How Broadly is Lean Thinking Taught in Higher Education?

For my undergraduate degree, I studied chemical engineering.  I learned skills like how to size reactors, calculate total process flow with a recycle loop, determine how far and wide a chemical plume might spread, and chemical plantdesign the right number of trays for distillation columns.  I’m coming up on 12 years removed from graduation, and because of the type of industry I ended up in, I can’t say I’ve done any of that since!  But if you were to start a conversation with me about one of those subjects, I could probably pull out one of my old textbooks, and at least on a basic level we could communicate, because I’d learned it once, heard the words, and understood the context.

I like to say that college did not train me how to do a specific job out in the workforce.  Rather, college taught me fundamentals in my field, trained me how to think, how to learn, how to find information, and how to solve problems.  One thing I did not learn about in college was lean thinking.  It simply wasn’t offered at the time.  But as I look retrospectively thinking brainon the way I approached problem solving and how I viewed the value or importance of aspects of our business prior to the beginning of my lean journey, I wish I had learned many of the fundamentals back then.  Even if out of college I was entering a company that was not “lean”, there’s still a good chance I would have found the occasion to eliminate some waste, think about something from the eyes of the customer, do some better process mapping, or put better systems in place to sustain improvements.

I think about the amount of time we invest in training team members in the fundamentals of lean thinking and tools.  It can take a very long time for someone to really understand what it means to go after the root cause of a problem rather than the direct cause.  It can take even longer for people to understand that only a very small percentage of their work is seen as value-added in the eyes of a customer, especially if they’ve been around the company for 15 years or more.  There is a lot of cost associated with that training and with that learning curve:  hours of training, hours of practicing (and failing/adjusting/learning), and months before you are working on truly beneficial kaizen activities vs. small problems to cut your teeth on.

I’ve now heard several recently-hired engineers say that they took a course in college which taught them lean fundamentals.  As they see how we are working to transform into a lean organization, they are able to relate to the training much easier than those who had been with the company for several years.  And the simplest answer I can think of to the question “why” is because they’d already heard the words before.

My nephew is looking to enter medical school soon.  The other night at dinner as it was being discussed, many of Mark Graban’s posts on lean in health care came to mind, and the teacher in me said, hey, wouldn’t it be fun to teach my nephew about lean thinking as he goes through med school so he can be a future lean leader when he enters the healthcare workforce?

Throw all of that together and it got me thinking – is there even anything offered in med schools these days, or nursing schools, or healthcare management degrees that teach students lean fundamentals?  I decided to do a little internet search to study the current state of lean teaching in higher education in the US.  First, I looked into several engineering schools, and searched for the term “lean” in their course descriptions.  (There’s probably a bit of a Midwest/Big Ten slant to my choices!)  Then I tried picking several medical schools, nursing programs, and looked for healthcare management programs.  For good measure I added a few business school programs to the search as well.

Michigan TechOne of the recently hired engineers I mentioned was from my undergrad alma mater, Michigan Tech University.  I was proud to find four courses offered, mostly at their Enterprise level, something accessible to all their engineering disciplines.  Highlights include Lean Manufacturing and Production Planning, and Service System Operations.

The next place I checked out was Engineering at the University of Michigan, home of Toyota Way author Jeff Liker and Toyota Kata author Mike RotherumichI was not surprised to find five courses offered, including Lean Manufacturing and Services, Measurement and Design of Work, and Global Manufacturing.

Then came MIT, which had 4 offerings including a summer course from Steven Spear.  They also have a program called the Lean Advancement Initiative, which brings together lai mitstudents from Aeronautics, the School of Engineering, their Sloan School of Management, and System Design and Management to work to accelerate the transformation of complex enterprises.

Ohio State topped the list, with 6 class offerings found, an initiative called Teaching Lean, and several programs including Lean Manager Certification in their Fisher school of businessosu fisher I also checked out course listings at Purdue (0), Penn State (0), Cal-Berkeley (2), Virginia Tech (1), Georgia Tech (0), and Stanford (1).

I seshingo prizearched at Utah State, home of the Shingo Prize, and wasn’t able to find any specific courses, but of course at the Huntsman School of Business there is a heavy focus on lean in several of their programs of study.


