How higher education can forge successful partnerships with industry

Business Impact: How higher education can forge successful partnerships with industry

How higher education can forge successful partnerships with industry

Business Impact: How higher education can forge successful partnerships with industry
Business Impact: How higher education can forge successful partnerships with industry

Effective collaboration can shape curriculum design so that graduates enter the working world with the skills, knowledge and behaviours that ensure they are an asset to future employers. Long term, students get the best quality education so that their qualifications improve their future prospects.

The key to collaboration

The critical factor is a willingness to collaborate and this works on both sides. Employers who are committed to collaboration with higher education will get a better pick of the graduates and better graduates to pick from.

Meanwhile, higher education establishments that encourage collaboration and actively pursue a variety of strategies to bring students, potential employers and learning together will gain a reputation for being a source of first-class employees and for being a preferred choice among students in view of the avenues of opportunity it provides.

High-quality education needs to be as up to date as possible. That comes from lecturers who have a good understanding of industry and its needs, so their lectures are not purely academic, but also have a practical application. To ensure that lecturers are kept up to date and get first-hand information from today’s workplace is therefore another reason why it’s so important for higher education institutions to have strong links with local industry.

Dos and don’ts

To ensure a successful partnership, it’s essential to follow some key points:

  • Define clear and specific objectives for the collaboration. Understand what each party wants to achieve and ensure their goals align.
  • Maintain open and transparent communication channels. Regularly update each other on progress, challenges and new opportunities to keep the collaboration on track.
  • Understand the strengths of each partner and how they complement each other. Appreciate each other’s expertise and contributions to the collaboration; this is all part of the development of a strong relationship based on trust and respect.
  • Address legal and ethical considerations upfront, such as intellectual property rights, data sharing and confidentiality agreements.
  • Regularly assess the progress and impact of the collaboration. Identify areas for improvement and make the necessary adjustments to enhance its effectiveness.

There are some areas to avoid too:

  • Don’t overlook equality. Both sides should have equal opportunities to contribute and benefit from the collaboration.
  • Don’t ignore student welfare and educational needs. Avoid any arrangements that might exploit students or compromise their learning experience.
  • Don’t limit innovation and creativity. Stay flexible and open to adapting the collaboration to meet changing needs and circumstances.
  • Don’t focus only on immediate outcomes. Meaningful partnerships require time to develop and yield substantial results.
  • Don’t ignore feedback from either side. Constructive criticism and input can lead to improvements and a stronger collaboration.

In addition, it’s important to ensure that there are processes in place to address potential conflicts of interest that may arise and also to aim for a win-win situation for both education and industry partners. A 2023 report from the Office for Students in the UK goes into the benefits and barriers in considerable depth.

Collaboration between education and industry can create valuable opportunities for knowledge exchange, skill development and advancements. It can foster innovation and better prepare students for real-world challenges, allow industry partners to benefit from fresh perspectives and talent and establish the educational institution as a preferred choice for students.

Phillip Stone Headshot

Phillip Stone is head of partnerships and business at Oxford Business College. He has a track record of delivering successful projects in the further and higher education sectors.

Read more Business Impact articles related to business school strategy

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Download the latest edition of the Business Impact magazine

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A World of Difference

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The value of collaboration between higher education and industry

Business Impact: The value of collaboration between higher education and industry

The value of collaboration between higher education and industry

Business Impact: The value of collaboration between higher education and industry
Business Impact: The value of collaboration between higher education and industry

Employers who work with educational institutions by offering work experience, workplace visits and sharing their viewpoint in presentations to students provide a practical insight into the workplace. Overall, it means that there will be a better match between qualifications and experience to ensure graduates are effective when they enter industry.

Hire for attitude

Legendary US businessman Herb Kelleher said: “Hire for attitude, train for skill”, a sound maxim but the key to success in applying this is that time must be set aside to carry out the training. No matter how knowledgeable a new recruit is, they still need to learn ‘how we do things here’. The more time invested in training, the more of an asset the employee is likely to become. The right attitude is the foundation on which everything else is built. 

