A few weeks ago several of us participated in a study by Gene Fliedner and Kieran Mathieson of Oakland University. The researchers were attempting to determine what industry was looking for in terms of the lean manufacturing knowledge of university graduates, and they have generously made their findings available to all of us online in their paper titled Learning Lean: A Survey of Industry Lean Needs.
Fliedner and Mathieson came to three primary conclusions. The first is that industry would like graduates to have a comprehensive view of organizations.
Why is this whole firm view so important? Most people in firms work in specific functional areas, like manufacturing, accounting, human resources, and so on. Their jobs are defined by their managers, who should make sure that, when everyone does his or her particular job, everything fits together into a coherent whole. Unfortunately, this simplistic command-and-control view of organizational design does not fit with the realities of today’s cost cutting, globally competitive world. The goals and assumptions that drove a firm’s design yesterday may not be true tomorrow.
Lean thinking is at its best in exactly these situations, when the parameters have changed, and business as usual will not work. The best Lean employees are those who can step outside their limited day-to-day roles, and ask difficult questions like: am I doing what I’m doing? How does it contribute to the firm’s strategy? What needs to change if the company is to adapt? These questions demand a systems view of the business and its processes.
How does this impact the university curriculum?
Most academic curricula emphasize a somewhat deep, yet relatively narrow preparation in specific disciplines. Lean requires something more, however. Specifically, it demands that people take a whole firm view of their companies. arrangements. Perhaps faculty in Lean would find kindred spirits in MIS, and in other fields that focus on business systems. This could be done formally through coordinated courses, or informally through ad hoc arrangements.
The second conclusion is that industry lean professional would like graduates to have better human relations skills.
To meet industry needs, universities must teach students Lean as a set of relationships, as well as a set of concepts and skills. Some faculty dismiss this as "fuzzy." Today’s business world is fuzzy, in many different ways, from the uncertainty of the global market, to the angst of wrenching organizational change. Effective leaders deal with this fuzziness. If university faculty are to help graduates become effective Lean practitioners, they must face it too, even if it is unpleasant. The human element is essential in attaining the goals of cost cutting, waste elimination, productivity, and quality improvement. To think otherwise is, well, fuzzy.
The third conclusion is industry’s desire that graduates have real-world business knowledge and experience.
There are a variety of approaches currently being pursued in academia today, ranging from semester-long cooperative industry/academic projects which typically focus on a small portion of a firm’s process (e.g., conducting a kaizen event), to internships, to other hands-on approaches. Satisfying the desires of industry requires a partnership between academia and industry. So far, we have considered what faculty can do to help prepare students for industry. It is reasonable to ask what industry can do to help faculty and students. Internships can be invaluable. They help students understand how real business differs from the clinical experiences of the classroom. Faculty can become interns as well, and improve their understanding of the challenges students will face.
Those three conclusions pretty well line up with my experience as an industry professional who has often hired new engineering grads. Real-world experience is an obvious desire, but being able to hire a new grad that understood how entire organizations work and had the people skills (respect for people…) would be a major plus.