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The “So What?” Factor in Public Management

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

By Kate McGovern
November 11, 2022

Delivering better, faster public services is an example of the tactical use of Lean process improvement techniques. So, what does that accomplish? Operations might be efficient and effective, but to what end? Fortunately, Lean is far more than a set of tools; it is both a management system and a way of thinking. Thinking about systems. Identifying root causes of social problems and identifying effective countermeasures. Achieving operational excellence for the purpose of accomplishing consequential outcomes.

Tactical application of Lean principles and techniques can make government run well. Strategic application can make it effective. Considering the role of both the tactical and the strategic use of Lean, I look to the work of John M. Bernard, author of Government That Works and James P. Womack, founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute. Womack identifies three core government functions and Bernard examines three levels of operational maturity.

The three functions of government according to Womack:

  • Enacting policies (laws) to regulate behaviors or deliver services
  • Designing the enforcement and delivery mechanisms for these policies
  • Operating these mechanisms on a continuing basis.

Bernard’s model of three levels of operational maturity:  

  • Level one: Reaction driven. Something happens and elected leaders and administrators hasten to mitigate the symptoms without addressing the root cause.
  • 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.
  • Level three: Social good driven. Following the establishment of results driven management, states can begin to address complex challenges. By redeploying previously wasted resources and utilizing the skill of process thinking, analytics can be applied to identify root causes of social problems. This is the “so what?” of government.

Tactical use of Lean

Lean can be used to improve both the design and operational functions of government. It is a tactical intervention that increases government’s ability to conduct operations as currently constructed. This is particularly useful in the reaction driven level of maturity where there is plenty of low hanging fruit within archaic processes. Significant amounts of waste can be identified and removed.

Moving to the results driven level of maturity requires an organizational commitment to mount a sustained effort. Administrators, employees, and supervisors would work with Lean facilitators to identify and charter projects, conduct kaizen events and implement changes, adjusting as appropriate. This process is ongoing, not a one-and-done. Steady use of the principles and tools will be a force multiplier, building a culture of continuous improvement.

Used consistently, Lean generates operational improvements which free up staff time, effort and resources. This freed capacity can be reallocated for newly focused initiatives with the potential to reach the social good level of maturity. But the next tasks are fraught with complexity. How to determine which new initiatives should replace the previous tangle of programs? How to move the resources? Each of these challenges requires strategic lean thinking.  

Strategic use of Lean

The enactment of laws and programs is the most challenging function of government because it is so often done at the reaction driven level of maturity. Political leaders concerned with image and reelection often opt for the appearance of action over genuine solutions. Risk averse administrators are likely to do the same. New programs are started with new names and overlapping purposes requiring new layers of coordination.

Lean techniques can help clean up ill-conceived, inefficient programs and make them run better, but effective policy development takes lean thinking. As Womack noted, policy development requires a “clear statement of the actual problem, followed by a structured process to identify and test countermeasures.” The principle of Plan-Do-Study-Act/Adjust (PDSA) would be applied to identify and implement best practices. The outcomes would be measured creating a feedback loop of continuous improvement.

Lean tools for public policy

Scholars and practitioners in the fields of Lean, continuous improvement and quality management use a range of tools, techniques and concepts that have utility in public policy development. Consider a multidisciplinary collaboration where academic researchers and policy makers incorporate lean thinking into their work. Social problems could be analyzed by drawing from the continuous improvement toolbox:

  • Techniques such as the “five whys” and the fishbone diagram can be used for root cause analysis.
  • Improvement Kata, the practice of scientific thinking and experimentation, can be used to identify and confirm best practices.
  • The A3 problem solving format can walk users through the PDSA process on a single sheet. It typically contains seven fields: background, current condition, goals, root cause, countermeasures, plan, follow-up/sustainment.

The “So What?” Factor

Government can run well and accomplish important social goals. To connect effective operations with impactful policy, Bernard argues that Lean is no longer optional. It is, he asserts, “the most viable strategy to transform government.”  To do so, will require a multidisciplinary approach incorporating both the tactical and the strategic applications of Lean.

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 an instructor at College Unbound and a consultant with Daniel Penn Associates. She is the author of A Public Sector Journey to Lean: Fighting Muda in Times of Muri. [email protected] @KateMcGovern_

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