Using kaizen to improve higher education courses

Using kaizen to improve higher education courses

(Note: entries like this are my ‘thinking out loud’ as I explore my PhD research topic of innovation in teaching and learning, so are aimed at a very specific audience – me! Feel free to share, quote, comment, argue, contradict etc)

This is a summary of a paper by ML ‘Bob’ Emiliani, Using kaizen to improve graduate business school programmes. Bob has a website devoted to his work as the Lean Professor.

At this stage I’m looking at various models for innovation and change from different fields. Of most personal interest are those related to Design Thinking and Service Design but I’ve also begun looking in more detail at topics like Lean, Agile, Six Sigma and so on, many interrelated (Lean seems to be the ‘granddaddy’ of most of them, and the others are branches from it that are sometimes complementary, sometimes starkly opposing in their philosophy.

What is kaizen?

I’ll rely on Wikipedia for this.

Kaizen (改善?), Japanese for “improvement”. When used in the business sense and applied to the workplace, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain.[1] It has been applied in healthcare,[2] psychotherapy,[3] life-coaching, government, banking, and other industries.

Wikipedia 22 December 2015

The problem with usual approaches to change in higher education

Emiliani begins by stating that although there is a need for continuous improvement to improve services or products in ‘competitive market places’ (p.37), approaches taken ‘tend to be ad hoc or complex’ and they are not responsive, i.e. flexible or quick.

‘While the traditional committee-based approach commonly used to review and approve changes in graduate program structure, curriculum, etc., may have served stakeholders well in the past, there is a growing need to replace this with processes that produce better results faster – consistent with the school’s mission, … accreditation standards, balancing the interests of key stakeholders, etc.’ (p.48)

Emiliani writes from a familiar context of changing perceptions of the quality and value of programmes, but also notes that a key accreditor of business programmes in the USA focus on “continuous improvement” while not defining what they mean by the term. The National Consortium for Continuous Improvement similarly does not provide a definition. This leaves it open to interpretation at institutional and individual level. Emiliani notes that ‘it is likely that some things that appear to be improvements may not actually be improvements – especially as viewed by customers’ (p.38)

Emiliani takes a process-oriented view: ‘The question is: Are there processes than can be used to achieve this on a consistent basis, day-to-day?’

The concept of waste

In the business world, continuous improvement is often based on the Lean management model of elimination of waste, unevenness and unreasonableness (muda, aura and muri in Japanese). Waste is something that adds cost but does not add value from the perspective of customers.

This concept of waste, says Emiliani, is something that university management does not understand, or recognise. The result is that financial issues are dealt with in familiar ways: ‘increase tuition and fees, or cut programs, reduce academic or support resources, and sometimes lay people off … actions that few would characterize as improvements’ (p.39). Managers, says Emiliani, look at numbers, but rarely look at processes. He discusses the application of kaizen ‘a Japanese word that means: “change for the better,” and is typically interpreted as “continuous improvement.”’

Positive change 

Importantly, kaizen’s emphasis on ‘change for the better’ means that changes should be positive: ‘innovation, ease of use, on-time delivery, durability, low cost etc’ while ‘Negative actions such as increasing tuition and fees, cutting programs, reducing academic or support resources, or layoff are inconsistent with kaizen’s meaning’.

Kaizen involves making the problem visible and then identifying the cause before correcting the problem. ‘The result is rapid improvement: lower costs, higher quality, and better product or service’.

Kaizen in practice

Emiliani presents a case study of kaizen applied to the improvement of a business programme offered to part-time students at a college in the USA. Kaizen was chosen over other processes, such as Total Quality Management because the goal was rapid improvement of a specific programme of study rather than of the entire organisation. Kaizen ‘was a bottom-up opportunity … the plan was to start small, achieve some successes, and expand to other improvement opportunities if senior management’s approval could be obtained.’

