Continuous Improvement blogLean HE Conference 2019 – my conference diary

I was fortunate enough to attend the Lean HE International Conference at the University of Michigan in the beautiful city of Ann Arbor, Michigan from 6th to 8th November 2019. The conference theme was “Lean Forward: Connect. Inspire. Advance”, and 203 attendees from across the world came together to share their experiences.Members of the Lean HE Steering Group

Whether we call ourselves lean, continuous improvement, business enhancement or operational excellence practitioners is irrelevant; because we come together with a common purpose, which is to ensure that continuous improvement philosophies within Higher Education (HE) are themselves always improving. We do this for the good of all those whom HE serves.

The day before the conference started I attended the Lean HE Global Steering Group Annual General Meeting. The main business discussed related to the Lean HE 2019 Annual Report, the re-election of the Chair, and the annual conferences for 2019, 2020 & 2021.

Day 1

A collage of photos from University of MichiganDay 1 of the conference started with an excellent and uplifting presentation by Lillie, Chris, and Richard from the University of Edinburgh. They set a positive tone, which would be maintained throughout the conference.

The first workshop I attended was by Mark McKenzie from the University of Washington (Seattle) on “Creating and Developing a Culture of Continuous Improvement”. I was reassured to learn that their award-winning approach had many similarities to the approach we take at the University of Strathclyde, which is supported by Daily Stand-ups, goals connected to the organisational strategy, and performance measures related to the work of the respective teams.

Then it was my turn to present. My presentation was on “Building the Platform for a Successful Lean Implementation”. I think it went well, there were several great questions at the end and I don’t think anyone fell asleep.

Towards the end of day 1, Grace Bryant, from the University of Canberra, introduced the concept of a process hack using Padlet, which encouraged attendees to feedback on things such as:

  • how can Lean HE improve?
  • what does Lean HE do well? What would you like more of?
  • how can we support you and what would you like to know more about?
  • what does the future of Lean HE look like?
  • what skills/tools do you have that you would like to share?
  • what are your ideas for encouraging sharing, community and connection?

Grace also fed back on this towards the end of the conference. I look forward to discussing how we, in the Lean HE Global Steering Group, can use this to further improve the work of the global Lean HE community.

At the end of day 1, we were treated to a performance by The Friars,  an acappella subset of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club.

Day 2

On to day 2. The day started with a breakfast event with Lean HE authors. Over the last few months, three books have been published by the Lean HE Community, these are:

  • Lean Culture in Higher Education - Towards Continuous Improvement, by Justyna Maciag
  • Lean in the Classroom, by Vincent Wiegel
  • Global Lean for Higher Education, (edited) by Stephen Yorkstone

We then moved on to a keynote by Dr Vic Strecher on “Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything”. Dr Strecher gave a very personal, powerful and insightful presentation.

Two of the main takeaways for me were firstly the research that people with a strong purpose in life are more resilient; and secondly, people as self-transcenders, which in simple terms is the realisation that you are one small part of a greater whole, and acting accordingly. I was lucky enough to “win” Dr Strecher’s book “Life on Purpose: how living for what matters most changes everything”.

The next session I attended was on “Embracing Lean Leadership” by Pam Gabel from the University of Michigan. Pam’s approach was very clear and impactful. She had four basic principles:

  • Set the Vision
  • Set the Path
  • Set the Example
  • Make the Time Commitment

One of the many memorable moments from Pam’s presentation was her saying “Don’t try to phone me on a Monday morning, I do my walk-arounds on a Monday morning”. A great example of leadership standard work and gemba. I’m sure many leaders in Higher Education could learn from the example set by Pam.

Still on day 2, I introduced a workshop presented by Alex Sharp and Charlie Edge from Middlesex University. Inspired by Niklas Modig’s keynote presentation at the 2018 conference, which illustrated the paradoxical impact of a resource efficiency approach and departments operating in islands or silos, this session highlighted how this learning has been applied within a student enquiry resolution environment.

I then introduced and participated in a workshop delivered by Karin Eilertsen and Frank Lindrupsen from UiT the Arctic University of Norway. The workshop used Lego© combined with a Daily Stand-up to demonstrate how you can make improvements to improve flow. This was an excellent workshop which also had elements of improvement kata embedded within it.

Conference Dinner

A Model T Ford carThe conference dinner took place in the Henry Ford Museum and it was fascinating to explore during the dinner. A couple of the many highlights for me were getting up close to a model T Ford and the car in which President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.The car President Kennedy was in when he was assassinated

Day 3

Day 3 kicked off with me chairing a meeting of Lean HE Europe. During the meeting, we discussed our initial plans for helping us achieve our objectives for Lean HE Europe during 2020. Our objectives are:

  • continue to promote Lean activities across the European Division
  • build the network through identification and engagement of other European counties and universities not currently involved with Lean HE;
  • support local networks
  • facilitate and encourage the optimal use of technology and social media to support and develop the work of the Division;
  • focus on both academic and practitioner activities and audiences
  • Lean HE International Conference in 2021 - provide support to the host institution as they begin their early preparations

A collage of photos from a conference in MichiganI then introduced a workshop by Susanne Clarke from Bournemouth University on “the power of socio-emotional intelligence to make the lean magic happen”. I’m still not sure how she managed to do it, but Susanne got me to buy her chocolates to hand out during her session, to demonstrate eating mindfully. She even got me to hand the chocolates out. Perhaps it had something to do with Covey’s Circle of Control, Influence and Concern that she talked about during her workshop.

I then introduced a session by Mallory Kwiatkowski from the University of Michigan on “Practical Change for Lean Organisations”, which highlighted amongst other things their process for prioritising and implementing lean/improvement ideas in their Shared Services Center.

My final workshop introduction was for Hayley MacDonald from Central Queensland University. I know Hayley very well from the 3 months she spent working with us in the University of Strathclyde Continuous Improvement Directorate in 2018. Hayley’s session was on “Cultural shift – key to unlocking success” and it was great to see how much Hayley and her team have achieved over the last year or so.

The final keynote of the conference was delivered by Dr Kim Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Management and Organisations at the (University of) Michigan Ross School of Business. His keynote focused on “Enhancing Lean through Positive Leadership” and how positive leadership can positively impact an organisation’s performance. Dr Cameron used his research to demonstrate the positive impact of fostering gratitude and positive energy. One of the most enlightening quotes for me was, “negatively energised leaders create significant waste in the organisation”. It sounds obvious when you think about it.


On the evening after the conference finished, I had the opportunity to go and see my first-ever ice hockey game, with the University of Michigan playing against the University of Minnesota. What a great experience it was although unfortunately, Minnesota beat Michigan 2 – 1 in overtime.

                                                                             An ice hockey match

What a fantastic conference it was. I am very grateful to the University of Michigan Conference Organising Committee for all their hard work, dedication, and professionalism. The University of Melbourne has a hard act to follow in October 2020.