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Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E081: Lean Implementation at the University of Michigan with Lisa Earls

23 min read

In this podcast, I interview Lisa Earls, who is the Senior Operational Improvement Consultant at the University of Michigan. She spent almost 5 years at the University of North Dakota before taking this new role in 2019. We discuss how she is helping teach and coach staff at the University of Michigan on lean principles using Everyday Lean Ideas and Daily Huddles.

She discusses a 4-month coaching program where departments within the university system attend 4 hours of training per month, and receive coaching and work on homework between sessions. They cover the following topics: metrics, huddle boards, leadership (gemba) walks, everyday lean ideas, and daily huddles.

You can watch the full video of the interview here…



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Lisa (L): My name’s Lisa Earls. I’m actually part of Operational Improvement under Organizational Excellence. So where I was just a Senior Consultant under the Lean team before, now I’m an Operational Improvement Consultant under Organizational Excellence. We actually have expanded our role within the university, so it’s a good thing we’ve become part of Organizational Excellence, which is a service that’s offered through the Shared Services Center at the University of Michigan. We’ve actually expanded from specifically Lean-focused, although that’s still the underlying core of everything that we’re doing.

I guess to talk about where I’m at now, I’ve been at the University of Michigan for two years as of yesterday, and been working with my colleagues, Krista Schulte and Colin Moore. We’re just a small team of three at the University of Michigan. We’re there to provide support around Lean process improvement, and organizational consulting, helping with process issues across campus. Colin actually supports the Shared Services Center, which is a one-of-a-kind organization where we have 27 teams utilizing Lean in Daily Work, which is a system that was designed by my supervisor, my boss, Krista Schulte. She’s been there about five years at the University of Michigan and brought Lean into the business and finance area really. My role is to support all the rest of the campus in the most part.

We have teams that utilize Lean in Daily Work, which is a signature system that I mentioned, where we teach Lean principles and provide tools for teams within different parts of the university, and then we provide support and coaching and mentoring on an ongoing basis for them. It’s really a shift from trying to teach individuals Lean to put out into universities. That’s, a lot of times, how universities handle Lean. We actually bring in whole teams and try to teach them together, over a course of four months, how to really start to just think about problem-solving differently and utilizing the huddle board and our version of PDCA, which is called an Everyday Lean Idea form.

We have about 30 teams on campus that are utilizing Lean in Daily Work, and again the 27 teams internal to the Shared Services Center. That represents a small overall total of the I think 35,000 people that are employed at the University of Michigan, but has been very successful in the College of LS&A, which is one of our larger colleges. We are working through the School of Public Health. We’ve worked on consulting with our School of Dentistry and School of Information, so we’re in many different areas of the university.

Brion (B): Yeah, that was going to be a question is just kind of how spread is this program throughout the university in terms of the different schools. You mentioned LSA. What’s that?

L: That’s the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, I believe, what that stands for. That’s one of the larger schools and their whole finance group has gone through Lean in Daily Work through the course and continues to use it. And then the School of Information, as I mentioned, where we’ve actually had some more student-facing teams that come in and work with us as well. Student Life has also been through Lean in Daily Work. We’ve had a couple teams from our finance group, the overall finance group, School of Public Health. We’re currently working with the Ross School of Business. Our graduate school, the Mary Rackham Graduate School (actually the Horace H. Rackham Graduate School), has a few different teams that have come through, so different areas. We’re trying to reach at least every single college or unit on campus.

B: How long has this program been going on within the university? you’ve been there two years, but was it started many years before that?

L: The Lean program was started about six years ago, and Lean in Daily Work was conceived and put into place probably we’re in about our fourth year with that program.

B: So what led you to University of Michigan?

L: Oh, my boss. I met Krista. I used to work at the University of North Dakota, and if you back up further than that, I went to graduate school for Industrial Organizational Psychology, so I’ve always been really interested in how people work and how to make work effective and a better place to be because people spend so much time there. I’ve always been pretty passionate about that. I ended up working at the University of North Dakota in a different role, not necessarily doing that. There was no process improvement program or Lean program there. I attended the Lean in Higher Education Conference because I was really interested in kind of understanding how to- You could see all around the opportunities for improvement, but I didn’t know exactly how to put them into place.

