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The Promise of Going Lean: It's the latest, buzziest trend in government management. Just don't call it a fad.
August 3, 2009 at 1:45 pm #77082
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. (http://www.governing.com/column/running-business-government)
August 3, 2009 at 5:44 pm #77086
I am not optimistic. There may be a few scattered success stories from local government but our behemoth state and federal governments are not going to move. It is due primarily to some basic economic forces and some political reasons:
The public sector is generally immune to market forces, so there is no incentive to become more efficient (other than ocassional reductions of some costs for budget reasons or for eyewash in the newspapers)
Our federal government is run by a tribe of incumbent legislators who pay lip service to acting lean around eletion time, but once the are re-elected it is business as usual. More and more legislative decisions are being delegated to career bureaucrats in massive agencies that are hidden from the voters and have no oversite.
The "outsiders" who move to Washington quickly become assimilated and infected with Potomac fever
Our largely apathetic public does not vote, or does not take the time to learn the issues/candidate before they pull a lever
Unions are too strong in the public sector. They are not interested in becoming lean. They want political power. They gain political power by having more members. They will fight to have 5 people make widgets by hand when it only takes one person to run a widget machine.
I could go on and on but my blood pressure is going up
August 4, 2009 at 2:09 pm #77084
I really appreciate your reply. I agree with you that the incentive to become more efficient is often difficult to find. Government exists in a service/transactional environment (although parts of government exist in more of a widget-making environment like our private sector counterparts) and could also be considered a monopoly. When you look at other industries that struggle with the same things government does, we find the same factors: dysfunctional systems, unhappy customers etc. A couple industries that come to mind are the airlines and cable companies. And with these organizations, government has something in common, "hostage" customers. They didn't choose the career folks doing the work and often times they don't want or need the service government provides. In this case, government has "hostage" customers. So what's the incentive to improve? I know for sure that Comcast is still coming between the hours of 8 AM and Thursday. In order to overcome this, we first need to understand what our customers want when they don't even know what they need, but we also need to understand how to handle multiple customers with competing interests who can't agree. And in those cases, who receives the priority? You can also overcome this by actually talking to your customers, not by hiding behind surveys that typically ask the wrong questions of the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. Other than that, they're great!
Government managers are consistently tied up in dysfunctional systems where there is no line of sight to the outcome. But when you ask government managers why they came to work for government, many will say that they did it to achieve and improve the great outcomes that government sets out to accomplish everyday. But when we are tied up in a CYA-filled business-as-usual environment, I completely understand why people become demotivated and lose any incentive they once felt.
Throughout my career, I've seen success stories using process improvement tools at the federal, state and local levels. However, the successes are typically not attained when the following things happen:
1) We get caught up in the jargon and call it Lean, Lean Six Sigma, TQM, ISO etc. These terms hold so much baggage and the last thing we want to do is introduce another one. TQM failed because the focus was on producing defect-free widgets which is not what government needs. Government needs to be able to increase capacity with shrinking resources in the midst of an ever-increasing workload. The process improvement toolset (including Lean) can and has helped in this regard.
2) We turn it into a training initiative. It's great when people get psyched up about something and everyone is trained to use some sort of tool to standardize and improve processes. However, when this happens we are celebrating before the outcomes even occur. A more stealth approach to improving the operations in government can go very far and I wouldn't announce successes pre-maturely. I would agree that leadership/legislators plays a big role, but the people in touch with the operations of the organization on a daily basis are the career folks. The whole focus of Lean should be how to reduce waste to allow your career and elected 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. 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 and your leadership can achieve their full potential, thus improving employee satisfaction without asking it on a survey and without using pay-for-performance (because in the end, most government managers did come to work in government for noble reasons, not to become independently wealthy). That's not to say we shouldn't reward people for great work, but fix the systems/processes first which is the barrier in place that won't allow them to achieve great things.
I think noted sage Peter Scholtes said it best "All of the empowered, motivated, teamed-up , self-directed, incentivized, accountable, reengineered, and reinvented people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system. When the system is functioning well, these other things are all just foofaraw. When the system is not functioning well, these things are still only empty, meaningless twaddle."
Now Peter is pretty blunt, but I think he has a great point.
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 or other process improvement tools are 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 organizing 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.
The challenges and barriers you posed in your reply are real and I am by no means discounting them. However, when you go about improving processes/systems in government the right away, to achieve even greater outcomes and allow your employees to see the real incentive and the potential they have, I've seen government organizations accomplish great things.
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