For graduates who have had a continuous education from secondary school to higher education, the amount of training needed in the workplace will be more in-depth, as they are often experiencing a working environment for the first time.  This is where mature graduates who have returned to education with, often, substantial work experience, have an advantage as they have hands-on experience to draw on.

Where local employers have a good relationship with higher education establishments in their area, they have the opportunity to recruit graduate students directly. In fact, many employers offer temporary work opportunities for students during breaks, if their coursework allows.

It’s the responsibility of the educational establishment to educate potential employers about the kinds of opportunities that will be productive for both sides.  Students are not cheap labour; they’re looking at ways to develop their careers.  While some work experience is good for their CV, the right kind of experience is invaluable. It’s not just hiring a temp for the summer break, there needs to be time to help guide and educate the student.

What makes a superstar?

A work ethos of doing whatever it takes, not just for the individual, but also for the employer, sets a high standard. Graduates need to have an understanding of more than just their role in the organisation they’re working for, but a wider understanding of the business overall.

We believe that embedding curiosity is essential for students. When an employee has a real interest in the organisation they work for, they’re more able to see opportunities for innovation and, therefore, be more valuable to the organisation.  It’s not just about knowing what to do, but knowing why it’s important to do it.

As Simon Sinek has written: “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do. By ‘why’ I mean your purpose, cause, or belief – why does your company exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? And why should anyone care?.”

Soft skills are important and often make the difference during the recruitment process. Courses like communication, business English, planning, social media (particularly LinkedIn) and other soft skills that will enhance and underpin the educational qualification all contribute to a highly desirable employee.  Encouraging students to undertake this kind of additional learning establishes a habit of continuous professional development (CPD) that is essential for any professional.

Practical strategies for business

One of the strategies that Oxford Business College actively pursues is inviting guest speakers on specialist technology changes, industry developments and today’s hot topics. This is where industry leaders are invaluable in sharing their knowledge and expertise to inform students about real-world issues.

Another strategy we use to help students get hands-on experience in business is to use business simulations. This system puts students into teams where they compete to work through a scenario where they are working with specified resources and have to make decisions, while managing people and materials. 

Typically, a simulation will run over a five-week period with a small group of students.  Each week, two sets of decisions have to be made, with an additional two decisions in the final week. These simulations are all developed from industry, giving authentic scenarios for the teams to work on.

This gives students the experience of assessing the viability of their actions and of making decisions under pressure, offering a more real-world experience than theory alone can provide.

Plan for the future

One challenging and interesting area where education and industry can collaborate is artificial intelligence (AI).  

The ongoing concern that AI will replace human roles with digital interfaces isn’t new. When the internet first emerged, the same concern was expressed, but while some jobs were made redundant, the information superhighway didn’t displace libraries as reference points and, has, in fact, created new jobs that couldn’t exist without it.

Perhaps it will no longer be necessary to memorise vast tracts of information to pass an exam, but to be able to judge the quality of a generative AI’s output, or its contextual implications may be skills that a workforce of the future will need.

Working with local industries ensures academia is up to date with current technology, what’s being put into practice and, subsequently, how we can best equip students with the skills to give them an advantage. 

Changing the curriculum for any programme takes time; typically, university course programmes are reviewed every five years – and then most first degrees take three years to complete, so, potentially, there is a time lapse of up to eight years between curriculum changes and qualified graduates being available. However, technology is changing much faster than that and the skills a graduate needs today are likely to be vastly different in three years’ time. That’s why real-time input from industry is of such enormous value.

Headline image credit: Darwin Vegher on Unsplash

Phillip Stone Headshot

Phillip Stone is head of partnerships and business at Oxford Business College. He has a track record of delivering successful projects in the further and higher education sectors.

Read more Business Impact articles related to business school strategy

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Download the latest edition of the Business Impact magazine

Cover Story

A World of Difference

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Content Editor
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The new normal of collaboration: the view from Latin America

Satellite and planet earth focused on South America. Business Impact article image for the new normal of collaboration: the view from Latin America.

