Book Review – We Don’t Make Widgets

Part 3 of my series review books that relate to government and should interest the awesome GovLoopers. (Check out Part 1 and Part 2).

This week’s edition – We Don’t Make Widgets – Overcoming the Myths That Keep Government from Radically Improving.

I received the book from Jeff Press, who is the founder and president of the Center for Radical Improvement. It’s a new company that provides some interesting training, events, and consulting. I met him last week and he’s got some great ideas and will soon start sharing them by blogging at GovLoop.

On to the book – We Don’t Make Widgets is written by Ken Miller, a former Missouri government leader and now consultant. The book tackles the three myths:
-We don’t make widgets
-We don’t have customers
-We’re not here to make a profit.

Throughout the book, Ken analyzes various government programs and problems and breaks them down into a system of work – factory, widget, customer, outcomes. By using this framework, Ken is able to break down problems and come up with suggestions for improvement. We all know how hard change can be in government and Ken provides a system and pointers to making it happen. And it’s not blue-ribbon committees, reorganization, or technology.

One example I liked: A child-services agency was looking into improve service. They thought their customer was abused children and they were focused on meeting the child’s needs. But really the child-services agency produced a widget (a report describing the abuse, etc) that was given to lawyers (their customers) who prosecuted the abusers. The child-services agency had never asked the lawyers if they liked the structure of the reports and if they could improve them. Of course, the lawyers hated them and with a few minor changes, everyone was happy, the lawyers had better cases, and eventually it lead to more prosecutions.

So why do I like the book? It’s short, it tells stories, gives examples, and it’s practical. This isn’t just a theoretical book – Ken has implemented change himself and consulted on numerous gov’t projects.

Finally, I really like a couple of his “5 Ways to Ruin a Change Initiative” which include improve communications, increase employee satisfaction, give it a name, and train everyone. I generally agree with his point that people want to work for well-run organization – the key is to identify key systems, form teams to offer concrete improvements, and define the desired results.

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Adriel Hampton

Thanks for the synopsis, Steve. It’s good to look at who the customer is. As a City Attorney investigator, I can say I’m serving the public, but like the social workers in your example, I’m actually producing reports for various uses by attorneys. If they are well served, so is the public. Do you have a good example of the “give it a name” point?

Jeffrey Press

Adriel – Here are a couple examples in regards to naming a change initiative. As soon as you name a change initiative, it becomes a target that people can point their fingers at and blame for all of their problems. In addition, it becomes that “other thing”. You have your regular work and then you have that “other thing”. Ken points out a couple experiences in the book that relate to this. The 2 examples I will provide here are for IT initiatives (which I don’t think is very surprising!). One government agency was looking to roll out a brand new IT project that was supposed to make everything go a lot faster – an experience I’m sure nobody has had! So, in being very creative, they decided to call it FASTR (which stood for something I can’t remember). I think the first lesson here is never to associate an IT rollout with anything that implies speed. Of course the rollout was delayed and ended up not working, and the people starting calling it SLOWR among other things. The other example I have is for an IT initiative that was called SAM (another acronym that stood for something). Well SAM never panned out the way they had hoped. So they decided to roll out SAM II which the employees liked to refer to as “Son of Sam”. The moral of the story is naming a change initiative gives the naysayers something to point their finger at and blame for all problems within their organization. We like to tell people that if anyone asks what you are doing, just say you are trying to get better everyday. Don’t make it that other thing or it will be treated as such.