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The Lean route to digital delivery

Lean manufacturing provides a different lens with which to look at how education providers might iterate new products and bring them successfully to market. Jimmy wastes no time in wading in.

Everyone in the language and trainnig industry is currently looking at what sort of online programmes they should be delivering, for obvious reasons. There’s a lot of experimentation, a lot of guesswork and a fair bit of hope. And that’s just in the naming conventions - whether it be digital learning, Zoom classes, blended learning, remote learning, and so on.

The industry does love a definition and, in normal times, that can help differentiate products. But, as you may have noticed, these are not normal times. You are creating new products and often for new audiences or for students fully open to a wholly different proposition. The audience cares less for what you call it, and more about what you deliver. The real issue is how you work out what those new products are.

The trick, in a crowded market, is to uncover new ways to solve the needs of existing or new students and to deliver a product that offers real value to them. In the tech world, programmers and developers have a well developed ‘Lean’ process which allows the engineers, product and design functions to work together to understand what is required and how to respond to it.

It’s something you could adopt to your own organisation and use it to create, and challenge, ideas for new products, and it comes in four stages:

Question and Hypothesise

What are the challenges your customers are facing? They might be challenges which predate the pandemic, though many minds will be focussed on the likelihood that travel for students is likely to be difficult or simply not attractive to your customers for the rest of this year at least. So what is the digital-only alternative and what are the issues that online delivery creates? So it might be that the content is fine, but assessments are a issue. Or that replicating the teacher relationship is tricky, or that the friendships and networks that students create when they study together are non-existent.

The issue then is to create products which build on your strengths and address the potential weaknesses. How can you create a digital relationship between a student and teacher and between a student and their peers? What platforms allow for that contact (while retaining suitable levels of privacy)?

Hypothesising and testing how you solve those challenges is a key part of the Lean process. It’s difficult with intangibles and ‘soft’ measures (like relationships in a digital arena), so you have to be comfortable with not having all the answers up front, but, by gathering a team of key people in your organisation to break down those components and testing how you can respond to those obstacles will help create new products. Then you can prototype those services.

Prototype and Experiment

You have an outline of how you will deliver digitally, a hypothesis of what might work. The next stage is to test that with team members and students by creating a version of it. Can you test those with existing, or recent, students? Doing online surveys of your student database, with Survey Monkey for example, will help you understand what they want and you can select a cohort of customers and get them to evaluate your thinking and any prototypes.

Then you can work through the customer journeys with them, if possible - from recruitment and sign-up to delivery. You and your team can go through the same process - what is it that you are offering your students at any stage and how will they react? Will they sign up? Will they consume the content in that format? Will they join video calls and get involved? Will they respond to a student network approach?

Work through everything you can think of and, ideally, get students to do the same. Kick the tyres on this as hard as you can. What you want is an outline of all the elements of your product and to be able to stand back and think ‘will this work?’

Synthesise and Iterate

This is where it can get even deeper into the nitty gritty. As your team and your customers worked through the proposition, note the feedback and make the changes accordingly. Where there is unanimity of opinion, you can switch to suggestions easily, but where there is debate about options, you’ll have to iterate and test and then do it again. It sounds arduous but you quickly see the patterns of what students like and don’t like (patterns you can apply to other products) and begin to understand whether you’re putting lipstick on a pig or whether you’re refining something that could really work. Hopefully, the latter.

But keep testing and asking and refining til you think it’s as good as you’ll get it until it hits the market, at which point you’ll start to get an understanding as to whether it’ll work in the real world.

Release and Measure

For all your testing and adjusting, the real world is the genuine testing ground. Once you have finalised the product, you should, hopefully, have learned in all these processes who it will appeal to so you can market it accordingly. And the measuring, watching and testing continues then. Are people buying? In good numbers? If not, at what point in the customer journey are they ducking out? Is it a price or a process thing?

And once they are using the course, where are the glitches? What needs smoothing out? Keep constant feedback loops with your team and your students. In truth, with digital products, you will never quite finish refining (at least not if you’re doing it properly). As the digital habits of your audience changes, so should you and as we emerge from the pandemic, you may want to add more ‘real life’ aspects to your courses, and move from digital only, to blended. All choices for the future. The principle remains - keep adapting and keep making your digital products as 'you' as you can be.

You can over-process and the Lean model of constant iteration can seem a bit overblown and exhausting, but when you’re looking to enter new markets, the principles of constantly checking assumptions in the light of feedback and evidence is a robust one. If you’re putting time and effort into finding new revenues, can you afford not to apply that level of rigour?