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Light Students’ Fire for Learning Through Teaching Lean

Laurie Burney
2/1/2020

Why do we choose to teach?

One of the greatest motivations for teaching for me is when I have a tangible impact on students’ thinking and learning. While traditional management accounting fits mass production processes, to add value in a lean organization, management accountants need to “buy in” to how our roles must adjust to be part of the decision-making team where we can transition beyond the bean counter or gatekeeper characterization. In my experience, accounting students are initially resistant to this challenge to traditional accounting, but ultimately embrace it. And, upon entering their internships or careers, they appreciate the practical application and common sense inherent in lean thinking. I am energized by their enthusiasm for lean concepts. As noted by William Butler Yeats “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” I experience the feeling of “lighting of a fire” much stronger when I am teaching lean concepts.

When do I Integrate Lean into Management Accounting?

Tradeoffs are inherent in the decision to dedicate classroom days to lean. However, I believe the lean content is relevant, timely and valuable to my students’ future careers. So, it is an easy decision to make. When teaching managerial principles, I include a paper hat simulation early in the semester to teach terminology. Little do my students know that I also use that simulation as an introduction to lean. Then, I include three days of lean coverage in my undergraduate advanced managerial accounting course (the typical upper level cost/managerial course). In my graduate managerial seminar, I spend about a third of the semester covering lean topics.

Recently, I have met with my production and operations management colleagues to start discussions about how we can “coordinate” across our courses. While their course is taken during the junior year and advanced managerial accounting is a senior-level course, we believe that this integration across disciplines is an exciting avenue to increase students’ understanding of and appreciation for lean concepts.

What are Examples of My Approach to Teaching Lean?

In the undergraduate course, I traditionally begin lean coverage by using an airplane simulation that progresses from traditional manufacturing to lean processes over three rounds of production. A small group of students participate in the production process, while the remainder of the class engages in a “gemba walk” or taking notes for the “kaizen event,” observing production to identify the waste or muda in the production process. Then, over the next two rounds we adjust the process based on eliminating the identified wastes. Students are amazed at the improvements documented regarding lead time, first time yield, inventory levels, etc. Once they have gained this visual understanding of lean principles, I spend the next class day discussing Accounting for Lean, the why and how behind changes in the management accounting process to support lean manufacturing. In the third and final day, we consider Lean Accounting, the process of applying lean principles to the accounting function, and talk through examples of its application.

In my graduate course, I have flexibility in choosing my content coverage. Thus, I dedicate almost half of the semester to lean topics. I require my students to read Who’s Counting by Jerrold Solomon. This novel gives students easy to read coverage that not only introduces lean principles but helps accountants get beyond the obstacles in thinking that prevent us from embracing lean. For content coverage, I use a combination of lean cases, articles and simulations. This course has a heavier reliance on simulations so that students have the hands-on application to learn lean concepts. I find that this coverage works best when we learn the lean concept, demonstrate its application through simulations or articles, and then move forward with a discussion of its impact on the accounting process.

Attending the Lean Accounting Summit has enabled me to learn simulations and examples that are an integral part of my teaching. The attendees at the conference are very generous with their knowledge and resources. It is an invaluable experience for academics interested in learning more about lean from an accounting perspective.

I have also been fortunate to have taken a field trip with my students to tour the Toyota plant in San Antonio at the end of one semester. While it made for a long day (since the plant is a 3 hour drive each way) the students were in awe of the experience. Taking the concepts we learned in class and seeing them in action had a profound effect on students’ appreciation for lean and its discipline. They were so excited and talkative as we left the plant. Unfortunately, our tour was cut short when an employee was injured on the job. However, that too was a great learning experience as the students witnessed first-hand how seriously Toyota takes employee safety. And, the fact that their excitement was not diminished by the shortened tour is a testament to how impactful it was.

What Sparked My Passion for Teaching Lean?

My interest in lean manufacturing and its impact on accounting dates back to my MBA program when I was assigned to read The Machine that Changed the World as part of one of my management courses. The descriptions in that book comparing the 1960s Toyota and GM production processes changed my way of thinking about manufacturing. Fast forward to after my PhD program when I attended a meeting of the Association of Manufacturing Excellence. During the first day, people kept discussing “concrete heads.” I was puzzled about this reference but seemed to be the only person who was confused. As the day progressed, I eventually realized that this group of lean practitioners from the production area were referring to accountants. Traditional accounting curriculum has incorporated little change to keep pace with the changing role of a management accountant. Instead of a focus on crunching product costs, we now serve as part of the decision-making team, as the information experts in helping management understand performance and make better decisions regarding the overall operations of the organization. This role enables us to ensure a clear connection between internal management reporting with external regulatory and compliance reporting. Yet, we are too often considered the gate keeper within organizations. But frankly, of more concern for me is the characterization as “concrete heads” that arises from our resistance to change. The image of the concrete head has followed me since that day. And, while understanding that traditional approaches to management accounting reporting are an important foundation for students entering the workforce, I also refuse to have my students graduate and move on to a future of being referred to as a “concrete head.”

Does Teaching Lean Have an Impact?

Of all the topics I teach, the information that I hear back from graduates most about is the days of lean coverage. Students in their internships tell me about how during their service projects they talk about lean in response to the process experience they have at a food bank or similar activity. I hear from students in public accounting about how one of their clients is a lean manufacturer and how much it helped them during the audit to understand the strategy of the company and be familiar with the terminology they encountered during their discussions with the client’s employees. Even further within public accounting, one of the Big 4 is applying lean principles to its audit process in an attempt to “lean” down the process. Note that these examples are from my students choosing the public accounting path, not industry where the impact would be potentially much greater.

The stories are many, but the implication is clear. Even the limited exposure that is given during my senior-level advanced managerial class has an impact on students’ thinking. They remember the principles and are able to understand the impact of and benefits from implementing lean thinking across applications. These stories remind me that we can truly make an impact on practice by planting the seeds of thought and critical thinking in our students.

Anyone interested in obtaining more information about the specific cases, articles and simulations I use can email me at Laurie_Burney@Baylor.edu. I am happy to share the resources that I have accumulated and would enjoy hearing approaches that have worked for others. In addition, a wealth of games and simulations are available online that can be used to cover lean concepts and principles.

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