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By: Blake Purchase (but of course, the review was written by Chris Shannon)

Hello readers,

It is our great privilege to bring to you another excellent book review by Chris Shannon. You will remember earlier this year Chris reviewed Vincent Wiegel’s Lean in the Classroom. Chris has now reviewed the 2nd edition of Bill Balzer’s Lean Higher Education. Bill is an acknowledged and sought after leader in the Lean in higher education world and this update of his book first published in 2010, is most welcome. For more about Bill and to order his book, click here to go to his website.

Lean Higher Education 2nd Edition, William K Balzer, 2020

The 2nd edition of Willam K Balzer’s Lean Higher Education was released in March 2020. It is both a review of the state of lean in higher education and a guide to introducing lean in your institution. The book includes a deep dive into the rapid improvement event (RIE), the vehicle of choice for driving lean in universities around the world.

This new edition stands as an informative and enjoyable book in its own right. As the 2nd edition of a ground breaking book, it is also interesting to look at the changes over time. The first edition of Lean Higher Education (2010) provided detailed examples of lean activities in six American universities. It set out Balzer’s five step model for establishing lean in a higher education institution, and provided advice on assessing institutional readiness based on workplace climate and leadership practices. The deep dive in that book was into process maps, waste and flow. Balzer concluded the book by identifying four challenges to the broader adoption of lean in higher education: university wide adoption; senior commitment, advocacy and support; leadership waste (leadership behaviours not aligned with lean); and conflating lean with mean (not showing respect for people and treating lean as a cost-cutting exercise rather than a capacity-growing one).

Reflecting the growth of lean in higher education for the past decade, the 2nd edition features examples from sixteen universities from America, Canada, Europe and Australia. There are new chapters on the increasing use of lean for academic processes rather than just the ‘back-office’, and on gaining support from leadership for lean initiatives. These new chapters provide an update on progress against the challenges identified in 2010, and provide advice on setting realistic expectations for senior leadership. It also discusses helping leaders at all levels fulfil their sensemaking roles in implementing lean. Balzer acknowledges that implementing lean across a university is a large-scale, cultural change program which requires framing and preparation as such. The deep dive in the 2nd edition is into the RIE, widely used as the structured event to facilitate process mapping to eliminate waste and improve flow. There are two chapters dedicated to preparing for, running and implementing the outcomes of RIE.  Balzer has also added an appendix to the 2nd Edition which provides a curated list of organisations, blogs, conferences and online resources on aspects of lean. There is also a website,, to maintain this list in the future.

The book is written in an engaging and enthusiastic tone, reflecting both the generally supportive nature of the lean higher education community and also Balzer’s personal humility and enthusiasm.  However, it comes with an honest assessment of the state of LHE at present.  Balzer identifies new challenges to the ongoing growth and success of LHE:

  • the need for further research into the efficacy of lean higher education, including more rigorous measurement and testing to build a compelling case for senior leaders, and to inform improvements to practice;
  • the need for a greater understanding of the psychology of lean (there is research on the continuous improvement aspect of lean but not on respect for people);
  • the need to learn from lean failures (which first requires a willingness to talk about it); and
  • The ongoing challenge of university wide adoption of lean.


Lean Higher Education (2010) was a ground breaking book that helped to define LHE as a discipline. The 2nd Edition stands alone as a valuable book for universities, and also forms part of a growing collection of lean higher education publications reviewing the state of lean. It follows the release of Stephen Yorkstone’s Global Lean for Higher Education: A Themed Anthology of Case Studies, Approaches and Tools (2019), and, as announced on Linkedin recently, will be followed by Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education: Research and Practice, edited by Antony, Sreedharan and Chakraborty.


If you would like to find out more about our work at St Andrews Lean Consulting and how we can help you on your Lean journey, you can contact us here.

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