Proficiency in Efficiency – 15 Years of the OU Lean Institute

Proficiency in Efficiency – 15 Years of the OU Lean Institute

Since its inception, the OU Lean Institute has been a unique part of OU Extended Campus. Its wide variety of classes in process improvement and organizational efficiency are all based on a simple premise—reinvention.

The Lean Institute trains individuals how to assess their organizations, so they can transform their practices, processes and organizational culture in order to improve workflow and quality while increasing profitability and customer satisfaction.

Efficiency and sustainability aren’t often thought of as exciting words, but when they can translate into millions of dollars in new and retained revenue, they quickly become beautiful, not only to the eye, but also to the bottom line.

The Beginning

The OU Lean Institute was founded in 2004 as part of a contract with the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base to provide their staff training in a variety of Continuous Process Improvement techniques. The aim of the training to was to develop processes unique to the center that would reduce waste and improve the efficiency, effectiveness and return on investment of the center’s operations.

According to Clint Minor, the Lean Institute’s first director, it was clear that Tinker was interested in initiating a cultural change within their organization—one that would optimize how and why they did things to make workflow faster and more cost effective, while keeping the quality of their work at peak levels.

“It was a huge undertaking, and we needed partners,” Minor said. “At the time, we didn’t have all of the expertise needed at OU, so we brought in others to help fill in those gaps.”

“Lean is a people-based system, not a problem-solving system. Lean changes your focus from looking at the worker to looking at the process.”

The institute’s core curriculum was centered on Lean principles, which address the elimination of wasted time, effort and resources, and was provided by staff the National Graduate School of Cambridge, Mass., along with members of OU’s College of Engineering. The National Graduate School also provided training in Six Sigma principles, which focus on eliminating variability from manufacturing processes or business services, while DKR Research from North Carolina provided SCOR training, which focused on supply chain development.

“We offered certification courses in all of these areas,” Minor said. “We certified Lean and Six Sigma Green Belts, Black Belts and Master Black Belts.”

In most organizations, the traditional way of looking at problems typically starts with what people are doing. The focus is on changing the behavior of employees and capturing data on people. Little, if any, time or effort is given to looking at the processes those employees engage in as part of their job duties—or how the business itself is organized.

“Lean is a people-based system, not a problem-solving system,” said Joyce Hinton, Lean’s chief Lean/Six Sigma White Belt and Green Belt Instructor. “What people do is controlled by the process they work in. Lean changes your focus from looking at the worker to looking at the process. When you start looking at things with a larger focus, the onus is no longer solely on the workers, but on management processes, as well.”

In that first year at Tinker, every step of their processes was examined, from how managers scheduled staff to how and when parts and supplies were ordered and how the working areas were physically laid out.

“The focus of everything that we did was on actual development of processes that could be put into practice at Tinker in order to make their operations more efficient and cost effective,” Minor said. “It had to do with all phases—waste, wait time, workflow, statistical analysis, etc.”

Students conducted process studies that examined the typical repair process and suggested improvements so time wasn’t wasted waiting, ensuring that the weapon systems they were working on made it back into the field in a timely manner.

The institute’s initial classes were mostly made up of career civilian employees at Tinker who wanted to implement the concepts in their work at the base.

reviewing a process“The courses weren’t limited to managers or management-level personnel,” Hinton said. “There were many mechanics who took the green belt and black belt certification courses and were certified.”

Within five years, the Lean Institute at Tinker Air Force Base had issued more than 200 Green Belt and Black Belt certifications, with thousands of employees having received training in other non-certifying programs. Tinker estimated at the time that Lean’s efforts had generated almost $34 million in cost savings and cost avoidance during that span.

Minor is proud of what the initial team of Lean instructors was able to accomplish.

“It was one of the most successful things that I’ve had a chance to be involved in at OU,” he said. “I have to give our team credit for that. We did what our customers really needed to have done—create the internal resources so they could maintain it over time.”

