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.

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