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Hello Mark, I hear that you were over at the University of Michigan recently. Why were you there?

I was there to attend the Lean Higher Education Conference 2019 from 6th to 8th November, the theme of which this year was ‘Lean Forward: Connect. Inspire. Advance.’ So much going on there, but happily there was a brilliant app to hand called EventMobi, which was extremely helpful in figuring out which excellent events to prioritise.

Also excellent as ever was the ability to catch up with friends from the Lean community all across the world, including was a much-needed chat with Chris Shannon, Manager of the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, who happens to be our guest blogger this month.

Interesting, and I have to say I like the theme, it certainly sounds like you did connect, but did you also lean forward, inspire and advance?

When I wasn’t on my feet networking, I was presenting, which I try and do upright anyway but as a considerable, albeit arguably Lean-related digression, you might be interested to know that standing up whilst working, as Churchill famously did, is in fact more efficient than leaning over a desk or table. Not that I wish to detract from what is a fine pun.

On a more serious note, to address the other two goals, I can only hope the presentation inspired people and advanced things as much as feedback suggested, though I can certainly confirm that I found the other presentations I saw very inspiring, especially as they often pertained to recent publications that have doubtless advanced Lean thinking, to address the second point.

Outside of the Conference, I concluded that UM’s Ann Arbor locality, named after the founders’ wives (both named Ann) has a similar leafy feel to St Andrews but is certainly colder. On Thursday evening there was a brilliant function at the Henry Ford Museum where I had the privilege of seeing the famous Rosa Parks bus – I certainly recommend doing that.

And the rest I shall leave to Chris, who is going to say a bit more, all of which I fully echo. See you at Melbourne 2020!

Lean on me

The Lean Higher Education 2019 conference was held in early November at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Because many of the sessions were run concurrently with three presentations happening at once, attendees did not get to see all the presentations. The comments and observations on the conference in this article are based on the sessions I did see.

The conference was fantastic, with lots of great presentations by people working in lean in different capacities; full time facilitators, lean leaders, lean researchers, and keynote speakers from other fields, all bringing a different perspective. I have come away from the conference with some new ideas and tools to try out, a lot of new contacts and deeper relationships with existing ones.

A few takeaways for me are sketched below.

Continuous improvement of everything, including the tools and ourselves

The lean tools are not sacred. Taichii Ohno famously tried one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon. Take the tools, use them, change them and see what happens. In this spirit, Jean Lakin and Whitney Walters, both from University of Michigan, gave a great presentation on PICTuRe, a very accessible tool for A3 thinking which I am already using on a problem. Sean Jackson from University of Virginia demonstrated some tools I had not seen before – RAPID and SBAR in his presentation on standard decision making. I will be using SBAR as soon as I get back to the office. Lisa Keys-Matthews gave a great presentation on use of RIEs at University of North Alabama, using a 5 step model and working using a bottom-up approach. Having worked independently on process improvement in my own university, I get how liberating it is to not answer to a steering committee!

Svein Are Tjeldnes and Julia Sempler from the Arctic University of Norway demonstrated using the Core Quality Model to understand how their strengths and weaknesses can impact their working relationship, and what they might do about that. Svein Are also ran a session with Steve Yorkstone from Edinburgh Napier University drawing from their “Navigating the Labyrinth” booklet (

Bill Balzer from Bowling Green State University put the challenge to the conference that we must also measure our own work in Lean Higher Education in a rigorous and academically defensible way to build an evidence-based case for the future. As the LHE community is growing and maturing, the time seems right to embrace this challenge.







Bill Balzer 

Identifying problems and defects

Mark McKenzie from University of Washington and Pam Gabel from University of Michigan are two of many people who spoke about the importance of visual displays and visual management, both for collaboration and as an aid to seeing issues and defects. Pam reminded us that you need to tell staff you are going to measure things, not to check up on them but to make things better. Sean Jackson was asked for an example of a defect in standard decision making. His view is that any decision brief that is sent back for more information is a defect as it requires re-work. However, he does not advocate long briefs to cover everything (over processing), he seeks brevity and eloquence, and gives praise for succinct briefs that ‘get the D’.

Leaders need to attend lean conferences just as much as practicians do

I was fortunate to connect with several team leaders from other universities, not lean practicians but people like me, running organisational units in universities and working on bringing lean into their workplaces. We all struggle in different ways with the constraints of our institutions and what we might like to think of as their lack of understanding of our value (to Bill Balzer’s point on the need for an evidence-based case for LHE). We all struggle to overcome entrenched blame cultures and the clumsiness of big bureaucracies. Leadership also featured in several presentations. Pam Gabel stressed the importance of leading by example in her presentation. Kim Cameron, also from UM, presented on enhancing lean through positive leadership and gave examples of low cost ways to build positivity in the workplace.

With Steve Yorkstone








The conference also recognised several LHE books published in 2019. The indefatigable Steve Yorkstone edited Global Lean for Higher Education . I am honoured to have a chapter accepted in it, focusing on the work I have done with the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at University of Queensland, contrasted with our less successful attempt to implement lean across the entire university. The conference also recognised books by Vincent Wiegel (Lean in the Classroom) and Justyna Maciag (Lean Culture in Higher Education). I have almost finished Vincent’s book and thoroughly recommend it.

A highlight of the LHE conference for me is the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the world. Like many other people in lean higher education, I was first introduced to it by Mark Robinson from the University of St Andrews and had the pleasure of co-facilitating two rapid improvement events with him in 2015-2016. It is always fascinating to catch up with Mark and hear about his ongoing efforts to spread the lean word in universities and other institutions across the globe.

Was it worth travelling from Australia to the USA to attend this conference? Absolutely. Should you travel to Melbourne, Australia in 2020 for the next LHE conference? Too right, mate.








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