The deans of the School of Management and Social Sciences at Universidad ORT Uruguay, the Universidad de San Andrés Business School in Argentina and Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) EAESP in Brazil discuss new possibilities for Business Schools to partner with others and widen their reach

The fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t all doom and gloom. The crisis might just have opened up possibilities for Business Schools to partner in new ways and widen the reach of individual Schools. But competition in an ever-growing market (particularly within the online executive education space) cannot be ignored. Three deans of leading Business Schools in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay discussed trends around globalisation and inter-institutional partnerships on day two of the AMBA & BGA Global Conference 2021.     

‘The pandemic opened up other possibilities we could explore,’ reported Luiz Brito, Dean at Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) EAESP, referring to the uptake of new technology and online learning modes. He outlined a scheme for 30 Business Schools to work together to provide content, with each producing a single elective online in order to benefit from access to all 30. This would minimise operational costs, while offering students diversity of course content. ‘I think this [idea] could now be exploited further and we could make joint courses instead of joint degrees, [in which there are] two or three Schools offering courses together,’ he said. ‘That would enrich the experience of our students.’

He added that the use of remote synchronous learning makes faculty exchange easier and more affordable and is therefore likely to be retained: ‘Faculty exchanges is a key driver because it can promote the further collaboration between Schools.’

Challenges remain, however. Sharing his perspective on the changing nature of alliances, Gustavo Genoni, Dean of the Universidad de San Andrés Business School, reported that some of his School’s guest professors have been banned from teaching at other universities by their home university. ‘They see that the competitive playground has expanded and therefore [have decided that] they cannot keep sharing resources if they are going to compete.’

Digitisation is behind much of this expansion, as Genoni explained: ‘We have Schools from all over the world offering programmes in Argentina. We have to compete on executive education with big universities we didn’t have to compete with before. We have to compete with Harvard, which is crazy because they are much older, much more experienced and much bigger than us. So, we will have to rethink our offer, consider where we want to compete and where we don’t want to, and decide on our niches and areas of focus.’

However, the overriding feeling among these three Business School leaders was that the social isolation experienced by many during Covid-19 has merely served to emphasise the value of a global outlook in business education. To this point, Gastón Labadie, Dean of the School of Management and Social Sciences at Universidad ORT Uruguay, reminded attendees that actions speak louder than words, describing two dual degrees his School has recently arranged with counterparts in China (‘the main trading partner for Uruguay for quite a few years’) and its plans for further agreements with institutions in India.

‘The Indian connection would be very interesting because we have a set of Indian firms that have significant presence in Uruguay, in part even sharing services for the region,’ he commented. ‘Globalisation is even more important than it used to be.’

Brito agreed, adding that ‘what we learned from the pandemic will actually foster further globalisation instead of reducing it.’ He reasoned that Covid-19 had allowed Schools to ‘bring elements of globalisation to all students’, whereas previously, only some were able to take a semester abroad or make international trips.’

However, despite this potential for Schools to collaborate through digital innovations, there was no suggestion that in-person learning would be rendered obsolete. ‘An important part of an exchange programme is the cultural education – doing things in a different culture, broadening your perspective, extending your network,’ said Genoni. ‘And that cannot be done online.’ Labadie highlighted the ‘repressed demand’ for travelling from professors, students, and young people. ‘I think the new normal is going to come both ways – a hybrid combinations of distance learning, face-to-face learning and further traveling in terms of exchanges and degrees,’ he said.

Andrew Main Wilson, CEO, AMBA & BGA

Luiz Brito, Dean, Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) EAESP, Brazil
Gustavo Genoni, Dean, Business School, Universidad de San Andrés, Argentina
Gastón Labadie, Dean, School of Management and Social Sciences, Universidad ORT Uruguay, Uruguay

This article is adapted from a feature that originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.


Solving complex problems with design thinking

Design thinking requires essential ‘front-end’ questioning skills to understand the end user’s experience fully writes David Steinberg

Allow me to introduce you to three hypothetical individuals, with differing priorities, who will set the context for the following article:

Zaha is a full-time MBA student at a prestigious Business School, taking a design-thinking course and learning how to apply the process to her capstone project. Her School will apply design thinking to help her take the next step in her career.

