Course designers told to learn from auto industry

September 7, 2007

Manufacturing expert says Toyota's techniques could boost institutions' competitiveness, writes Melanie Newman

A management technique used to cut waste in the automotive industry could be applied to higher education, a conference at Coventry University will hear this week.

Coventry's Steve Martin will present his research on the adaptation of "lean" techniques to the development of new degree courses at the Researching Academic Futures conference run by the university's Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

Lean techniques, which were pioneered by the car giant Toyota, remove or minimise activity that is of no value to the customer.

Dr Martin, the head of Coventry's department for engineering manufacture and management, told The Times Higher that university departments were not working together effectively.

"Rather than working together, departments work in isolation on their own little jobs. The lean approach removes waste and gives the flexibility the sector needs," Dr Martin said.

"Universities' approach to courses parallels manufacturers' stipulations on minimum orders. They say, 'We can't run a course with 50 students because it wouldn't be viable given the cost of developing the course', just as manufacturers used to say, 'You can't order 20 of our product, you have to order 400'. The answer is to reduce the cost of development."

Increased competition means universities will have to offer more bespoke courses for fewer students, he suggested. "Currently, a university won't offer a course that will only run for three years. But if you can develop a course quickly and efficiently, longevity won't be a problem."

Car manufacturers have cut costs by sharing knowledge on car design, and most cars are built from a common blueprint, Dr Martin pointed out. "There is no forum in higher education for sharing course material and best practice. If this were shared, it wouldn't have to be designed anew each time a university wanted to set up a new course."

Co-operation between departments and institutions will be discussed by other speakers. In a keynote speech, Sir David Watson of the Institute of Education will address "inter-professionalism".

"Universities need to create an environment where people understand that they can learn from each other," he said.


Waste targeted by the 'lean' technique

Waiting This applies to something hanging around without any value to the customer. In higher education, it could take the form of coursework waiting to be marked

Motion The movement of equipment or people that adds no value, for example, classes being held at different locations

Overproduction Making items before they are required, such as developing more courses than needed

Defects Generating items that will need to be either scrapped or reworked, such as assignments that need to be re-marked

Overprocessing Includes the duplication of activities

Skills utilisation Employees with the right set of skills are not used for a job.

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