Often when we talk to people implementing Lean in higher education we come across the opinion that running Lean on a project-based approach isn’t enough. This is a hard thing to hear for us, as we started our organisational Lean journey with a series of specific-process projects. 

Hard as it may seem, though, there is real truth there. Looking at snapshots of how work is undertaken, at separate chunks of processes, can get some great results… but it’s never going to be able to maximise an organisation’s potential. 

The University of St Andrews started trying that, meeting each member of new staff as they arrive, and training every manager in Lean through the University’s ‘Passport to Management Excellence Scheme’. This raises the question: Was it right to run Lean projects? 

As Pat Browne put it, project work is like an archaeological dig; it’s great at discovering individual items of interest, and exceedingly fruitful if well planned, but to properly understand what’s going on the entire site needs to be excavated. 

That excavation has to involve everyone in an organisation, digging away at waste at every level. Senior management must set a clear direction, middle management must support their front-line staff in meeting that direction, and everyone needs to wage constant battle on waste in all its forms. Doing all of this involves systematically engaging with everyone in the organisation, ensuring everyone is moving towards the same goal. 

In defence of project work, however, it is brilliant at demonstrating the goal is attainable and at starting to change people’s thinking, so that they can see the potential that working with Lean can bring. This is especially so in higher education institutions, which are often messy and confusing in their nature. 

So yes, it is a mistake to think that project work is the end of Lean, but experience at the University shows that Lean projects can really make for a great starting block. 

If you would like to find out more about what we do and how we can help, contact us.