The kaizen process normally takes place over a short period, typically four to five days, ‘though it can be as short as a few hours’. During this time, a cross-functional team of eight to 12 people, with the aid of a skilled kaizen facilitator, identify, measure, and correct the problems associated with a process.’ (p.41) Kaizens avoid the problems associated with traditional business meetings ‘which rarely focus on eliminating waste’. Instead they rely on ‘Observation, data gathering, analysis, and critical thinking’ and participants (who include people at all levels of the organisation) are challenged to identify low cost solutions that ‘eliminate waste, unevenness and unreasonableness’.

The areas to be tackled were identified via student feedback and focused on four aspects: purpose and learning objectives, content, course organisation and sequence, and classroom experience. As far as possible, improvements were made during the kaizen but those that could not were completed within 30 days with specific follow-up actions given to facilitators.

Emiliani notes that some participants felt threatened by the process, particularly if it was their course being examined and if managers were present, but this is not the intent and a skilled facilitator should be able to tackle this. ‘Done correctly, improvement using the kaizen process is a lot of fun, and people feel like they are making valuable contributions to the school and the services it delivers’ (p.46)

Acceptance of methods such as kaizen depends on a number of factors, and Emiliani discusses reasons why participation in process improvement activities can be low or reluctant, including focusing on positives such as enrolment figures to discount the need to improve in other areas. The success of the case study was down to a number of factors (p.47) but of note is the suggestion that the programme team were ‘a collegial group (perhaps somewhat unusual in academics)’, had industry experience so no ideological problems with the method, and the suggestion came from a colleague rather than management. Most importantly, perhaps, they ‘uniformly saw the need for improvement’. The team ‘were willing to give it a try – and with a positive attitude’.

Kaizen is not a one-off activity but needs to be a regular occurrence. ‘Because students’ perception of value changes over time, the job of continuous improvement is never done. Kaizen must be repeated at regular intervals, using data from relevant sources to guide improvement activities.’ (p.48)


The kaizen method is similar to those used in service design activities: structured enquiry, rapid, focused on a few problems rather than attempting to achieve large scale change, iterative, responsive and participative. Whether this is deliberate or coincidental I might investigate. Kaizen predates modern concepts of service design.

The issue of the lack of definition of ‘continuous improvement’ is interesting – I’ve noticed terms like this used a lot without anyone actually saying what they mean (see ‘quality enhancement’ for example).

The importance of buy-in is clear – resistance can occur if the need to change is not recognised, or if activities such as kaizen are seen to be distracting from ‘real work’ where rewards are obvious.

Including people at all levels is important but needs to be managed well so that key stakeholders do not feel threatened, and so that senior staff do not dominate or impose their views.The process of understanding the problem before correcting it is similar to Design Thinking although it does not seem to focus on understanding it from the user’s perspective in quite the same way (though importantly the ‘customer’ is central to the discussion) and this may contribute to the issues of subjectivity that Emiliani notes.

Although kaizen has its roots in Lean methodology it contrasts with approaches such as Six Sigma in that it appears open to variation where it offers value, and is situated in the concept of continuous improvement, while Six Sigma comes across (at first glance) as keen on conformity and getting things ‘right first time’.

I’d place kaizen at the more liberal wing of the Lean methodology.

Creativity and Innovation

Thomas Edison

Edison was an inventor. He was creative. But was he an innovator? It’s all a matter of definition.

In drafting my PhD topic I found myself using the word “innovation” in different ways and wondered if this might end up being a problematic term.

What, after all, is “innovative”? To some people, the word means something startlingly original, that’s never been done before. To others it simply means something a little bit different.

So I suspect that innovation is something of a spectrum. Things might be “quite innovative” at one end, or “highly innovative” at the other. Is one more prized? Is one more risky? This might be something I need to find out in the research by interrogating interview subjects or via a questionnaire, or it might be something to get over and done with in the literature review.

The complement to “innovative” would be “creative” or “creativity”. Innovation is always seen as being creative – but are the two words interchangeable?

I Googled (as you do) “what’s the difference between innovation and creativity” and the same definition kept coming up (rarely, if ever, credited to anyone but I think I managed to track down the source: The Innovative Leader: How to Inspire Your Team and Drive Creativity by Paul Sloane)

Creativity is the capability or act of conceiving something original or unusual. Creativity is about unleashing the potential of the mind to conceive new ideas. Creativity is subjective, making it hard to measure.