Anna is a partner at a prestigious consulting firm and responsible for recruitment planning. She recently completed a design-thinking course for executives offered by Zaha’s Business School. She’ll apply design thinking to help Business Schools around the world visualise the ideal student profile in three, five and even 10 years. 

Etienne is Director of Post-Graduate Careers at Zaha’s Business School. He recently met and spoke at length with the professors who teach Zaha’s and Anna’s design-thinking courses. Etienne will apply design thinking to help his Business School align its curriculum to the strategic goals of the world’s most successful companies, including Anna’s firm. He’ll also help Zaha take that next big step in her career.

What Zaha, Anna and Etienne don’t realise is that their questioning skills are critical to the success of their design thinking. 

Why? Because design thinking begins with empathy. With empathy, we can immerse ourselves in the world of the end user, and by doing so, we can properly frame the problem experienced by the end user, and go on to solve the problem together in extraordinary ways. 

Design thinking fosters the co-creation of value, ideal for those who work in the highly competitive, ever-changing and relationship-dependent professions of graduate business career services and employer recruitment.

What is design thinking? 

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, describes design thinking as ‘the integration of feeling, intuition and inspiration with rational and analytical thought.’ 

To Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, design thinking is a ‘balance between analytical mastery and intuitive originality’. 

Meanwhile, David Kelley, founder of IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, calls it a ‘framework that people can hang their creative confidence on,’ providing those who don’t consider themselves to be creative with a way to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. 

University of Potsdam and Stanford University are two of the leading centres for the study and application of design thinking. Companies flock to the campuses to apply it to their challenges and change management. Ian Wylie at the Financial Times writes that industry adoption of design thinking ‘has encouraged Business Schools to add design-thinking methods to their executive MBAs and help students find innovative solutions in sectors from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to banking and insurance’. 

It turns out that there isn’t one design-thinking process: several have emerged in the past decade, each with its own terminology and devotees. 

For example, IDEO’s process focuses on inspiration, ideation and implementation. Roger Martin’s version requires ‘moving through a knowledge funnel’ from mystery to heuristic to algorithm. The Design Council, Google and IBM have their own versions. However, the Stanford five-step process is considered the gold standard: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.  

Let’s bring in Anna and Etienne to help explain each phase of the Stanford process using a simple scenario.

Empathise: during a recent meeting, Etienne initiated a series of questions and learned some sobering news about new hires from his School. They’re not building trust with clients of Anna’s firm. Etienne then conducted extensive interviews with other clients and heard a similar story. 

Define: Etienne returned to his School and met with faculty and staff to define the problem. They determined that the underlying issue was that students, while certainly high-calibre, lacked training in advanced interpersonal skills.

Ideate: Etienne’s team held a brainstorming session and came up with several solutions, including coaching and feedback, workplace simulations and field immersion.

Prototype: a sub-committee of Etienne’s team developed a prototype programme to solve the problem.

Test: Etienne’s School tested and tuned the programme with a selected group of graduate business students before formally launching it the following year.

The enduring value of the Stanford process is that when it is applied properly, it can produce innovative solutions that emerge not from the ‘ideate’ phase per se, but from the ‘empathise’ phase – the information-gathering phase. Proper application means not moving too quickly downstream into the latter phases – what most of us would consider to be the exciting bits involving late nights and whiteboards and lots of pacing around the room – without first understanding the underlying issues associated with the end user’s experience. 

Here’s a common and costly mistake that many companies and organisations make: they conduct a few cursory interviews with end users; they think they understand the problem; they think they have a solution; they roll out the solution and go home feeling good. They return the next day… and the problem is still there. 

IDEO’s Tim Brown describes empathy as the most important skill for the design thinker. He adds that empathic designers ‘notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation’. 

