Lean pickings

February 2, 2012

"Lean" approaches to cost reduction work best when an organisation has clear objectives with clear ideas on how specific activities contribute (or fail to contribute) to achieving them ("In hungry times, post-92s grow keen on Lean", 12 January).

It is unlikely that any university can define its outcomes and processes as clearly as a car manufacturer is able to. In any case, no one has seriously tried - and most institutions do not have the kind of information system that would make it possible.

Interestingly, Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and head of the Universities UK task force that delivered a report on Lean last autumn, has taken a much more traditional approach to improving efficiency at his institution. Aberdeen's recent voluntary severance rounds have aimed only at reducing gross staff costs without any detailed analysis of the operational effects. The question of what the university's objectives are has been partly addressed through its strategic plan, but it is far from clear how these can be related to actual production activities and resource-allocation decisions.

Diamond is to be congratulated for testing his theoretical insights in a real institution, but his experience to date must be discouraging.

Alex Arthur, Aberdeen

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