In the US, public debts keep mounting, taxpayers keep insisting on lower taxes, and vital services and infrastructure keep declining. We need to find a new way of designing and paying for government. Cost cutting isn’t enough. We need transformation. Lean production principles can transform public and social sector work.
Government is interested in lean, as witnessed by this McKinsey article. Another McKinsey study shows that government can be a leader in digital goods and services. Lean methods show the way.
Lean Focuses on the Process
In Lean Thinking, authors Womack and James describe the lean approach as focusing on
all the specific actions required to bring a specific product (whether a good, a service, or increasingly, a combination of the two) through the three critical management tasks of any business: the problem-solving task running from concept through detailed design and engineering to product launch, the information management task running from order-taking through detailed scheduling to delivery, and the physical transformation task proceeding from raw materials to a finished product in the hands of the customer.
Don’t be put off by the business-oriented language if you work in the public and social sectors. Your organization performs these same activities to serve your clients. You just call them different things.
Why focus on the end-to-end process like this? Because you can uncover, and then eliminate, wasteful practices. Eliminating waste saves you money, allowing you to meet the needs of your clients without exceeding your financial resources.
Here’s one example. A UK social services agency found they spent 85 percent of their time managing and maintaining their bureaucracy, instead of serving their clients. By redesigning their end-to-end process, they switch to spending 80 percent of time actually helping clients.
How can you understand your process from end to end? Pretend you’re a client. Staple yourself to a request for service or payment and observe the process as the request moves through your organization.
Public and Social Sector Obstacles to Lean Approaches
Lean is not easy, nor quick, although you can see some improvements from the very start. Taiichi Ohno developed the Toyota Production System, which is now known as Lean . After 50 years of following Lean, Ohno felt the company was maybe halfway done.
Lean is a mindset, a culture. Changing mindsets and cultures is difficult. Implementing lean methods in public and social sectors have additional challenges identified in the McKinsey article:
- Disconnect between buyer and user: Buyers may be government agencies, foundations, or individual donors. User or end-customers may be individuals or groups receiving goods or services. This disconnect often forces public and social organizations to focus on improving two different processes.
- Lack of clear process ownership: A public sector organization rarely invents and controls the processes it must follow. Regulations and policies govern much of what is done. Organizations may start their lean journey focusing on what they do control, and later move towards influencing regulation and policy.
- Lack of customer or process mindset: Public and social organizations may be more focused on policy and regulation than on delivering value to customers. Lean forces focus onto delivering value while also maintaining compliance. This additional focus can feel like an additional burden instead of a benefit.
Key Concepts in Lean Methodology
Lean is a large field. You can earn a master’s degree in lean management. I’ll try to do justice to some key concepts in a few bullet points:
- Waste: Ohno identified several types of waste to eliminate: delay, overproduction, defects, excess inventory, and activity and transportation than doesn’t add value.
- Kaizen: This means continuous improvement through waste reduction. It often takes the form of kaizen events, where process owners and workers make improvements to their workspaces and activities.
- Flow: Instead of performing batches of similar work, perform a process from start to finish as a continuous flow.
- Pull: Once you’ve established flow, only initiate the flow when you have demand from a customer.
- Just-in-Time: When you have flow and pull, you can add to inventory and perform tasks as items and work are needed.
- Kanban: Use visual cues to indicate pull, items in flow, and problems preventing flow such as need for additional inventory.
- Cells: Instead of organizing departments according to job type or function, create multi-function cells that can carry out a flow from end to end.
Lean production principles can transform public and social sector work. You can continually eliminate waste, improve effectiveness and raise efficiency. In the public and social sectors, this means free up resources to meet both client needs and budget constraints.
One great thing about lean methodology is that you can start with one concept, one change, and measure your improvement. So, which lean concept would help your organization today?
(Image courtesy of Flickr)