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Steve Yorkstone, now a senior consultant with Edinburgh Napier University, looks back on his experience in Lean Higher Education.

‘In 2006 I was part of the original lean team in the University of St Andrews. Now, over a decade after we started, after sitting down with St Andrews’ lean stalwart Mark for a good old chin wag, it is the perfect time to pause and reflect on the journey since then.

I’ve always worked in Universities, before the move to become part of the Lean Team I had been previously been working in St Andrews’ Student Support Services department, running an innovative team of students peer supporters.

The Lean Team started off full of enthusiasm, with nothing to lose, sure we could change the world. With the support of some experienced consultants, plus some high profile central office space, we launched ourselves into trying to revolutionise how the University worked.

Quickly we discovered that changing the way large complicated organisations work isn’t a straightforward task. Odd we didn’t think that at the time, perhaps this is a realisation that will be familiar to anyone working towards becoming lean… that while the approach seems simple to grasp, taking people on an improvement journey (even with good resources and senior level support) isn’t so easy.

One of the early things we learned was we needed resilience, to keep going. Through tenacity, and by working with some pretty awesome people, we were able to start making some changes. Dare I say it, making some improvements!

There was a revelation when we stopped trying to succeed in solving the unsolvable problems. When we were able to accept what we couldn’t change, and yet still get on with changing what we could, the work became more satisfying, and paradoxically much more successful.

We were applying some of the tools and techniques you’d see in many Lean organisations. We were bringing people together, exposing the real work, and enabling collaboration to make it better. It was hard work, often fun, and felt good.

And we got busy.

We made our own 8 step process from necessity, not as an aim for theoretical perfection. We simply needed a way of practically understanding what we were doing so when we were going to meetings we would be able to get things done the best way. There were no high-falutin’ aims of creating something that might be useful for people elsewhere, we just too busy to manage the work, and we needed to make sure our own processes were good, in order to get the job done.

One of the gifts the university sector has, certainly in the UK, is we are a sharing community. And pretty soon we found people interested in what we were doing in St Andrews. They’d heard of the successes we were having, and we’re wondering if they could have those successes too, the processes we had developed became known. From this germ St Andrews Lean Consulting was born.

Five years after we started in St Andrews I moved to Edinburgh Napier University. A very different place, but, facing many of the same challenges. Folk are folk, wherever we are.

Moving to elsewhere, and being full time embedded as a staff member here in Edinburgh Napier University, along with working coaching teams in other universities over a period of years, and through building the Lean HE global community of practice, I’ve had time to mellow my views.

I’ve had time to realise that yes, we can do some great stuff in the short term with enthusiasm and guts, but, changing an organisation is a marathon not a sprint.

Therefore, would I do it differently if I went back ten years? Not at all. The learning was rich, and sometimes I wish I didn’t have the (sometimes painful) experiences, I have behind me. Our early naivety was a gift, this one gave us the confidence to take action, to experiment, and that action has got us to where we are.

If I could send a message back in time I’d caution myself to remember, though, that that stage when we all have just learnt something, just before we get too cynical is a  wonderful thing. We all get that burst of enthusiasm to treasure. I’d tell myself to keep it safe, nurture it, and hold fast for the slog ahead!

When I talk about the journey being a slow one I’m often met with frustration. “But, that’s not good enough! What if you need the organisation to change instantly”? Yes, change can happen in the blink of an eye. But when it comes how we work together we have lifetimes of habit to change. I won’t have been the first person to suggest; it takes years for an organisation to change overnight.

My enthusiasm is still as fierce, my final thought would abide with where I began. What is there to lose? There’s so much to gain. As a friend was reflecting earlier, “It’s always a sunny day!”.’


Steve (bottom right) works full time to practically enable continuous improvement in Edinburgh Napier University. He founded and chairs Lean HE, the international organisation for continuous improvement in Universities. He’s on the editorial board of the Operational Excellence Magazine, The LMJ. He co-designed and has written on the acclaimed Lean “St Andrews Model”, blogs for the Efficiency Exchange, and authored “Lean Universities” in Routledge’s Companion to Lean Management, which won the Shingo Research Prize in 2017. He has a practical and hands on view of Lean; as an applied philosophy of work, based on continuous improvement, and rooted in respect for people.



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