Design thinkers are taught how to empathise by combining observation and engagement in ways resembling techniques used by ethnographers in the field. Observation includes looking for work arounds and for disconnects between what is said and what is done. Engagement means asking mostly ‘why’ questions to ‘uncover deeper meaning’. 

If empathy is the most important skill for the design thinker, then asking questions comes a close second. However, there are as many generic approaches to understanding the end user’s experience as there are processes for design thinking. One size doesn’t always fit all. What follows is an approach to questioning tailor-made for the ‘empathise’ phase of the Stanford process and for people in career services and employer recruitment. Indeed, business students can also use it to complete their external projects. This approach will put you on the right path towards successfully defining and solving the end user’s problem. 

Change points

Your first step as a designer is to determine the topics to explore with the end user. John Sawatsky, Michener-Award-winning investigative journalist and interview expert, argues that the secret to crafting compelling questions is to build them around ‘change points’, which are key changes in someone’s personal or professional life. In the context of design thinking, the designer seeks to discover change points in the end user’s experience and to understand the associated underlying issues. Focus on the timeframe before a change point and build your question sequence around it. 

There are parallels between this process and an intriguing principle in Eastern philosophy called ‘ma’. According to theatre director Colleen Lanki: ‘Ma is a Japanese aesthetic principle meaning “emptiness” or “absence”. It is the space between objects, the silence between sounds, or the stillness between movements… The emptiness is, in fact, a palpable entity.’

Listen for ma in Japanese conversation in the form of question fragments, or in the silence between drum beats or flute notes or lyrics in Kabuki theatre. Look for ma in Japanese visual arts such as paintings that have empty space in them. Author and TV presenter James Fox notes that ma can give structure to the whole, the way open spaces in traditional Japanese homes are given meaning by those who live in them. It’s the spaces between the change points in people’s lives that offer rich insights for the design thinker.

Ask ‘what-how-why?’

Your next step is to develop a list of questions. In the early 1980s, Sawatsky began teaching journalism at various Canadian universities. He noticed that students who asked ‘what-how-why’ questions (topic-process-motivation) for class projects elicited more vivid responses from sources compared with students who used other words and sequences. This sequence corresponds with the neural basis of human listening. 

Social Neuroscientist, Robert Spunt, at Caltech writes: ‘Listening requires not simply a comprehension of what others are saying and how they are saying it, but also why they are saying it: what caused them to say that and to say it in that way?’ 

Think of the what-how-why sequence as a navigational system in an aircraft cockpit. Use the sequence to prepare for your end-user engagement by developing questions that function as waypoints between the first and last topic you’d like to explore. 

In between the what-how-why waypoints, probe and clarify responses using questions that you deem appropriate; open-ended questions work best, particularly when you want to explore matters of degree such as confidence, dedication, and success. When you’d like the person to confirm or deny a topic, ask a yes/no question, but it’s best to do so after you’ve explored a matter of degree. Moreover, use what-how-why when the person offers you a revelation. If you only have one opportunity to ask the person questions, you must quickly improvise a new sequence. You might eventually return to your original flight plan, or you might decide to stay on the new course. You’re the pilot.

Remember: we prepare to improvise.


The Stanford ‘empathise’ phase begins with defining the challenge. This can be interpreted as discovering one or more change points associated with the end user’s experience. Three question models follow to jumpstart your information-gathering process: 

Etienne’s questions for Zaha

• What was a positive moment during your time at the Business School that you vividly remember and often reflect on?

• How did this moment make you feel?

• Why do you think this moment made you feel this way?

This question sequence helps Etienne ‘dig into the emotion’, as the Stanford design school phrases it, to help Zaha take the next step in her career. Etienne learns that Zaha often thinks about her idea for a startup project in her elective: to build high-definition cameras and install them inside incubators in neonatal units to help parents see their newborns when they’re away from the hospital. Her work group’s enthusiastic response to her idea gave her a level of confidence she’d never had before.

Etienne’s questions for Anna 

• What is your firm’s top strategic goal in the next five years?

• How will this strategic goal change your firm?

• Why is this strategic goal important to your firm?

