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Art Smalley

Art Smalley: Lean Government

By Art Smalley, - Last updated: Friday, June 17, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

In response to this month’s question the phrase “Lean Government” is something I think we will start to hear more of over the next few years and many no doubt will chuckle at the term as oxymoronic in nature. With deficits are large as they are in the United States and other countries budgetary cutbacks are inevitable. When forced into doing the same amount of work (or more) with fewer resources then systematic improvement becomes paramount in terms of importance. Otherwise quality, delivery, and other dimensions tend to suffer. In other words cost cutting is accomplished but not cost reduction a la the Toyota Production System while maintaining other areas of performance.

Of course the federal government contains many agencies and the federal budget has many categories and I do believe that “improvement” is possible in all of these cases. The same is true at the state or local level of government as well. There is much waste or opportunity and many talented people in these agencies so improvement can and will occur. The question posed as I interpret it is will that improvement fall in line with “lean thinking” principles and what will be difficult.

I suspect that “Lean Government” will be an upstream battle at least partly since the inherent nature of any bureaucracy is to enlarge itself over time. One can read over and over about all the examples of waste in entitlement programs, defense spending, healthcare, education, or other public service programs. These “wastes” have been known for decades but the ability to reduce them in a systemic fashion that adds more value to the customer while working reducing cost, improve quality, improve delivery, and improve productivity, has proven quite elusive.

Please note that I am not saying that it cannot be done as many government agencies or departments funded by the government have no doubt made lean improvements. I do some work for the Department of Energy in the National Labs and they have won a Shingo Prize for Improvement in the public sector for example. There is even an entry on Wikipedia for Lean Government. So I am just pointing out that I think this sector will be very difficult in many respects due to its size, the way it is funded, measured, managed, etc. Not impossible, just difficult. The economic forces that drive improvement in this arena are often different than that of the private sector especially ones with high levels of competition. The two are just very different animals and both very interesting for different reasons.

As to why I think Lean in this area or any area for that matter is difficult my answers are generally the same. For starters there are flawed thinking patterns that drive a lot of lean improvement programs. Programs, rules, tools, principles, systems, etc. are implemented but few results are obtained. “True North” is confused with moving northward in terms of implementation of concepts (e.g. moving from Zone 1 to Zone 2 in this graphic I used in last month’s question).

Secondly I think well intended consultants, academics, practitioners and other parties muddy the water a lot with competing and convoluted explanations of what they believe they know. It is a philosophy, it is a system, it is a set of rules, it is excellence, it is tools, it is value or flow, it is waste, it is (fill in the blank) etc.  I refer to this as the blind men and the elephant problem in this previous LE post.

Third the lean movement is hung up on the overly simplistic notion that we just have to be good at “methods” or what I refer to as “lateral systems thinking”. This sounds great in the class room but falls embarrassing short on the shop floor when confronted with actual problems that have some technical depth to them. For example ask your lean professor, consultant, sensei, coach, advisor how to solve chattering on a lathe holding a 10 micron spec with tight surface finish (i.e. apply a build in quality approach or Jidoka) and they tend to turn green and or red in the face pretty quickly and change the topic. Few people are technical experts in different types of processes but technical depth also needs to be developed. We called this being “T” shaped in Toyota…this means having a broader systems perspective but also technically deep in terms of content. The lean movement only seems to grasp the broad or top part of the T (e.g. lateral systems or lateral material and information flow, etc.) and forgets that expert knowledge is compiled differently and is necessary as well. For example many of my process engineering friends at Toyota in Japan have successfully filed for and won patents for the company. Toyota has great technical depth not only in product development but process development and tooling as well in many areas (casting, forging, machining, heat treat, stamping, welding, paint, injection molding, and assembly for example).

Fourth we have not done a very good job at people development in much of the lean movement. This relates partly to the topic of building expertise mentioned above but this is true also in the broader sense as well. Aspiring lean companies don’t always have clear thoughts or plans on how to develop employees, supervisors, managers, engineers, and executives for the lean journey. People are left to forage for knowledge on their own in many cases.

Fifth we certainly are short of talented implementation leaders. Taichi Ohno and Eiji Toyoda were special leaders inside of Toyota. Every company needs people like this in order to reject the status quo and get an organization moving in the right direction. Finding these natural leaders or developing them has been elusive and difficult for most companies.

There are lots of other reasons why lean is difficult in any setting and they have been discussed in other posts on this site. If interested in further discussion on that topic please investigate some of those items.

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