I went to that conference in 2015, and that’s where I met Krista, who’s my current boss. She and I worked in professional organizations together in different roles. We’ve led a Lean community of practice for NCCI. If you’re not familiar with that, that is a really spectacular group of colleges, the national something continuous improvement. It’s all around people who are engaged in improvement in higher education specifically. I can send you a link for them.

B: Yeah, that’d be great. I’ll collect up all the links and acronyms.

L: So Krista and I, we worked together through that way, and actually, I had been at the University of North Dakota and put into place a program that was utilizing and teaching Lean and doing process improvement on my own. I had left that position, actually, to travel and Krista had an open position. So when I came back, that was just a situation that worked out really well. The University of Michigan, obviously, it’s just a stellar institution. It’s such a well-known college. To be able to come into a program that was already existing and supported, that could provide opportunities, it just was really a great fit for me. It’s exactly what I wanted to do and I was really lucky to be able to get the job and to be here.

B: Because I think Michigan, they have a pretty good connection with the auto industry, right, and so I think there’s been a lot of process improvement activity happening over the years. Just seeing the progression of the auto industry over the decades, it makes a lot of sense that they would have a pretty good improvement program or at least heading in that direction.

L: Yeah, I think there’s definitely an openness to it because so many staff and faculty here have at least heard of Lean or have a familiarity with manufacturing and engineering. I think that does absolutely help. The program that’s in place now, like I said, we’re three people, so a very small group, but we try to have a big reach and we’re actually partnered pretty closely with there’s a similar program on the Michigan Medicine side. They have a large continuous improvement group there that has really helped kind of kick start this, the one on the campus side.

B: And then are there programs in place now where the students are going through coursework that’s similar, like is there an Engineering School or a Business School, are they covering these topics at all with current students?

L: It’s not something that we’re engaged with. I know that there are some Lean courses taught for professionals and Six Sigma, specifically, through the Engineering Department. We have worked with students in a different capacity. We worked with students that were part of the larger leadership group where they were part of a program where they were able to kind of kick start a business that was designed to help in a different way. We went in and helped teach them A3 problem-solving to really help them start to understand what they were addressing and how they could move forward. That was used this last year, so that was our first real chance to work directly with students and it was really great. That’s one of the best parts about being on a campus is the energy from students.

B: Where are you getting most of the demand or pull for the support? you said that one of the schools, you’re getting a lot of moment there. Is that the Dentistry or where else would you say you’re getting a lot of interest?

L: I think with the launch of Organizational Excellence over the summer, before that, we really were just word-of-mouth. Once one team would kind of discover us, it would spread through the college, and so a lot of our customers have been that way. Right now, what we’re seeing is, especially with the shift in the pandemic with the remote work and some of the real chasms, I guess, in processes have just shown themselves based on how we’re working. There have been more reach outs just for the consulting side of things, for us to just come in.

And even when we’re consulting, we still do it in a way that we’re working directly with staff and engaging them along the way. Again, we use A3s really to help bring them through. Although we’re not training and teaching them these methods, we’re trying to impart a lot of the Lean tools and mindsets as we’re talking to them. But when we’re consulting, it’s not like we’re coming in and saying, “Here’s what’s wrong,” we’re just highlighting what they’re unable to see or what is difficult for them to actually look at visibly. But that’s definitely the pull. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of interest in that.

B: That’s great. What are some of the challenges that you’re hearing from groups? are you getting the traditional pushback around, “These are manufacturing concepts,” or, “This doesn’t apply to the work we’re doing,” or is it a different set of feedback or challenges that come up?

L: In my mind, it kind of divides into the transactional side teams, and then the teams that are not so much transactional. Again, at the Shared Services Center, these are teams that are processing AP, AR, HR things are all centralized and processed, so they have a real nature of seeing metrics and understanding things a little differently. What we hear from teams that don’t function in that way is it’s difficult for them to kind of shift the mindset of getting over, “My work is different.” We really try to teach them that all work is measurable. I think people that have worked in higher ed, and especially our project-based work or student services, there hasn’t been an emphasis on a customer perspective. It’s just harder for them to kind of get there sometimes. So when we use terms like customer and that, there’s not this transactional feeling to the work that they do.

B: What other things are you working on right now? you’ve got the program. You said it was a four-month program.

L: Yes.

