Engaging faculty in Lean teaching

M.L. Emiliani (School of Engineering, Science, and Technology, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut, United States)

International Journal of Lean Six Sigma

ISSN: 2040-4166

Article publication date: 2 March 2015



Emiliani, M.L. (2015), "Engaging faculty in Lean teaching", International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, Vol. 6 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLSS-06-2014-0015



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Engaging faculty in Lean teaching

Article Type: Viewpoint From: International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, Volume 6, Issue 1


The core value-creating activity in higher education is teaching, yet the basic methods used by the faculty to teach have undergone little change for many decades. Where improvements in teaching are made, such as “flipped classrooms” and “blended learning”, the specific improvement ideas or methods are derived principally from within the domain of adult learning theory and research. External challenges to current methods are rare and often quickly rejected.

Traditional and newer teaching pedagogies can have the appearance of effectiveness based on empirical evidence such as test scores or student feedback. However, these pedagogies may continue using assessment methods that limit or reduce student learning. For example, students who exhibit acceptable critical thinking skills in the classroom often fail to exhibit these skills post-graduation, leading to many problems in the workplace and society. Traditional and newer teaching pedagogies also lack any unifying framework or principles to assure focus on students and guide faculty’s improvement efforts and decision-making. For these reasons, the Lean teaching pedagogy is an attractive alternative to traditional and newer methods.

Lean teaching is the application of Lean principles and practices to teaching (Emiliani, 2013). Lean principles are “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”, while Lean practices are the tools and methods commonly associated with the Toyota production system (Monden, 1983; Ohno, 1988; Womack et al., 1990; Liker, 2004; Kato and Smalley, 2011). The purpose of Lean teaching parallels the purpose of Lean management[1][2], as used in organizations, which is to improve the value of goods and services (higher education) for end-use customers (students, payers, employers and society) (Womack and Jones, 2003). This is achieved, in part, by improving processes through eliminating waste, unevenness and unreasonableness (Ohno, 1988). The result is improved flow and quality, lower costs and higher throughput – all of which are relevant to higher education. Importantly, improvement must be made in non-zero-sum (win-win) ways, not only to gain support for improvement but also to assure that Lean does not harm any stakeholder.

A recent survey indicates that teaching processes contain many different types of errors that detract from students’ learning experience and their perceptions of quality and value (Emiliani, 2014a). Another survey identified what constitutes quality teaching from current and former students’ perspectives (Emiliani, 2014b). Combined, these survey results indicate that traditional teaching methods are unsatisfactory and that students view progressive teaching methods as significantly better.

The question, then, is who leads efforts to improve teaching? Is it the responsibility of individual faculty, department chairs, deans of schools, provosts or university presidents? It is, of course, a shared responsibility. However, getting diverse faculty and administrators to agree on a relatively unknown approach to improving teaching is a great challenge. Though it is a worthy challenge, the prospects for success are low if approached from the bottom-up, with faculty appealing to leadership. Empirical evidence indicates that leading organizational change from conventional management to Lean management requires leadership of a progressive type not commonly found in industry (Emiliani et al., 2007; Kenney, 2011; Byrne, 2012), let alone in higher education.


University leaders who are committed to Lean management across the enterprise, both in teaching and administration (Balzer, 2010), must devote themselves to learning Lean management through the daily application of its principles and practices (Emiliani, 2012). The fundamental premise is that leaders cannot lead people in something that they know nothing about, just as a physician cannot teach a medical student how to repair an injury if the physician has not done it many times before. Practical disciplines such as teaching require one to learn from others.

Top university leaders are not ready-made Lean leaders, which poses a challenge for both leaders and followers. Leaders with 30 or more years of experience in higher education may prefer traditional teaching methods and lack motivation to learn substantially new ways of thinking and doing things. Further, learning Lean principles and practices requires leaders to participate in process improvement activities, thrusting them into a position of a non-expert. Most senior leaders find this very uncomfortable, so they seek to avoid participation and instead delegate process improvement to others. And, as a result of biases and misunderstandings, many leaders may view progressive Lean teaching as detrimental to students or the university.

Faculty may have no interest in Lean teaching because they have been successful without it, or, like university administrators, refuse to be put into a position of a non-expert. Other faculty will surely resist for its own sake, to establish one’s own authority and autonomy in the classroom, or because of disdain for improvement methods that originated in industry and, thus, lack standing in relation to adult learning research.

However, faculty, being front-line workers, might embrace Lean teaching as a means to improve student learning outcomes and achieve substantial reductions in teaching errors. In other words, faculty may see an opportunity to better satisfy students and make their own jobs less complex and more enjoyable (Emiliani, 2004). Most people would like the opportunity to make their job easier, while, at the same time, produce a better result. Faculty are unlikely to be an exception.

Faculty who see opportunity in Lean teaching may want or expect leadership support for Lean teaching prior to making any commitment to it. Support generally comes in two forms: engaged leaders or limited casual (mostly verbal) support Emiliani, 2005). Or, there may be no support at all. The question then becomes, should individual faculty adopt Lean teaching in the absence of management support, even at the department level? What is the rationale for doing so, especially when there may be no extrinsic rewards? Is it worth the effort to do anything different from what one’s peers are doing? Will doing so expose one to unnecessary, possibly career-damaging risks?

The answers to these questions are based on individual faculty’s interests and motivations. Many will remain in conformity with tradition, deferring until the benefits of Lean teaching are proven to them, in every way conceivable, or until pressure to change becomes inescapable. Such faculty, however, should consider their responsibilities to the profession, which includes advancing one’s capabilities, influencing others to improve (students and peers) and achieve demonstrable improvements in teaching over time.

