COVID-19: Lean Times Call for Lean Management (or do they?)

Becky Morehouse

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The pandemic has reduced most college budgets to tatters. In response, colleges are trying to do more with less.

Not surprisingly, then, we are hearing more and more about “lean management.”

Lean Management

Lean management, you might remember, stresses creating the greatest possible value for customers while consuming as few resources as possible. The idea rests on two tenets. First, increasing effectiveness and efficiency. And second, protecting your core people.

In today’s tough economic climate, I fear that too many higher education administrators are focusing on the first tenet of lean management—increasing effectiveness and efficiency—and are overlooking the second—protecting key people.

Let me explain.

First, I sense that lean management has become a business-ese way of saying, “times are tough, we need to do more with less.”

Unfortunately, there are two fundamental problems with a “do more with less” approach. First, “doing more” is seldom strategic. At best it is a measure of busyness and reduces strategy to frenzy.  

The second problem with a “do more with less” approach is that it burns out the people whose performance you most need. Talented people are not alchemists. They cannot create something from nothing. They want to be successful. And they need to be supported with real resources.1

While the first element of lean management has become distorted in today’s difficult climate, the second element—protecting key people—is increasingly being overlooked.

Let me offer three observations.

First, you are encouraging failure 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, that there is no understanding of what it will take to be successful, and finally, that their contribution is not valued. The net result is gradual but certain disenfranchisement.

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.

The third instance of lean management is perhaps the most frustrating. It involves holding people responsible for results, but not giving them the authority and the resources they need to achieve those results.

When lean management becomes an excuse for working people more and resourcing them less, two things—both of them bad—occur. First, it becomes punitive. Your best people become 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. I think of a president I once worked with who said that his most important vice presidents all had significant health issues related to their being overworked. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working hard. There is something very wrong with continually being asked to perform at the sacrificial level.

Second, your most talented people—the people you absolutely need in a time of crisis—will tire of the crucible and leave. Regardless of whatever hiring freeze might be in place, a well-led college or university is always looking for talented people. 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.

Lean management, properly defined and executed, is a powerful tool. Poorly defined and haphazardly applied, however, lean management will sacrifice the people that colleges and universities need most.

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

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