Improving College Courses Through Lean

One of the more intriguing presentations I heard at the recent AME conference proposed applying lean principles to higher education. And I don’t mean using lean to improve the admissions process or other administrative procedures (though those could probably benefit from lean initiatives). I’m talking about using lean to actually improve the content of college courses.

The presentation came from Bob Emiliani, Ph.D., an associate professor in manufacturing and construction management at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.

Emiliani spent 15 years working in industry before switching to education. He first taught at the Hartford campus of Rensselaer, from 1999 until 2003, when he took his current position.
While at Rensselaer,
Emiliani launched an effort (involving other faculty members) to improve courses through kaizen events.
The key tool of the events was a self-assessment form filled out by professors. It asked “To what extent does my course exhibit the following characteristics?” That was followed by a long list of specific subjects. A few of them were:

Purpose and Learning Objectives. Purpose and learning objectives for each class and each assignment are documented and reviewed at beginning or end of each class. Customers understand course content and direction. P&L objectives reflect the content.
Comparative Analysis. Course contains comparisons to alternative management thinking and practices used in other countries and companies.
Organization and Sequence. Logical flow of material (ideas, concepts, tools) from one class to another and throughout the course.

On each item, the course was ranked from one to five, one being “not at all” and five being “always.”

This approach has its limitations, and Emiliani’s list of lessons learned includes the ideas that course content should be compared with that of other institutions, and that students and employers should be surveyed.

But there were improvements that resulted, from making a course syllabus shorter to better defining student expectations to increasing student feedback (and the response to it). Student response to changes so far has been positive.

Emiliani also classifies improvements according to lean tools and concepts. For example, improving organization of course content and sequence is 5S. Returning graded papers and projects in time for discussion in the next class is just-in-time. Creating a standard syllabus format and a simple one-page schedule is standard work. And recognizing that students’ time is valuable, establishing expectations more clearly and establishing clear grading criteria all represent respect for people.

What Emiliani did was on a small scale, and hasn’t gone beyond one location. I hope it goes much further.


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