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The Value Of Inquiry In Teaching Lean Process Design

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Lean and Green

Tagged Division

Industrial Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1262.1 - 15.1262.8



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Paper Authors

author page

Sharon Johnson Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The Value of Inquiry in Teaching Lean Process Design Abstract

Lean principles provide systematic guidelines for designing effective processes, focusing on eliminating waste by specifying value, simplifying flow, and pulling from customer demand. Lean ideas have transformed process design and significantly improved lead times, quality and cost for many manufacturing companies. While lean principles are simply stated, the design process is complicated because every process has unique constraints and competitive drivers. In this paper, we examine the issue of how to use hands-on materials to teach lean design, and in particular, the value of inquiry and the use of multiple methods within the same course. We examine these issues in the context a physical process simulation, and discuss the use of case studies and a short game about variability to explore how different approaches to teaching lean topics build depth of understanding. We present preliminary results of the effects on student learning across implementations at five universities.


Industrial engineers are often responsible for the design/redesign of operational processes7; this practice continues to be driven by the use of lean principles in diverse industries. These principles provide broad guidelines for designing effective processes, in particular, eliminating waste by specifying value, making processes flow, and pulling from customer demand12. To apply these principles, industrial engineers use particular tactics, such as kanbans and cellular layouts, in their process designs. As in other engineering fields, such design is an art combined with science, as it can be challenging to determine which tactics to use and which wastes to reduce or eliminate given broader system constraints.

In recent years, faculty at a number of universities have used hands-on approaches for teaching lean principles, particularly physical simulations, to give students an opportunity to practice application and to engage them in actively learning lean topics1,5,8. In these activities, students typically simulate a process that is poorly structured and performs badly, then use specific lean tactics to improve performance, often in multiple improvement rounds. Such simulations are effective in providing opportunities for practice and decision-making, but are more controlled in terms of content and time than projects done at company sites, for example2. When lean simulations are used, students’ abilities to apply lean ideas have improved, as well as their confidence in those abilities5, 8. Simulations also provide faculty to explore ‘real-life’ lessons about process improvement and design5. These results are consistent with other studies that show students’ design and problem-solving abilities are improved in courses that use active and collaborative learning11.

While the value of using such simulations and hands-on activities has been demonstrated, an interesting question is how to use such materials most effectively to teach lean process design and decision-making. The author has been using a lean simulation as the foundation of a laboratory in an introductory industrial and operations course at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for over five years. In this simulation, students work as a group to assemble clocks in a multi-stage process. The same simulation is now used at a diverse set of universities, both in

Johnson, S. (2010, June), The Value Of Inquiry In Teaching Lean Process Design Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16845

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