Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

A Coop for Lean

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kate McGovern
August 21, 2023

Lean process improvement techniques and principles are transformative when fully integrated as a management system. At the initial stage, public sector organizations improve customer service, increase efficiency and boost employee morale. As the program matures to integrate lean management and the scientific thinking underlying Toyota Kata, the concepts are embedded in a culture of continuous improvement. Governmental entities then strive for  operational excellence, making optimal use of resources thereby building the capacity to achieve mission. However, many lean initiatives stall out after the early stages, falling far short of their potential. They need a COOP.

A continuity of operations plan (COOP) is typically designed to maintain essential functions during disruptions due to a number of emergency scenarios. Arguably, such a plan is also necessary to preserve continuous improvement (CI) programs. In order to identify common threats to state CI programs, it is useful to begin with a SWOT:

Continuous improvement requires continuous commitment to maximize the strengths and opportunities. The weaknesses and threats are acute at two particular points:

Transitional risk

Many lean programs start with small improvement projects known as kaizens. In a typical kaizen, teams of employees use process mapping to redesign workflows. The technique is eagerly embraced by public servants frustrated by bureaucratic bottlenecks.

The initiative is at risk if early adopters are unaware that these tools are part of a much larger discipline. After celebrating efficiency gains, other priorities intervene and the organization returns to business as usual.   

Electoral risk

 A change in gubernatorial leadership can be as devastating to a lean initiative as a hurricane to the electric grid. Sometimes, like a reset of power lines, the lean initiative is retained, but rebranded by the incoming governor. It continues to exist in a somewhat varied form. Or not at all. So far, programs in Nebraska, Colorado and Washington transitioned to an incoming governor in the same political party. Notably, programs in Arizona and Vermont survived transitions to a governor from the other party.  

It is natural for newly elected leaders to bring new ideas. However, they may lack the vantage point to evaluate which of the existing ideas should remain, particularly if the CI program has not reached maturity.

Countermeasures against transitional and electoral risk are both structural and foundational.

  • Structural: The CI program is an integral part of state government, as much as accounting and human resources, not dependent on the willingness of each governor to renew it. The director’s job is a permanent position, not an appointee of the governor. Training in CI skills and principles are universally available throughout the workforce.
  • Foundational: There is a broad understanding of the principles underlying Lean and Toyota Kata at every level within state government. And, in society in general.

As an example of structural integration into state government, consider Nebraska’s Center of Operational Excellence:

  • Embedded in the state’s administrative agency, led by a director managing both operational and training functions.   
  • Supported by the governor, with the commitment that efficiency gains would not result in layoffs.
  • Required training on core CI principles for all employees, with access to advanced training for a growing team of change agents. Training for supervisors, and managers to charter projects and implement changes.
  • Assigned CI practitioners in each agency, through the COE network.

The foundational element, a broad understanding of the underlying principles of Lean and Toyota Kata, addresses both transitional and electoral risk. Just as the plans to survive a hurricane begin long before the storm arrives, the diffusion of knowledge and skills must begin long before the first kaizen or the next election.

In a recent column, I discussed the importance of public administrators learning about lean management. While this is incredibly valuable, a proactive COOP requires a much wider diffusion. We need to reach the public at large. Not only are they the electorate, but they are also the source of our future workforce and civic leaders.

Moreover, a wide understanding and application of CI principles will be good for society as a whole. Lean techniques can reduce waste and add value to any endeavor. The structured routines of scientific thinking underlying Toyota Kata are universally applicable to iterative problem-solving for the myriad of challenges facing us. Consider a bold, visionary COOP as a standard feature in all CI initiatives.

Author: Kate McGovern, MPA, Ph.D. is a Lean trainer and practitioner in the public sector. Formerly a professor for the NH Bureau of Education and Training, Kate is currently an instructor at College Unbound. She is the author of A Public Sector Journey to Lean: Fighting Muda in Times of Muri.  @KateMcGovern_


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *