Bringing Lean Principles to Online Education at Minnesota State University Moorhead

Manufacturers and leaders in related fields often talk about “continuous improvement.” What could it mean for higher education if we brought these lean engineering principles into play to help continuously improve our online student experience?

Dr. Jitendra Singh, Associate Professor at the School of Nursing & Healthcare Leadership at Minnesota State University Moorhead, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss.

The Origins of Lean Philosophy

The lean philosophy originated with Toyota, and it aims to maximize an organization’s revenue. Lean works with any kind of organization from business to healthcare to education. The concept systematically eliminates non-value added activities, that is, activities that do not add value from a customers’ or stakeholder’s perspective. Lean is governed by five core principles, which are value, value screens, flow, pull, and perfection. 

At the heart of lean is the customer or stakeholder focus, which is an important thing to consider as you are planning on executing any project or planning on creating a product for customers. 

“For example,” Jitendra said, “your students, your graduates of the program, they are very, very important because they go out in the field and work for employers and it’s kind of important for the reputation of the program too. Similarly, your employers, because they are the one who hire the graduates. So as we look at continuous improvement and how to make changes within the education program in higher ed settings, I would take all the key stakeholders into consideration.”

Accreditation bodies, especially programmatic ones, can be important stakeholders, too. 

Especially in regulated fields such as healthcare, it’s important to make changes based on what the field requires along with what employers and students prefer. 

“We are very much connected to the field and employers because our employers start working as nursing home administrators once they graduate from the program,” Jitendra said. “I have worked in healthcare too, a patient-centered approach was something that we used to practice and we practice it now as well. So lean puts the focus on patients for example wait times, the standardization in the processes, and avoiding mistakes.”

Why Lean Principles are Critical for Online Education

“As I entered academia,” Jitendra told us, “I started identifying the similarities between healthcare and academia in terms of prolonged wait times. Students were waiting for an instructor’s response, and this was especially true for online medium of instruction, where you do not have that real connection as you would in a brick-and-mortar traditional university.” 

Similarly, when you design your modules and the instructions are not very clear, it could create problems, defects, and mistakes. Overproduction and over processing is another key aspect. If you have a large number of assignments or lengthy and repetitive work, that could create a problem for online students. 

“Another key aspect is the lack of standardization,” Jitendra said. “So if a student takes different classes and all the classes are designed differently, it can be confusing for an online student.”

Using the lean method requires the university to take a customer-centered, stakeholder-centered approach. It’s part of the move away from the instructor-centered classroom.

Student Feedback to Value-Add Analysis

“In order to identify what is non-value added for my students,” Jitendra told us, “I formed a team of current online students, graduates of the program, and employers. And then I presented to them the entire visual map on the class from day one until the very end.”

The students reviewed the map and identified the activities that did not add value such as class time being scheduled during normal work hours. That was an easy fix for Jitendra who asked the students to meet after 5:00 pm when most of his adult students had gotten off work.

“Another thing that I have noted is, students consistently asked for the standardization,” Jitendra said, “so the classes to be laid out similarly in the modules.” 

For Jitendra and his team, it’s been a process of continuous improvement. They have adapted and made changes based on what students and employers have requested.

Where Else Can Higher Ed Use Lean Principles?

Admissions would be a good place to start. If you have an online student trying to get into a new university or a transfer student who has to go through several people to get accepted, that prospective student could be lost in the entire process. So, using lean principles to strategize these processes, identify key stakeholders, and create a process map would definitely help higher ed institutions. 

“Similar to the healthcare setting where you have the patient admission process and you see variety of stakeholders working in the process who have a major role,” Jitendra said, “but if you have a process map in front of you you will be able to see who is doing what and when the task or activity is due.”

Next-Steps for Institutions Pursuing Lean Principles

Before adopting these principles, it’s important to include some kind of training programs just so instructors or administrators are aware of how lean principles work and what they actually are. They could be clouding these things already in their curriculum or in their processes but they may not be aware of it. 

“For example,” Jitendra said, “one of the concepts in lean actually is Jidoka and stop and control mistakes. So providing immediate feedback so students are able to correct mistakes and do not proceed before they are able to correct mistakes.”

Other good ideas include making sure instructors and administrators understand what lean principles are, how they are practiced in other settings ,and how to create processes and a process-oriented approach can streamline your existing processes. 

“Change is tough,” Jitendra said. “It takes time. Having worked in healthcare where lean principles were utilized quite a bit and coming to higher ed now, I would say change is tough but when you see the results and your students succeed, definitely it’s worth it.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Jitendra Singh from Minnesota State University Moorhead. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.

Eric Olsen

Eric brings more than a decade of award-winning creative brand development, marketing analytics and higher education experience to Helix Education. Eric is a graduate of Bradley University and earned his MBA at Lewis University.