When Lean Management Turns Mean

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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Colleges have a long history of ransacking the latest management bestsellers in a hunt for new ideas to help survive challenging times.

Of the myriad ideas in play, one in particular has me uneasy: lean management.

I don’t think lean management is a bad idea. I’m concerned that it’s being used to justify some bad behaviors.

Do More With Less

First, I sense that lean management has become a euphemism for saying, “do more with less.” There are two fundamental problems with a “do more with less” approach. First, “doing more” is seldom strategic and should never be construed as a measurement of effectiveness. It is, at best, a measure of busyness and reduces strategy to frenzy.

John Kotter notes that there is a debilitating difference between frenzy and urgency. Frenzy, he says, is false urgency. The hallmark of false urgency is lots of people doing lots of things, but no larger vision of how these things fit together or where the organization is trying to go. “Get busy” is the battle cry of the frenzied manager. “Get strategic” is the battle cry of the urgent leader.

Burn Out

Second, a “do more with less” approach burns out the people whose performance you most need. Talented people are not alchemists. They cannot create something from nothing. They need to be supported with real resources.1

The first element of lean management has become distorted in today’s difficult climate. The second element—protecting key people—is simply overlooked. Let me offer three observations.


First, consider what happens when key people, saddled with smaller budgets and reduced staff, are routinely asked to deliver the same, or even better, results. This sends a signal that their superiors have little real understanding of the enormity and complexity of the task and that there is no understanding of what it will take to be successful. The net result is gradual but certain disenfranchisement.

Measuring Performance

The second failure occurs when some people and departments are consistently put under the gun while others are not. There is a powerful temptation in higher education to hold those people whose performance can be easily measured to a higher standard than those people whose performance cannot. We see that most clearly in staff positions.

Performance in admissions and advancement, for example, are easy to measure. Performance among library staff and student services are not. Please note that I am not picking on library staff and student services. What I am suggesting, in the larger sense, is that everyone who works at a college or university should understand how their performance will be measured and then held accountable for that performance.

Mean Management

When lean management becomes mean management, two things—both of them bad—occur. First, it becomes punitive. Your best people—your A-team—are overburdened. Because they are the most talented and the most conscientious, they assume, or are given, a disproportionate share of the burden. Shouldering this burden can exact a terrible toll. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working hard. There is something very wrong, however, with continually being asked to perform at the sacrificial level.

Second, your most talented people—the people you absolutely need—will tire of the crucible and get enticed away. Regardless of whatever hiring freeze might be in place, a well-led college or university is always looking for truly talented people, and when it spots those people, it will pounce. Interestingly, and sadly, when your best people get hired away you will be left, in the end, with those people who have no option but to stay in place.

Everyone agrees that times are tough. Correspondingly, higher education should always be on the lookout for the tools that will help it become more effective and efficient. Lean management, properly defined and executed, is one such tool. Poorly defined and haphazardly applied, however, lean management will sacrifice the people that colleges and universities need most. At that point, it is no longer lean, but mean.

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1Political support, budgetary support, staff support, time, and a clear sense of direction.

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