This sequence is designed to create alignment between Etienne’s Business School and Anna’s firm, while at the same time assuring that he understands the underlying issues associated with her firm’s strategic goals. Etienne learns that Anna’s firm has access to vast quantities of data with no means of harnessing it for clients. He also learns that the firm’s managing director is growing uneasy about the fierce competition from rival consulting firms, and has asked for ways to design innovative solutions for clients and to roll them out more quickly. Indeed, Etienne learns that the firm would like to launch a new data/predictive analytics division.

Anna’s questions for Etienne 

• What, in your view, is the next step for our employer/ Business School partnership?

• How can we collaborate on this next step?

• Why do you feel this step is right at this time?

This sequence is also designed to align Etienne’s Business School with Anna’s firm but from Etienne’s perspective. Anna learns that Etienne’s Business School proposes to co-create the new analytics division to help the firm’s clients address their own customers’ challenges and make informed predictions about the future. Students would enrol in a new business immersion course and spend six weeks at Anna’s firm. 

After the induction period, students would then work on challenging projects based on their specialisation. This partnership would provide students with the immersive learning experience they expect, and provide Anna’s firm with a continuous supply of ideas and skills provided by students at one of the world’s premier Business Schools. 


Once you have defined the challenge by discovering a change point, the next step in the Stanford ‘empathise’ phase is to gather inspiration, which can be interpreted as exploring the change point. Help the end user go deeper into their experience. 

As market research interviewers will attest, the end user’s first response may not fully capture their feelings. 

For example, the end user might initially describe their long-haul flight to Shanghai as being ‘fine’, but after a few probing questions, ‘fine’ turns out to mean ‘the in-flight meal was average and the entertainment was limited’. 

Here are three ways to explore a change point:

Ask an immersive question

Craft a question in a comparative structure and turn up the contrast. 

For example, Etienne might ask Zaha this question to learn more about how her work group’s positive reaction to her start-up idea has changed her self-perception: ‘Thinking back to your work group’s positive reaction to your startup idea, how would you compare your perception of yourself as an entrepreneur then and now?’

Embed a verbatim comment

Embed a verbatim comment made by the end user in a comparative structure and once again, turn up the contrast. For example, Anna might ask Etienne this devil of a question to learn more about his Business School’s vision of the ideal student profile in five years: ‘You recently said that “artificial intelligence will reshape labour markets in unimaginable ways”. How would a student’s profile that takes into account the rise of high-level machine intelligence compare with the profile of a current student?

Wrap the change point

Again, it’s the spaces between a change point that are as important as the moment of change. Ask one question that takes the person back into the moment before the change point. Ask a second question that explores the actual change point. Then ask a third question that explores the moment after the change point. 

For example, Zaha might ask the following three questions to her client at Lego as part of her capstone project:

• Thinking back to 2012, before you introduced your co-creation process, how did Lego developers bring their ideas to market?

• When Lego introduced co-creation with customers, what were the steps to bring these products to market?

• What’s the primary difference between products created only by Lego developers and those co-created with your customers?

Design thinking offers people in career services and employer recruitment a way to co-create rather than dictate solutions. It also offers a way for students to hone their problem-solving skills and to co-create solutions with their clients for class projects. 

However, design thinking requires essential ‘front-end’ questioning skills to fully understand the end user’s experience. Mastering these skills will assure that everyone involved is headed in the right direction. 

Dr David Steinberg is Principal at Reykjavik Sky Consulting. He conducts MBA masterclasses on advanced questioning skills at several Business Schools including Cass Business School and Nottingham Business School and is Associate Professor in Leadership, Strategy and Organisation at Heriot-Watt University.

Treating the executive team as ‘customers’ in improvement initiatives

Fully engaging the executive sponsors is vital in sustaining the success of any improvement programme, writes David Mann

Proactive engagement by executives is essential for the sustained success of large-scale improvement initiatives. Engagement means going beyond reporting on occasional endorsements, messages,
or visits to encourage frontline workers. In this article, I’ll explain why engagement is important and describe an approach that makes it meaningful and valuable to executives as well.

