The Promise of Going Lean: It’s the latest, buzziest trend in government management. Just don’t call it a fad.

Ken Miller (author of “We Don’t Make Widgets” and monthly columnist for Governing Magazine) recently wrote an article discussing the impact of Lean in government. With budget constraints and travel restrictions across the board, times are tough for many federal, state and local government agencies. In these times, we need to focus more than ever on the effectiveness and efficiency of government operations and programs. However, instead of looking to improve operations and find those efficiencies, many government organizations are turning to the same playbook: hiring freezes, budget/travel freezes, training freezes etc. As Ken writes “They’re not examining the actual work being done – the operations are fundamentally the same. Instead, they’re left with tired, overworked employees trying to do the same operations with fewer resources. This approach creates and illusion of efficiency. Real efficiency is about looking at the systems…”.

In this article, Ken talks about how Lean can benefit all government organizations and the barriers to successful Lean implementation in government (starting with the jargon).

Let me know what you think. And keep in mind, this article is not about running government like a business. It’s also not about how to apply Lean Six Sigma as it is applied in the private sector/manufacturing to government operations. In fact, Ken wrote another article called “Running Business Like a Government” which talks about how much business could learn from the great things government organizations have accomplished. (

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Good article and I like the idea. I worry about the term lean as it makes me think of Lean Six Sigma, black bets, and jargon. But I think the concept is there and hopefully is being used in places like OPM as they rethink the hiring process. I think it’s very important to step back from the process and focus on the goal. But that’s difficult – it’s like traditional journalists having an article go through a few rounds of copy-editing, multiple editors, and then being published. When a blogger can throw something up at 90% quality in minutes. We have to start thinking is that whole process worth that extra 10%.

Ron Wince

In many ways I think that the lean concepts are too simple and too common sense. The biggest gap in making any of it work starts with leadership and unfortunately they tend to fall back on what has made them successful in the past and to continue looking for the silver bullet. Neither will work and in the meantime the “applied common sense” of lean does not get applied the way it can be.

Jeffrey Press

Steve – Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that there is a lot of baggage associated with the term. That is why we don’t really like calling it Lean. I am a bigger fan of eliminating the jargon altogether and if anyone asks just say “We are utilizing process improvement tools to get better every day”. I wouldn’t attach a name to the tools you are using or the initiative you are using it for. I agree with your example regarding the blogger. It would not be worth it to get an extra 10% out of something that measures out at 90% quality. But I wouldn’t focus as much on quality as I would on speed. That’s why TQM failed in government. Besides the jargon, having defect-free widgets in government was not the problem. It was, and still is, capacity. How do we keep up with the current workload with the limited resources we have. Deming said that 95% of the problems in an organization are related to processes/systems and 5% are people problems. But we often turn to improve the 5% because that’s what is most visible to us. And it’s not about getting Joe to work 80% faster, it’s about improving all the wasted time between the work (the CYA, handoffs, bottlenecks, batches etc.). If you improve those things, the quality will follow.

Jeffrey Press

Ron – Thanks for your comment. I would agree that leadership plays a big role. The whole focus of Lean should be how to reduce waste to allow your leadership to tackle what they really want to tackle on their agenda to improve the outcomes of your organization. If you can show them the value or the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) and at the same time use what we like to call “guerilla warfare” tactics to get their attention, leadership support is attainable. There are change agents out there in leadership roles and I wouldn’t agree with the generalization that they all tend to fall back on what’s been successful in the past. You just have to find a sponsor that’s willing to believe in what’s possible.

With that said, Lean should also be about improving your processes/systems so your employees can achieve their full potential, thus improving employee satisfaction without asking it on a survey and without using pay-for-performance. If you ask many government managers what aspect of their job means the most to them, you will find that they want to improve the great outcomes government sets out to achieve. And the only way we can achieve these great outcomes with even better results is by improving the dysfunctional systems in government.

In regards to Lean being simple and common sense, I would take a different a approach. As Ken mentions in his article, Lean Government is all about the factors below, which may be difficult to attain and may not be attainable if Lean is used to improve the operations in the mailroom which would be the common sense approach.

1. Be very clear about your outcome (and don’t pick the “low-hanging fruit”, tackling something that has little consequence to anybody’s work will not help you build support)
2. Understand what your customers want (this is the part of Lean that is most difficult to apply, how do you handle multiple customers with competing interests who can’t agree and who gets the priority – this is what drives the process)
3. Deliver great services and build great widgets (i.e. tax forms, permits, regulations etc.) to produce great results for each of your customer segments (if you lump all of your customers under one term (that being stakeholders) you will run into problems
4. Apply Lean to make your processes/systems go 80% faster with improved quality and lower cost (quality and speed go hand in hand – Have you ever seen a world-class runner finish first with bloody knees? Typically this doesn’t happen because they don’t fall down)

The actual application of Lean tools is last because there is so much more to Lean Government than 5Sing our workstation, flowcharting our processes and eliminating waste. Lean Government is all about increasing our capacity to do more good because in the end, it’s not about producing defect-free widgets. We need to be able to keep up with the ever-increasing workload with fewer resources all the time.