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The Powerful Potential of Operational Maturity

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

By Kate McGovern
August 10, 2021

Practitioners of Lean process improvement techniques generally begin by transforming the most dysfunctional processes. As processes are redesigned, waste is reduced and customer service is improved.

Delivering better, faster public services is just the start. Once proficient with the tools, the challenge is to apply the concepts. The field of continuous improvement (CI) has incredible transformative potential. Yet, as I explained in a previous column, many improvement programs fail to reach that level.

Can such arrested development be prevented if administrators understand the transformation as a progression? The work of John M. Bernard makes an important contribution. Best known as the author of Government That Works, Bernard’swhite paper, “Level Three Government,” challenges us to aspire to a bold vision using a three-tier model.

Maturity Level One: Reaction Driven

This is probably the most familiar. Stimulus-response. Something happens, elected leaders and administrators scramble. Managers hasten to correct the symptoms, without the opportunity to address the root cause. Priorities are set by crises, news cycles or anecdotes.

Various strategies can be used to get out of this cycle. Bernard mentions, “Strategic planning, citizen-downloadable data and performance scorecards, business reviews, cross-department breakthrough projects, customer-service training or developing a cadre of Lean blackbelts to increase process improvement capacity.” Consistently applied, such efforts have the potential to move an administration out of Level One.

A Lean initiative, for example, can ameliorate common bureaucratic frustrations. New Hampshire’s early program made significant gains at the DMV. Then, with management support, energized Lean practitioners collaborated to redesign processes in other agencies. Demonstrating proof of concept and building capacity, the program sought to move from disparate projects to the strategic level. However, momentum was lost due to a transition of administrations. As Bernard notes, a new governor brings new priorities along with new senior staff and administrators.

While Lean work continues in several agencies in New Hampshire, particularly Health and Human Services, the comprehensive recommendations of the Commission on Innovation, Efficiency and Transparency (2015) were not implemented. Similarly, in Rhode Island, it is unclear if the Executive Order (2015) requiring the use of Lean in all agencies will be renewed. However, Rhode Island’s program made inroads toward Level Two.

Maturity Level Two: Results Driven

States reach the second level of maturity when they establish best practices to achieve measurable outcomes. Managing toward established goals, they engage employees in meeting customer needs while driving out process waste. Targets are set for core processes. As Bernard explains, this purposeful combination of improvement techniques with strategic focus drives the operation.

Managers engaging in Level Two understand the distinction between measuring outputs such as the total amount of permits issued vs. outcomes like timeliness for issuing permits to qualified applicants. For example, with a target of 75 days, Rhode Island’s Department of Business Regulation improved the timeliness for issuing professional licenses from 125 days to 73 days.

Bernard provides examples of Level Two work in Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Maryland. Notably, leadership is a critical factor in engaging employees in a culture of continuous improvement. Loss of management focus can easily cause a regression into Level One. Underscoring the importance of continuity, Bernard describes how Governor Christine Gregoire’s commitment to Lean laid the groundwork for her successor Jay Inslee’s robust Results Washington initiative.  

The failure to measure progress can also cause a CI program to dissipate. Level Two systems publish results on dashboards and scorecards. Such tools must be standard across all agencies, pulling into a statewide view to capture all key indicators. Bernard described the system used by former Maryland Governor O’Malley as a, “Closed-loop, fact-centric management process using heatmaps and all forms of data to better get at root causes.” These capabilities along with the commitment to mission driven continuous improvement brought the state toward Level Three.

Maturity Level Three: Helping People Thrive

Following the establishment of Level Two operations, states are in a position to address complex social change. By redeploying previously wasted resources and utilizing the skill of process thinking, analytics can be applied to examine root causes of social problems. As Bernard explains, “The foundation of Level Three is applying what has been learned in Level Two to social challenges.” This is the “so what?” of government.

Vermont is among the states seeking to reach past Level Two. Governor Phil Scott’s 2017 Executive Order called for Lean and other CI methods to be used to drive strategic outcomes. The State’s strategic plan seeks four overarching outcomes, including “grow the economy” and “protecting the vulnerable.”

Maximizing governmental capacity to help people thrive is a multidisciplinary challenge. It will require states adopting CI management systems to stop reacting to symptoms and achieve operational maturity. Then, drawing from the work of scholars and practitioners of public policy, elected officials and administrators can use CI methodology to trace root causes of social problems, establish countermeasures, set targets and track progress. This is not a “set it and forget it” endeavor: the CI concept of Plan-Do-Study-Act/Adjust would fuel Level Three. Consider the transformational potential.


Author: Kate McGovern, MPA, Ph.D. is a Lean trainer and practitioner in the public sector. Formerly a professor for the State of NH, Kate is a consultant with Daniel Penn Associates and instructor at College Unbound. She is the author of A Public Sector Journey to Lean: Fighting Muda in Times of Muri. [email protected] @KateMcGovern_

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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