B: Would you be able to talk through just some of the elements of the different weeks or is it, what that program looks like, is it once a month or is it once a week or twice a week, and what are some of the topics, like you said daily huddles and A3?

L: It’s interesting because it’s kind of a work in progress right now. We’re always improving. We’re switching to this online. We did not do online training before the pandemic, and now everything we do is online, so we’ve made a lot of adjustments. But our traditional Lean in Daily Work course is a four-hour training once a month, and then there is basically work that they take back with them as a team to work on, and then we come and coach in place every two weeks to kind of check-in on them and make sure that they’re making progress. The five pieces or parts of Lean in Daily Work that we teach are metrics, a huddle board, which we provide, and now we have an online version of that, we do leadership walks, the everyday Lean Ideas which I talked about, which is the PDCA, and then oh huddles. We already said that, the huddles. Yeah, daily huddles.

B: It sounds like really good foundational elements. When I think about setting up the infrastructure for good improvements, it’s like those are the really key things to have. You can talk about value stream mapping and kanban and all this stuff, but if that piece isn’t set up right, there’s nowhere for those ideas to go and there’s no infrastructure to improve and refine it. So I think those are really great areas to focus on for new teams to get that built-in there. You can add tools and techniques on top of that fairly easily.

L: Absolutely, yeah. We find that we talk about it like riding a bike where you start out very wobbly, and if you go slow, and you eventually start to get your training wheels off. That’s about the point of the four months is we’re just getting the training wheels off, and then we provide ongoing mentoring because sometimes these teams are in places where they’re the only team doing this and there’s no real support network right around them. So we try to create an environment where they can be cross-supported or find other teams to work with.

That’s one way that we’re really pushing right now is to develop maybe almost like a mentorship between staff in an environment where they work in very different areas on very different things, but they’re all trying to utilize this system and they’re all working with the same tools.

B: Is that that mentoring and coaching part of that, is that informal or is that part of the program that there’s structure to that, or based on just how much help they want?

L: The coaching is part of the program as far as what they get from us. We coach them every couple weeks. We give them the opportunity to continue for three months post-course where we’ll come and check in with them. The mentorship piece that I mentioned is actually something I’ve been trying to work on and think about adding in. It’s kind of a part of it that I feel like might be beneficial for new teams coming in.

We also do have a community of practice that we started last fall at the university, called Empowering Blue, that is designed for staff and faculty. We have an hour about every six weeks where we come in and do some learning. We try to connect everyone, provide opportunities to share knowledge. That’s something that we didn’t have in place. Or we had a community of practice around Lean that probably lasted a year and a half and kind of fell off. Communities of practice are kind of hard to maintain, and so that’s a new thing that we’ve brought back in for folks that are interested in the kind of work we do, even if they haven’t engaged with us otherwise.

B: Yeah, I think those are really great. It doesn’t get brought up very much in a lot of organizations or even in the Lean community, but I see that the ability for people to have conversations with others in other groups, and you have this kind not informal but it is open discussion. Maybe you have a topic but then there’s open dialogue and you’re networking. I think that’s so helpful for organizations to be able to say, “I don’t want to go talk to the Lean team necessarily. I don’t want to talk to my manager. I want to talk to a peer or someone else or just meet someone new and hear what they’re doing.” I think that is what I like about the communities of practice model is that it allows people to get different perspectives through the non-formal channels that maybe are in place today. I found some just really great movement of activity and improvements in other areas because they’ve made a connection with another group that never would have thought of connecting them normally I guess.

L: It’s interesting. People, I think, want to feel connected, and especially, again, the remote work for university employees is a very new thing I think, different than manufacturing. This is an area we haven’t been in before, so helping to create connections when we’re not in the same place is an interesting thing.

B: Yeah. How about the Everyday Ideas program? can you talk to that a little bit?

L: Everyday Lean Ideas, they’re part of our huddle board as far as it’s a form that you fill out that takes you through PDCA. We have basically writing up a problem statement and then learning as much as you can about it, so we have our ready and explorer. The explorer phase is where we talk about gathering data for a benchmark and doing as much understanding of root cause of the problem as possible, then we try and experiment. After the experiment, we re-measure, we see where we’re at. Did we make any improvement, yes or no? and then what are we going to try next. So it’s an incremental problem-solving approach that we have the teams apply to the issues that they’re trying to understand. It works pretty well.