A Wider Service

By 2007, Tinker began transitioning to using its own Master Black Belt employees, most of whom had been trained by the Lean Institute, to conduct its future trainings as part of a wider Air Force initiative to bring such things in house.

“The goal was to always teach ourselves out of the Tinker arrangement,” Minor said. “It’s the same with many of the private contracts we take on, so it was important early on to expand the program’s efforts.”

Lean began working with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in 2006, offering private classes to DHS employees at their sites. In 2007, the institute began offering private training courses to the National Postal Training Center in Norman, in addition to offering public courses for the first time.

In 2008, the program’s name was officially changed to the OU Lean Institute to reflect its broadening customer base. As part of this expansion, Lean began working closely with other departments within the OU community, as well as identifying and administering process improvement projects on campus.

Over the next decade, the Lean Institute served a diverse clientele, including the service, banking, energy, medical, aerospace and information technology industries, education and manufacturing operations, state departments and nonprofit organizations.

“Since the beginning, Lean Institute program directors have placed a heavy emphasis on customer service,” said Lisa Angelotti, the current director of the Lean Institute. “It has always been our mission to offer our clients a full-service Lean cultural transition experience, from assisting with creating a transition plan to coaching through that transition plan and training their staff to help them achieve their Lean/Six Sigma goals.”

As Lean’s client base has diversified, so has the need to customize examples and exercises to the unique backgrounds in which students work.

“The students’ reactions when they learn the power of these concepts and tools is the most impactful to me. Every year there are two or three projects that make me think ‘Wow, that was really fantastic.’"

“The biggest change I’ve seen in our training since the beginning has been a change from more of a manufacturing influence to an office or business sphere,” Hinton said. “We’re seeing people from many different industries—from oil and gas to business and education. There are a lot more people coming in with a background in management and administrative processes. The tools are the same, but we have to keep the exercises and examples relevant to the types of students taking the classes.”

The courses themselves have also become more robust. When Lean first offered classes at Tinker, the typical Lean course was two-week course with a half-day overview. Six Sigma courses lasted one week with a one-day overview. Now, Green Belt certification courses consist of three class days over a four-month period, so students can work on and complete projects by implementing new knowledge at appropriate intervals. Black Belt certification courses have 15 class sessions over three months.

Looking Ahead

As it begins its 15th year of operation in 2019, the Lean Institute continues to offer its core Lean/Six Sigma White, Green and Black Belt certification classes, providing certification training to more than 100 public and 550 private students each year.

In 2019, the institute will also offer specialized public short course training options for the first time, including Leading with Lean, which will provide those in leadership roles with the basic awareness of how the Lean mentality can be incorporated into daily interactions.

Gemba Walking, which takes management to the front lines of their own operations to look for waste and opportunities to practice shop floor improvement, will be offered as a way for mangers to lay the groundwork for strengthening mutual trust between employees and leadership.

Lean will also offer a course on Kaizen Facilitation, which involves activities that continuously improve all functions of an organization and involve all employees, and a new Champions level option will also be added to their popular Lean/Six Sigma training offerings.

“As the current steward of the Lean Institute, it is first my goal to maintain the excellence, high-quality training and outstanding customer service standard established and preserved by my predecessors,” Angelotti said. “Our capability to serve our clients reaches as deep as the experience and skill sets of the Lean Institute instructor/practitioner team.”

Hinton said she will be back in 2019, as well. For her, the draw to return as an instructor is that there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of clever ideas that people come up with as part of their projects—ideas that, once implemented, save time, money or both for their organizations, increasing both employee and customer satisfaction along the way.

“It’s always very gratifying when students start to understand this, and their eyes light up,” she said. “The students’ reactions when they learn the power of these concepts and tools is the most impactful to me. Every year there are two or three projects that make me think ‘Wow, that was really fantastic.’"

To learn more about the OU Lean Institute and the courses that are offered, visit

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Myk Mahaffey

Michael Mahaffey holds degrees in journalism and psychology. He is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience writing for print and digital publications, including award-winning coverage of the rodeo industry. In his spare time, he writes fiction, in addition to tinkering with graphic design and photography.