Professional responsibilities suggest a bias for immediate action, not long-term inaction. That means to begin now and not wait for others to “get on board” – whether peers or top university leaders. If one begins Lean teaching now, then that will have an immediate positive impact on one’s students – perhaps hundreds of students per year. Yes, it would be nice if students could learn and retain as much in other courses as they did in yours, but at least they learned and retained a lot in your course. That outcome is good enough for now, but it is certainly not good enough for ever. One faculty engaged in Lean teaching is a good starting point from which to gain experience and build upon. From that comes the needed story-telling that helps other faculty overcome their biases and concerns.

It is human nature to strive for a bigger impact. The goal should indeed be multiple faculty that embrace Lean teaching – in a department, school or the entire university – along with enthusiastic support from engaged administrators. However, it is wise to be pragmatic and recognize this as a building process, from one person, to two persons, to three persons, to a team of faculty, and that this will occur over time. The logic and benefits of Lean teaching that are so clear to one may be utter nonsense to another. Difficulties found on an individual basis multiply on a group basis. Therefore, different strategies must be developed and applied to close these large gaps. Again, this is where leadership matters the most (Byrne, 2012).

It is also human nature to strive to achieve a lasting impact. The history of progressive management informs us well. We know with certainty that changes in leadership (Emiliani et al., 2007) are a primary cause of backslide or abandonment of Lean management. A lasting impact can only be achieved if new leadership shares a constancy of purpose (educating students), method (pedagogy) and management practice (Lean). Universities will have to develop internal training programs for both faculty and administrators, and be committed to the training. Top leaders must never say “this costs too much” or “we can stop now because Lean teaching is in our DNA”. Lasting impact comes from lasting effort.


The core value-creating activity in higher education is teaching. To that end, much is known about students’, parents’ and employers’ dissatisfaction with higher education:

  • its cost;

  • academic and administrative processes;

  • teaching, learning outcomes; and

  • workplace preparedness.

The typical forms of remediation undertaken by faculty and administrators in recent decades have proven to be inadequate.

The future challenges facing both students and higher education demands fundamental yet practical reforms. Educators can continue to reject improvement methods born in industry, or they can begin the process of scholarly inquiry, for which they are well equipped, to understand the principles and practices of Lean management and how to apply them to improve teaching – for the benefit of all.

While the benefits of Lean teaching may be greatest if all faculty in a department, school or university practice it, with support from engaged leadership, this desired future state will be difficult to achieve. Yet, the current state calls for immediate improvement in teaching (Emiliani, 2014a, 2014b) by any faculty member who is interested in doing so, despite risks and likely zero extrinsic rewards. If we are to believe that “students matter most”, then no impediment is too great to restrain even one faculty from taking the initiative.

To delay improvement until a more desirable environment presents itself is unreasonable, unwise and a disservice to students. Further, beginning immediately starts the process of daily practice that one needs to develop the skills and capabilities that deliver greater benefits[3]. If students experience the Lean teaching pedagogy only once in their curriculum, then they will have at least gained an awareness of the differences between traditional teaching and progressive Lean teaching. Perhaps they will take what they learned in that one course and apply it to the challenges they face as employees or future managers. If so, some good will have been done.

M.L. Emiliani

School of Engineering, Science, and Technology, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut, USA


1. The term “Lean management” can be considered as the sum of The Toyota Way, “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People” (Toyota, 2001) and the tools and methods of Toyota’s production system (Monden, 1983; Ohno, 1988; Womack et al., 1990; Liker, 2004; Kato and Smalley, 2011).

2. Lean management is defined as: a non-zero-sum principle-based management system focused on creating value for end-use customers and eliminating waste, unevenness and unreasonableness using the scientific method (Emiliani, 2008).

3. By way of analogy, you learn how to play an instrument before starting a band. It makes no sense to require a band be formed as a prerequisite to learning how to play an instrument.

No research funding was used in the production of this work.

Preprint available online: http://www.slideshare.net/LectoraatLean/emiliani-bob-engaging-faculty-in-lean-teaching and http://www.leanprofessor.com/2014/04/01/june-2014-lean-higher-ed-conference/


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About the author

M.L. Emiliani is a Professor in the School of Engineering, Science, and Technology at Central Connecticut State University where he teaches several courses on Lean management. Prior to joining academia in 1999, he worked in the industry for 15 years and had management responsibility in engineering (R&D, new product development) and operations (manufacturing and supply chain). He was responsible for implementing Lean principles and practices in both manufacturing and supply networks at Pratt & Whitney.

M.L. Emiliani has authored or co-authored 18 books, 47 peer-reviewed papers and four book chapters in topics related to Lean management, including leadership, supply chain, the history of progressive management and Lean as applied to teaching. His research and practice in Lean teaching spans a 15-year period in which he developed what is now known as the Lean teaching pedagogy.

He is on or has served on the editorial review boards of: Leadership and Organization Development Journal, Management Decision, Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, and Industrial Marketing Management. M.L. Emiliani served as the North American Regional Editor, Supply Chain Management: An International Journal, from 2005-2007. He is also an ad-hoc reviewer for numerous journals on the topic of Lean leadership and Lean management.

Professor M.L. Emiliani earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Miami, an MS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Rhode Island and a PhD in Engineering from Brown University. M.L. Emiliani can be contacted at: mailto:emilianibob@ccsu.edu

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