I will start with an example from personal experience, following this with an important characteristic of improvement initiatives. 

Case study of a lean initiative

About 10 years ago, I was leading an internal consulting team supporting an ‘office’ lean initiative. At 18 months, we had coached people from 50 cross-functional business process improvement projects, involving individuals from sales, marketing, distribution, customer service, order entry, database, engineering, procurement, legal, tariff compliance, and finance groups. We focused only on business process that crossed at least one internal boundary. Many of the projects we worked on tackled longstanding problems – 20 years-plus in some cases – that remained unresolved despite repeated efforts. 

On average, the improvements across these 50 business processes involved a halving of end-to-end timescales and of delays, errors and reworking, and handoffs. There were direct cost savings of approximately $5m, and substantial capacity freed by reducing non-value-adding activity. By any objective criteria, our team was successful. 

I met monthly with my boss, a Corporate Officer, Vice President, and one of four of the CEO’s direct reports who sponsored our team’s work. Meeting at 18 months, she told me directly: ‘David, you have a problem!’ She explained that she and her executive peers had roughly an 18-month attention span for programmes such as the office lean initiative, and that despite our success so far, our executive sponsors were losing interest. ‘After that,’ she continued, ‘we start looking around for the next thing to drive improvement. You have to find a way to involve us!’ 

With initiatives such as lean, six sigma, quality, and safety improvement programmes, it takes two or three years before results show on corporate financial statements. I’ve worked in lean transformation for more than 25 years. Lean ‘tools’ produce improved process performance right away, whether in healthcare, administrative, service, technical professional, or manufacturing processes. Just ask the people who’ve been involved in the projects! But for those improvements to accumulate to corporate-level impact takes time. 

Performance pressure on senior executives is intense; and the aforementioned savings over 18 months, in a Fortune 500 company, amounted to a ‘blip’, not an amount that made a discernible impact on corporate financial statements. 

So, after 18 months of support with nothing showing on the financials, they begin looking for the next big thing. 

I thanked my boss for her candour, and took her news back to my team. We stepped back and followed our own advice: ‘Value is defined from the point of view of the customer,’ is the first principle in lean. We hadn’t thought of our executives as customers, though in fact they were. What we’d been delivering to them – visits to project teams and activity reports – had not met our executive sponsors’ criteria for value, or for involvement. 

Like many other improvement disciplines, lean, a term coined to describe Toyota’s business during the late 1980s, has its own language, approach, and terminology. Much of its terminology is in Japanese, reflecting the influence of Toyota’s lean production system. None of our executives spoke Japanese. 

Lean business process improvement teams used value stream maps which make visible the movement of information and material through process steps and between departments, especially useful in business processes that cross internal (and occasionally external) boundaries. No aspect of these maps is intuitively obvious; business processes do not appear on organisation charts, and none of our executives was a fluent interpreter of value stream maps and their related measures (for example, process time as a percentage of total cycle time).

We wanted to teach our executives about lean as we had learned it, through exposure to lean applications by project teams. So, we arranged executive visits to meet lean teams in their work areas. The team would make a presentation, sometimes prepared, sometimes off the cuff, but always using terms and tools unfamiliar to the visiting executive. On our part, we did nothing to prepare the executives for the visits other than naming the project, walking them to the area, and introducing the team. 

Our executives were socially skilled and used to making conversation. After listening to these nearly opaque presentations, the executives thanked the teams for their efforts, and then turned to more familiar topics, such as the state of the business, sales wins, or enquiries about people’s families.

When our team reviewed the records of these executive visits during the year we had been running them, we found exactly half had been cancelled and never rescheduled. Clearly, our executives were not finding value in visiting lean projects. If you added that to no significant financial impact, no wonder we were losing their interest.

Reflecting on this, we reached several conclusions that we used to restructure and resuscitate the project visits to make them meaningful to the executives. We assessed what we knew about our executives, recognising that they were bright, fast learners, with a high need for achievement. They tended to be competitive (having probably aced every test they’d ever taken), thirsty for hands-on influence in improvement initiatives and accustomed to being prepared by their staff members for unfamiliar situations. We recognised we were putting our action-orientated executives into passive roles that were not to their liking.

