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Reopen Lean

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

By  Kate McGovern
June 16, 2020

When the pandemic hit, governments suddenly had to conduct essential business remotely. Governors and mayors waived “red tape” requirements, streamlining work processes. Gains have occurred at state, federal and municipal levels. The American Society for Public Administration’s program, “COVID-19—Doing the Public Good in a Time of Crisis,” described advances in telework, intergovernmental coordination and procurement processes. The Federal News Network reported that the Veterans Health Administration (VA) transformed its hiring process to bring on 12,000 new staff in eight weeks.

Will the old way of doing business return as the country reopens? “Government innovators must respond with a forceful no. We should take this opportunity to permanently transform our services, transactions and regulatory system,” Brian Elms wrote in Governing. I heartily concur.

Crisis-driven “just do it” produced remarkable results. Necessity won out over the inertia of “the way it’s always been done.” For example, Elms reported that, “For years, Baltimore employees pressed the city to allow electronic signatures on contracts. Today, electronic signatures are a reality, a change that will help reduce contracting times by days if not weeks.”

So, how can the efficiency gains be maintained and extended?

Apply Lean

Lean process improvement principles are based on a Plan-Do-Check-Act/Adjust (PDCA) continuum. Each new version of the process is an experiment to be confirmed. How is it working for the customers? Does it produce reliable results? Do errors require rework? Adjust it as needed to enhance quality and efficiency. Maintain the cycle of continuous improvement.

Lean practitioners would assess emergency processes by collecting data and posing questions:

  • Customer service: Is it better?
  • Quality: Does it contain essential controls?
  • Efficiency: Do all of the steps add value?

Ideally, the data would determine the steps to be reinstated, modified or abolished. When the appropriate course of action is debatable, Lean tools can be helpful. One such tool, a kaizen, could be used to design an optimal process.

Determining Value

During a kaizen, a project team maps the process as it is currently conducted. In this crisis, though, the current state may be a moving target. If the process has been modified by an emergency order and temporary telework accommodations, expiration of the order may restore its previous state. In this case, the team should evaluate both versions of the process. They need to understand the purpose of any steps that were suspended so they can determine which, if any, should be reinstated.

The VA’s hiring process is a case in point. Prior to the pandemic, hiring and onboarding could take up to 90 days. To meet the emergency staffing needs, the sequence of the requirements was changed. Fingerprinting and other vetting previously required upfront were allowed to occur within the first 120 days of employment.

Administrators are now considering which of the changes should be retained. In reviewing this process, a Lean practitioner would check for any negative impact on the agency’s customers: our nation’s veterans. Has any substandard care occurred because a new hire was not thoroughly vetted? Had the previous hiring process contributed to wait times? What is the optimal process to maximize access to quality care when it is needed?

Making it happen

Implementation is the most challenging part of any kaizen event. Matters subject to administrative discretion should occur immediately. Other changes may require a vote by the governing body. In normal times, neither of these is easy.

Even if it is within their purview, risk-averse administrators are often reluctant to give up redundant layers of checking. The reluctance could be motivated by prudence or intransigence. Or, as a colleague mused, “When is an abundance of caution an abundance of CYA?”

Archaic requirements also remain in statutes and rules at local, state and federal levels. Removal of some might need Congressional approval. While that is literally the case for some reforms at the VA, making change at other levels of government often feels like it requires an act of Congress.

These are formidable obstacles in normal times. Now we have the rare juxtaposition of the old and new ways of doing business. Data can be collected on the efficacy of the new processes. State and local officials can forgo notarized documents and redundant layers of signatures. VA administrators can adopt a re-sequenced hiring process.

Going forward

As I discussed in a previous column, Lean is much more than a series of kaizens. It is a perspective based on value. Consistent application of the principles at all levels of government can transform business operations and outmoded accountability systems. The crisis created leverage for change. Innovative public servants rose to the challenge. Let us establish a culture of continuous improvement as the organizing principle for the new normal.


Author: Kate McGovern, MPA, Ph.D. is a Lean trainer who conducts programs and facilitates kaizens for states, municipalities, and nonprofits. In addition to her Lean work as a state employee and as a consultant for Daniel Penn Associates, Kate teaches at College Unbound. She is the author of A Public Sector Journey to Lean: Fighting Muda in Times of Muri. [email protected]

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