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Get lean and improve government services

September 3, 2014 Article 5 min read
Lee Davis

The costs to provide governmental services continue to increase while budgets continue to decrease, creating huge gaps between the demand for these services and the capacity to deliver them. Leveraging Lean can bridge these gaps.

Image of government building with columns

Critical issue facing government

Maintaining or improving services in the public sector is becoming more and more challenging.  The costs to provide governmental services continue to increase while budgets continue to decrease, creating huge gaps between the demand for these services and the capacity to deliver them.  Government leaders are seeking ways to address this issue.  Many attempt to leverage technology but can’t because significant capital investment is required. Lean process improvement is an approach to streamlining processes by as much as 30 – 50 percent. Leveraging Lean can bridge these gaps within
budgetary restraints.

What is Lean?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Lean in the public sector, leaving many government employees wondering what it is. 

Lean is a management philosophy that focuses on identifying and eliminating waste within repetitive processes. Municipalities have many repetitive processes, such as:

  • Hiring people
  • Purchasing
  • Permitting
  • Fire inspections
  • Parking violations
  • Street maintenance

There are five Lean principles:

  1. Specify value from the customer’s perspective.
  2. Map the value stream including all activities, value added and non-value added, along with operational metrics from customer request to delivery of product or service.
  3. Establish flow by ensuring a continuous flow of information, product, and service throughout the process.
  4. Implement pull by not starting work upstream in the process until there’s demand from the downstream customer.
  5. Work to perfection with continuous improvement efforts to completely eliminate waste and ensure only value for the customer.

How is Lean executed?

The next step is to understand how to deploy Lean.  Normally an organization will have a Lean expert lead a project team in the execution of Lean initiatives.  The Lean expert will ensure that the team understands the value of the product or service from the customer’s perspective; then the team will complete the current-state value stream map (VSM). 

A VSM is a very detailed process map that shows all activities, from customer request to product or service delivery.  The VSM includes lots of operational metrics, such as how long it takes to perform specific tasks (cycle time), the amount of unfinished work (inventory), the amount of non-value added time (lead time), the amount of available labor, the amount of work being completed given the amount of labor (productivity), the number of defects being produced, and other pertinent information that provides a clear view of the actual operation.  A VSM is an extremely effective tool for leaders because it provides visibility into the problem areas of a process, which may not otherwise have such transparency.  The power of the VSM is data.  This can be problematic if your organization doesn’t keep that level of data; however, you can start to track the data or use directionally correct information in the place of actual recorded data by asking your employees to provide estimates. 

Once the current-state VSM is completed, the analysis begins. The team, using various techniques, will identify the inefficiencies and quantify them. How much time is spent just waiting between activities? How does this affect delivery time to the customer? Are there quality issues causing rework? How much is the rework costing? Is the work spread evenly over the process to promote flow? Are there bottlenecks? Can we improve flow by redistributing work or employees within the process? This stage of lean is focused on establishing flow and implementing pull to create efficiency.

Next, the team creates a future-state VSM, which reflects the improved way they would like the process to work. The rest of the activity centers on identifying and implementing changes to close the gap between the current- and future-state VSMs.  An action plan is created, and tasks are assigned to the various team members with expected dates of completion. There’s constant monitoring of the process as these changes are implemented.  The great thing about Lean is that there’s latitude to experiment.  If action items are implemented and don’t bring the expected improvements, the action plan is modified, and other changes are tried.  

The team must be careful to allow sufficient time for changes to take effect before trying something else. There’s often an initial dip in performance when change occurs. As employees digest the change and learn how to work in the changed environment, the performance will eventually rise and exceed past performance if it is an effective change. This phenomenon is evidenced by the Change Curve Model.  Given this issue, how long should the team wait to see if the change is effective?  This is the million-dollar question, and the best answer is that it depends.  The team must assess the magnitude of the change and, more importantly, the response of the affected employees to the change.  The greater the change or response to it, the more time the team should allow prior to assessing the result.  The Lean expert leading the team will be able to provide guidance on this issue.

Once the action plan is completed, the team will update the future-state VSM to reflect all of the changes and new operational metrics.  This future-state VSM will now become the current-state VSM.  In organizations that really stress Lean, this exercise could happen every year. This brings us to the final principle of Lean:  work to perfection. The repetitive cycle of value stream mapping and making improvements is called continuous improvement (Plan, Do, Check, and Act).  Due to resource constraints, organizations will often strategically identify key organizational processes to VSM and establish a cadence of how often it should occur. 

Organizations that embrace Lean will embed it into their culture.  Employees will not only be trained in Lean but also receive daily reinforcement of its concepts in the workplace in the form of visual displays of monthly key metrics for their areas. Leaders will also constantly track and analyze the operation, challenging their employees in problem identification and resolution in the
pursuit of perfection.

Advantages of Lean in government

Lean is a proven management approach that eliminates waste, thus improving quality, reducing cost, and speeding up the delivery of services. Lean is easily implemented within an organization, doesn’t require capital investment, and creates a climate of continuous improvement. Lean is the solution that government leaders are seeking to address the challenge of improving services in the face of budgetary constraints. 

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