We had standards for lean management behaviours, practices, and tools in well-functioning lean areas from my book, Creating a Lean Culture. We based the new executive visits (called gemba walks) on the standards, creating a predictable, executive driven, repeatable process, with a clear agenda, content focus, and structure on a one-page gemba worksheet per standard. 

The revised visits had questions for the executives to answer, from their observations, and conversations around the project area. Importantly for our competitive, high- achieving executives, the new approach included a test: how accurately did executives rate the project on the criteria included in that visit’s lean management standard? 

We were sure we had an improved gemba walk process. As a final step, we made explicit the rationale for executives’ participation; we were sure they would find this meaningful in their own terms.

Senior executives have two unique managerial responsibilities: responsibility for strategy, and responsibility for the integrity of their chain of command. Most executives endorse a lean strategy essentially on faith, based on the advice of trusted advisors and examples of similar organisations’ successes. They lack experience of implementing Lean, and are not interested in gaining it. They’ve been persuaded lean will help reach their organisation’s goals, so they sign up. 

They receive reports (abstracted and sanitised) describing lean activities. They see no impact on the financials. And, they don’t know how to assess for themselves the true status of the initiative and how it’s actually supported within their organisations. 

Here, the tools, behaviours, and practices of the lean management system come to the fore. The management system was developed to support and sustain the underlying, and more technical, lean production system. The state of the management system reflects the health of the production system. Therefore, learn to assess the health of the management system, and you’ve learned how to judge directly for yourself the adequacy with which the production system is being implemented, and the integrity of its deployment down your chain of command. 

Executives learning to assess the adequacy of the lean management system readily develop a keen and accurate eye. In practice, most executives master each management system standard by the second gemba walk on it. Part of the mechanism for this is the test. As we’re leaving the area, I (or another internal lean resource) ask the executive how he or she rated, say, visual controls in a project team’s area. He or she usually assigns a rating of four or a high three (on a self-describing five-point scale). 

Such a rating is rarely warranted early on in the lean initiative, and the visited area is usually chosen because it needs improvement. The competitive, high-achieving executive has not passed the test. This opens a 90-second window for teaching, during which the lean resource explains what he or she saw, what better practice looks like, and why it’s important. In my experience, most executives are single-trial learners, quickly grasping what good and poor practice look like. 

With this knowledge, executives can assess the state of the management system at the frontline, getting first-hand knowledge of the health of the lean strategy they’ve endorsed on faith. And they can assess, first-hand, the integrity with which their chain of command is deploying the lean strategy. 

Consider when an executive asks a frontline worker or supervisor to explain an aspect of the management system (virtually all of which is visually displayed), and the answer is ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘we were just told to do this, but I don’t see how it’s helping’. The executive learns two things: First, somewhere up the chain from the frontline, there’s a lack of integrity, a weak link not reinforcing the lean strategy. Second, the lean strategy is in trouble, at least in the area visited. 

Responding to situations like this is uniquely an executive responsibility. He or she should explain to the supervisor or frontline worker why the particular element of lean management is important, and how it’s supposed to help, and then move on. 

The problem, a serious one, is elsewhere. Find the subordinate manager who is the weak link, walk an area with him or her, and explain what you expect to see and why.

Go back in two weeks’ time in a different area within the remit of that subordinate with him or her. If the same problem shows itself again, a more pointed conversation should ensue.  

For my team, the end result was a happy one. Not a single restructured executive gemba walk was cancelled and, over the next four years the lean team remained in place. Lean in the company’s offices is deeply engrained in a revitalised corporate culture, literally ‘the way we do business here.’ Executives have the knowledge to judge for themselves the health of lean business process operations. Cumulative results of widespread focus on improvement are visible in the corporate financials.

David Mann is the author of Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions. The book was awarded the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence in 2006. Mann is a frequent consultant, trainer and speaker on lean leadership and management, and earned his PhD at the University of Michigan.

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