We’re trying to provide a nice structured way to think about problems. The roles that a lot of these folks play is the faster I can come up with a solution and throw it in place, the more accolades I get and the better I feel about what I’m doing, so we really try to make it very not slow it down, but just make them think a little more about assumptions and try to dial that back.

At the Shared Services Center, we have something called the Innovation Index where all those improvements are entered into a database so we track the amount, dollars and hours, saved. That’s, again, something that I don’t think happens a lot in higher education where they’re actually trying to calculate savings of improvements. We do it because our goal is to offer more without increasing costs for campus customers. That’s one of our strategic missions. One way we do that is by saving time and resources and absorbing new work.

B: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to look at it is to not cut out resources, but say we can offer more value, more services to our community and students and the staff than what we currently could. It’s not the stressing people out and working harder, it’s hopefully, easier. It’s easy to absorb that extra work because it’s where things are running more smoothly.

L: Yeah, that’s the goal. Teams use these Everyday Lean Ideas in different ways on different teams. It’s pretty tightly controlled. Like I said, in the Shared Services Center, there’s an actual endpoint, but when we’re teaching it, it’s really about how can you ensure that you’re not missing steps when you’re trying to address some bigger, hairier problems.

B: I think about the change management side of it, of changing something that you don’t know the impact of the other department or groups and you find out through maybe going through a little bit more research and discussions that, oh, this is going to cause a problem for the next process or downstream.

L: Yeah, absolutely.

B: Or even does this improvement actually work. It looked better initially, but then now we’ve actually looked at it over a couple of weeks and it’s not really any better than what we had before, and why is that?

L: Yeah, and I think something we hear from teams, too, is things feel like they’re bad. Like, “I feel like this doesn’t work very well,” or, “I feel like there’s a lot of people struggling with this problem,” and then when we actually put the data into it and we ask them to really try to understand the problem, often, we find that that feeling is not a good indication of if something is working well or not. It’s you may have a couple people with a big problem or you may have a lot of people with a small problem, but it’s really how can you focus your resources where it’s going to do the most good and take the feeling piece out of it as a measure of bad or good.

B: Right. How is the ability to gather data or collect metrics or extract data out of the systems, how well is that right now within the university system?

L: It’s very different. Every team works with different systems. It’s a large university, it’s very decentralized in a lot of ways, so we really work with teams to help them understand what is going to give them direction in seeking value for their customers. It’s really easy for a lot of teams to throw up a vanity metric and say we do a lot of it and that’s great, but we really try to help them understand that their metrics need to be directional. It needs to really show them exactly where they need to look to start to dig into issues, and that’s a challenge. Some teams that we work with have never looked at data to understand things, and so that’s a piece of our teaching is to help them create metrics that are going to be effective.

When we were actually back in the office, our huddle boards are dry erase for a reason, because they have to be flexible in realizing that sometimes what they think is going to work is not and so they can erase it and start over with something different. That’s another piece of the teaching is that even with ELIs, these experiments are going to fail sometimes. Creating a culture where team members are able to experiment and not always be right is also a big part of what we’re trying to help them understand.

B: Yeah, absolutely. You said teams are switching over to a virtual huddle board. Is that an Excel version or is there a software that’s being used?

L: Teams kind of find what works for them, but our own board, we use Mural, that software. Some teams use a jam board, some teams use Google Slides or Sheets. There’s certain components of our huddle board that we really recommend that they’re putting onto their own. We do a team temperature, there’s a team temperature on there, the ELIs have a place to move across the board.

B: The ELIs, what was that again?

L: Everyday Lean Ideas, ELIs. They’re actually a visual part of the board that they move from bucket to bucket as they’re thinking about them and as they’re working through them.

B: Is that like a document that they download and then start filling out or is it retained in a database of some sort where they can update it, a file or a record?

L: We have just a fillable PDF that they use when they’re remote or a piece of paper, which is kind of an interesting idea to have them print a piece paper and write on it, but it does help kind of with the thinking. So yeah, it’s a fillable PDF.

B: Just any other successes or I guess what’s going well or has teams had any good successes you could share or is it still early to gather up any kind of major improvements yet?

