to support our students, society and the world. Lean has a clear role in supporting staff well-being and in creating safe spaces for exploring change.

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. 

Peer Practitioners: who are we here for?

Lean HE has been developed for improvement practitioners in the high education sector, by improvement practitioners working in the sector. We benefit from supporting each other, learning from each other, and celebrating success with each other.

We are advocates for learning from 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.

What is a Practitioner?

In the world of Lean HE are inclusive in our use of this term, although it generally relates to:

Can I participate in Lean HE if I'm not employing a lean methodology?

Lean HE, is here for all those who wish to embed a culture of continuous improvement, in a way that supports others and embraces respect for people, kindness and positivity. We believe that all improvement methodologies, such as Agile, Six Sigma, Appreciative Inquiry and other approaches, including branded methods can be used within the umbrella of lean, because:

Who owns lean?

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.

What does lean stand for?

A trick question, as 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".  The term was first used by Womack, Jones and Roos, during studies of the Toyota Production Line. The concept has origins in Scientific Management.

How does lean translate from industry to higher education?

That’s another great question. The underpinning methodology of lean has been developed over the ages within industrial and manufacturing firms seeking more efficient and effective production methods. So back to the question – lean is very adaptable and is used across many service sectors, including health and higher education. After all we are all looking for fundamentally the same things, which are the two pillars of lean. Respect for People, and importantly engaging those who do the work, as they are most likely to know how to improve the work. The other pillar is continuous improvement and we all want that right?