Innovation is implementation of creative ideas into action which produce something new. Innovation is completely measurable.

So innovation is the process of introducing change in to systems. Someone can be creative and come up with ideas, but the innovator is someone who puts those in to practice.

This is an interesting definition because my starting point is a presumption that the innovative teacher is a largely positive force, but actually some of the policy documents I’ve seen in my travels are implementing (or enforcing) change so are by definition innovative, but few would argue they are “good”. In fact I have a few examples where their effect is to control what goes on in teaching and, therefore, stop innovation.

But that’s okay because my hypothesis (currently) is that innovation at ground floor level (the chalkface, to use the old term) can be thwarted by innovation at management level. However I think this may become problematic so I need to be careful.

Invention and innovation

The idea that “innovative” equals “never been done before” needs to be considered. I wonder if innovative teachers don’t consider themselves innovative if they think someone else has done what they’re doing. Using Twitter in teaching, for example? I have to admit I get annoyed when I go to a T&L conference and someone starts talking about something they’ve done that I know has been going on elsewhere for some time (I wonder if I’ve ever done that!) I suppose what I’m getting annoyed at is not so much the innovation itself but the lack of awareness – people presenting their work as though it’s a radical breakthrough rather than catching up with practice elsewhere.

Invention is the creation of something new. You can be creative and innovative without being inventive. I suspect this distinction is going to come up in interviews etc.

(That’s made me think of something else that I’ll discuss in another post: is innovation good if it’s enforced?)

Was Edison innovative?

I started this post with the question, was Edison innovative? Most people would immediately say “yes” but using the definition above, the correct answer is not so clear. He was certainly “inventive”. But some of his ideas came on the back of other people’s so the jury’s out on whether he was “creative” (this is semantics, sure, but nanos gigantum humeris insidentes and all that). It’s even less clear that he was innovative because it was often up to others to take his inventions and put them in to practice.

Deciding on a research topic


I’m just entering year two of my PhD and the time has come to think in earnest about my research topics.

I drew up a quick list the other day of things that are bubbling up in my mind as things I’d like to look at.

  1. Sector skills councils. Evaluation of their impact on HE teaching and policy
  2. Curriculum development. How is it undertaken in different institutions?
  3. USPs in HE. What differentiates courses within the same discipline? (Four Ps, and what else?)
  4. Innovation in HE. How is it facilitated? Who does it? What are their characteristics? Is it encouraged?
  5. The part-time industry lecturer. What do they bring? What attitudes to teaching do they have? Are they beneficial?
  6. “What industry wants”. How are industry requirements affecting what and how we teach?

What’s interesting is that a few of them would have been on the list several years ago, and certainly just before I started the PhD. But there are a couple missing: gamification in teaching and learning, and something to do with online learning. The simple reason for that, I suppose, is that both really require me to be actively engaged in them. I experimented with gamification in my teaching at the University of Dundee but moved to Cambridge where I was no longer teaching, and unlikey to be able to work with anyone who was. In my current job, our QA regulations seemingly forbid any kind of experimentation (which ties in to one of my topics in the list above). As for online learning, again I’m no longer so heavily involved in it and while I could certainly research it, the idea of looking at something I’m personally not involved with doesn’t appeal so much.

So of that list, what’s coming through most strongly?

The Sector Skills Councils topic looks rather manageable, relates to my current role, and has been an area of personal interest since my days at the HEA Subject Centre in Brighton, where I met with representatives from the three cognate “creative industries” SSCs. But I have particular views on them, so objectivity might an issue – and the topic is fraught with political issues it’s probably best to avoid. But it still appeals so isn’t off the drawing board.

My favourite so far – and it’s been a favourite for some time now so maybe I’m putting off the inevitable – is the topic of innovation in teaching and learning (number 4 in the list). I’ll write another post later looking at this in more detail as I try to “think out loud” about the topic.