L: I think, overall, there’s a few things. The shift to online has, again, kick-started our team to really explore how we’re teaching and how the learning is taking place for our teams. I think the Shared Services Center is just one of the biggest examples of success where there’s 27 teams. It’s almost six years old, so the actual idea of the Shared Services Center was relatively new to the university and it was basically centralizing, again, some of these main practices. It was a difficult transition for the university to make for staff. It wasn’t a smooth thing when it was created.

Our leader there, Pam Gable, is the Executive Director. She has really instituted a few key pieces that have made it very successful. One of them is utilizing the Lean in Daily Work system. The teams are all well-versed in continuous improvement, they’re consistently looking for ways to make things better for our campus partners, and we’re one of the only types of service centers like that. We have accumulated a lot of savings in hours and time, we have a very high engagement score, we have a very positive culture. It’s just a really great place and I think Lean in Daily Work is a part of that.

We definitely have campus partners that have seen impacts and changes just in the way that their teams communicate, in the way that they’re able to think about problems more broadly, like you said, in a process, and to impact changes and just really empowering them to think about you know what if we tried this. Even just that kind of phrase is something that can impact a lot of positive change for people in their roles.

B: Do you mainly cover Ann Arbor and the school system there or is there satellite locations that are involved as well?

L: We serve the main Ann Arbor campus. There are Flint and Dearborn schools as well that we have engaged with just a little bit, but as we are able to provide services and they’re wanted, then, yeah, we’re able to work with them as well. We teach a few different courses consistently, one being related to project management with kind of a Lean mindset. Our Foundations course is open and that’s just really the entry-level kind of learn about these concepts of Lean and how process improvement and continuous improvement can work in your job, and then we offer an A3 course as well, and some different things, offerings, as people need them, along with Lean in Daily Work.

B: So people can take a one-off course as well, not just have to go through the program?

L: Absolutely, yep.

B: You mentioned maybe a networking group of higher education. Is there any other organizations that you’re part of or aware of that are working towards kind of this outreach of Lean principles and concepts into higher education?

L: Lean HE is a tremendous organization. That’s the international organization for Lean in higher education. We have a lot of friends and colleagues that work on other continents that are doing really amazing things. That conference, actually we held, it was the first time it was in the US, we hosted that conference in November of 2019. That’s one of the best. That’s one of the best groups to share and learn from I think. NCCI was the other group that I mentioned, and that, although not Lean focused, they do have an annual conference where they do have some Lean pieces to it, but it’s really overall people who are working towards improvement in higher education in a variety of ways. We all have the same kinds of heads.

B: Yeah, great. How about there’s a Michigan Lean Consortium, are you tied in with them at all?

L: I have not been heavily involved with them, but I’ve heard good things. I follow kind of what their events are. I think coming in, right when I came into the role, we were planning for the conference, and then it was the pandemic, and I’ve only lived in Michigan two years. They have Lean coffees.

B: Yeah, I think I’ve attended a couple of those, yeah.

L: There’s also Eric Olsen from Cal Poly runs a really great organization on the West Coast that he invites other people to attend as well, sometimes geared more towards manufacturing, but you get some education folks there too. He’s great to hook up to work with. He teaches in their Engineering Department and does a lot of really tremendous work with outreach.

B: Great. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. Anything else you wanted to share or what’s the plan going forward I guess maybe? is it continuing expansion of the program or is there new things you’re looking at offering? Do you actually do like facilitation of events or anything like that, kaizen events, or is it still just kind of getting the infrastructure going and getting people into small, daily improvements?

L: We’re really pushing the ability for teams and individuals to have what they need to make improvements, so we meet people where they’re at in different ways. We’re pretty flexible. I think, as we’re moving forward, again, we want to reach every different unit in college on campus, that’s almost 30, and work with our partner campuses as well. And so we’re continuing to evaluate what we offer and what really the need is. The community of practice we started was really based on people saying we want to develop this community, so we’re going to keep pushing to expand those opportunities for whoever wants to engage.

B: If someone has questions and they’d like to reach out to you, what’s the best way to connect with you?

L: They can on LinkedIn or through my email. I don’t know if you share that information.

B: Yes, I can. Whatever you want me to share, I’ll definitely put in there. I’ve got your LinkedIn link because I think that’s how we connected, and then yeah, if you wanted to give me whatever email address you’d prefer, awesome. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been really interesting and it sounds like a really cool program.

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