In summary for the engineering discipline, it seems that several universities are offering courses that prepare students in Lean principles, but it is not yet widespread.  What you can find, however, is a plethora of continuing education, or executive/professional education programs offering one to three day workshops, several-week immersions, and certification programs in Lean and Six Sigma.  I even found a listing for degrees in “Lean Mastery”.  (I don’t think it is a lifelong commitment though!)

It was more difficult to search course descriptions at medical schools, but I tried my best.  At Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Stanford, Washington University, Yale, Columbia ajohns hopkinsnd Duke, the course searches turned up zero results.  (Although at Johns Hopkins I found a Lean Six Sigma initiative in their Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care)  For nursing, I visited the sites of The University of Colorado-Denver, California – San Francisco, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Oregon Health and Science University, yielding no lean course sightings.

One area I did find interesting for Lean Healthcare Education was in the Purdue Distance Education Program.  It offered courses in Lean Basics, Workshops, and Yellow, Green, and Black Belts in Lean healthcare.  Again, it is more in the category of continuing education vs. standard education, but it’s a start.

I looked through healthcare management programs at Minnesota, Alabama-Birmingham, Virginia Commonwealth, and Boston University, and MBA programs at Harvard, Dartmouth, University of Virginia, and The George Washington University.  Minnesota had one course offered, and the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia had one course and one elective area, Operations, that called out lean as one of the learning areas.  I had trouble navigating to the School of Public Heath website at the University of Michigan, but have to assume that being next to the Health Management Research Center  means there must be some lean thinking going on!

In summary for my search of health care education, it seems that lean is sometimes a part of research but not necessarily prominent yet in actual course offerings.  I figured that even if my course description searching skills were inadequate, I would have found something that might have pointed me in the right direction.  Finding nearly no mention of it though, I have to assume that there are very few offerings out there at this time.

I’ll have to set a reminder on my calendar 3-5 years from now to repeat the study and see if the number of lean course offerings are expanding, stable, or decreasing.  I hope expansion is imminent!

I imagine some point in the future, when I am viewing 10 resumes and college transcripts for an open position, if half of them have some form of lean education or experience listed, there’s a good chance it might sway my vote.  Not just because I really enjoy lean, but because I would see value in having the decreased cost of a shorter learning curve, shorter lead time towards having a fully effective employee, and quicker realization of improvement contributions than if I hired someone without that experience and understanding.  If we expect our operators to be able to learn the fundamental principles of lean and problem solving, surely we can expect our undergraduate students to be able to handle the material?  Can you imagine a future where all your new hires begin their careers with a focus on preventing problems from ever occurring again as opposed to simply containing them and hoping they don’t come back?

I think of all the extracurricular “clubs” on a college campus.  Are there any out there that are related to lean?  What type of activities might they do, and list on their resumes?  “Led three kaizens on final exam grading with a small group of professors and grad students, created and tested 4 new standards, resulting in 20% fewer errors and a 15% reduction in time spent grading.”  Or perhaps, “Through value-stream mapping, created a kanban system connected with textbook suppliers that helped reduce lead time from order to delivery by 2 weeks, helping the Campus Bookstore reduce working capital by 30%.”  These are the kind of statements that will pique my interest, or tip the tables in your favor.  But don’t get me wrong – I still very much want to discuss your leadership experiences in that Habitat for Humanity project!

So… do you have “president of the local Lean Thinkers Society” on your college resume?

Perhaps all our focus on lean transformation in the thick of industry, at the point of application, is itself focused on a direct cause rather than a root cause – an inadequate system for building lean thinking into our workforce from the outset.  Countless times have I heard that for many years Toyota never needed to write down how they think, because it simply happens as a part of their culture – they’ve just always thought that way.  Perhaps we should be more focused on teaching lean further upstream in order to build a future where lean is simply the way we think vs. having to work to transform our thinking years after we’ve started our careers.

One comment

  1. Nephew's Mom says:

    Enjoyed reading your observations and studies. Perhaps lean thinking can be developed much earlier than at the higher education level, even at the elementary level. As with creativity, lean thinking thrives in a child’s unstructured free time with limited resources. I see a trend of stuffing a childrens’ heads with too many facts and giving them the answers to know, rather teaching them critical thinking and problem solving (or preventing) skills. Thanks for the great info.

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