May 4 2018
“INTERVIEW – In this Dutch university (Avans), lean is not only taught in the classroom. A3s are now replacing the writing of a thesis as the final assignment students are asked to complete. […] This 20-week project is part of the last year’s workload. The company comes up with a problem (based on their needs) that the student will be asked to solve, and we at Avans gauge whether there is enough depth to the problem for it to qualify as a final project. […] The standard tool we use to document the learning and map the project is the A3 methodology. Starting this year, students will no longer be required to write a thesis. The A3 will take its place.”
Sourced through Planet Lean
Michel Baudin‘s comments: This interview raises the questions of whether it is a good idea to replace theses with A3s, and for a university to align itself with Lean.
A3s versus Reports
First, Avans University is not a small institution: it has three campuses in the Netherlands, 30,000 students, and a 200-year history. That it’s doing away with the requirement of a 40-page final report in its graduation requirements is no small matter.
Van der Werk’s rationale for it is that “[these] reports are not something that students will ever be asked to produce on the job.” Be that as it may, does it necessarily follow that they should be replaced by A3s as graduation requirements?
Academic writing tends to be verbose and a pivot towards conciseness seems like a good idea. I recently had the opportunity to review two German academic textbooks, both published by Springer, respectively in 2012 and 2009. The first one, on Foundations of Production Planning and Control Volume 1, clocks in at 485 pages, and there is a Volume 2 that I haven’t seen, with 426 more pages. The second one, Theory of Production Planning and Control, has 1,508 pages. Having written on this topic myself in Manufacturing Systems Analysis and in Lean Logistics, I question that it deserves such extensive treatments and wonder who the readers are.
The authors of the German tomes have decades of research experience in the field but, perhaps, they might share it with their students and the world more effectively in 250-page digests with color infographics, photographs, and the cartoons commonly used in the Japanese manufacturing literature, like this sketch of the flow of materials from trucks to pallets, shelves, and the production line:
Doing away with final reports from students altogether, however, is an extreme measure. We need to ask what good these reports do. Unlike a document prepared by an employee to support a technical decision, a student report’s primary value is to its author. As long as it is neither plagiarized nor ghostwritten, the production of a final report is often the most intense learning experience of a student’s college years.
Expressing ideas in complete sentences and paragraphs exposes gaps in logic and fuzziness about facts, and prompts the author to fix both. Slides and bullet points certainly don’t do this, which is the core of Edward Tufte’s criticism of the cognitive style of PowerPoint: they gloss over issues instead of bringing them to light. Of course, A3 are not slides, and it’s an open question whether they can do the job that reports do. An A3 is a summary but, by itself, no evidence that the detailed work has been done.
As a motivation for switching to A3s, van der Werk also brings up the amount of work required of the faculty to review all these reports, “in a batch, at the end of the year.” Regarding the batching aspect, perhaps the university could reflect on the reason for the academic year ending at the end of the spring for all students as opposed to being staggered. The only reason schools take the summer off is so that children can help with harvests in the summer, and I don’t think many of today’s Avans students spend their summers as farm hands.
Should a University Align Itself With Lean?
Lean is not a theory or a methodology for higher education but a label that consultants have used to market their services and lead clients to believe that these services are based on the Toyota Production System and the Toyota Way. Marketing labels have a shelf life, and there is evidence that the “Lean” brand is getting stale, as a result of too many consultants slapping it on services that didn’t deliver the expected results.
Avans University has been around for 200 years. To keep thriving, it needs to stay current but it should be wary of aligning itself too closely with a brand that doesn’t have another 200 years ahead.