Posted by: Knightbird | January 14, 2015

Lean at the University of Washington

Years ago I recommended a book on Lean Thinking in University systems to a colleague of mine at the University of Alaska Southeast. As I have said many times before, I’ve been involved in Lean Thinking since 2004. I haven’t advocated strenuously for the University of Alaska to adopt lean, but I think it’s about time. I did talk to the leadership at the School of Business in Fairbanks about Lean years ago, but it was cocktail conversation, and they didn’t follow up with me. As long as I am tilting at Windmills (Sancho Panza style), I might as well try to take on another challenge. I have to keep asking why do I punish myself this way? I keep telling myself that I care about my state and its people. I want the best services and health we can provide. And that means Lean Thinking for UA.

The University of Washington has taken lean to heart. My Sensei, Dr. Thomas Jackson, developed a course in lean healthcare for the UW years ago. Dr. Jackson’s career in lean healthcare started in Alaska as our Sensei at Chugachmiut. That was the first I heard of lean at UW. Recently, during a review of Results Washington, the lean government initiative for Washington State I saw a reference to Lean at UW and checked it out. They have made some amazing moves and are moving forward as a lean organization should. UW has posted video interviews of employees engaged in the Lean program. This one by Lily Gebrenegus has wonderful insights. One is “Having all the answers wasn’t as important as being able to ask the right questions.” She recognizes because of her lean experience that the ideas employees have are remarkable, and that Lean brings out the teamwork required to recognize and implement those ideas. While the Lean process is structured and somewhat formal, think Standard Work, it does improve employee engagement in the success of an organization. Charles Kennedy, Associate Vice President, at the University of Washington spoke about employee engagement in Lean across the University. I hear this in good implementations. However, until employees are convinced that Lean is not the flavor of the month, they will not engage. UW has been engaged in Lean for about 4 years. Their leadership is serious about it.. They have created positions for lean specialists. I would be curious to know who their Sensei is.

The traditional US management system is devious and harsh. I have experienced first hand the get it done or else style of management. I hated it. Developing relationships and trust among employees and management requires hard work and engagement. Sue Camber, Associate Vice President and Controller, of the University of Washington, is amazing. She is a finance person, and I confess to having problems with finance people accepting Lean. They are results oriented. They have a very fixed culture in finance, one of budgets and accountability, that’s been difficult to overcome in my career. I am fortunate to have 3 finance professionals in my career that expressed interest in Lean. I did not have enough time to develop them.

University of Alaska, it’s time to help bring Alaska into the 20th Century (Toyota developed the management system in the 20th Century). Start developing courses on Lean Management, Lean Government and Lean Accounting, among others. Start using Lean in your own management and provide a benefit to your students.


  1. GREAT read!!! We deal with Lean in Government here in MD, on a local government level. I worked for a school system and it took about 4-5 years to get MOST of the workers to buy in. But only a few upper management bought in. It’s great and it workshop! I’m trying to get my new county school system to buy in, but I’m the only “believers”. Time, time and time…that’s what’s needed to believe. Keep up the good work!!

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