Making the public service lean

The public service is often thought of as the bloated bureaucracy where things cannot get done and where decisions are kicked around and no one takes responsibility. I came across this article Applying lean production to the public sector and was inspired by the suggestions put forth.

The lean methodology was popularised by Toyota and this technique has been applied by many other companies who followed Toyota’s lead.

Lean aims to optimize costs, quality, and customer service constantly. It does so by engaging and equipping employees to focus on creating and delivering value in the eyes of the customer and eliminating whatever doesn’t contribute to this goal.

While we see and read of success in the private sector after they applied the lean methodology in their business, we rarely hear of it being applied to the public sector.

Not surprisingly, the concept and language of lean, rooted as they are in manufacturing, spark cynicism among many civil servants. Some feel that their priority should be matters of policy, not operations; others resent the notion that they are somehow part of a production line. Moreover, without the incentive of the profit motive, these government managers may believe they have neither a reason nor the levers to pursue a lean approach.

Yet, for public agencies that embark on the lean transformation, the results are amazing. Service standards have improved and processes are reduced. However, for the above reasons, persuading people to apply lean in the public service is challenging. The authors gave some suggestions below on how to embark on such a transformation process.

To succeed, public-sector organizations must find a way to align their growth strategy—providing new and better services at limited cost—with a regard for the interests of their workers. Although lean programs may cut the number of public-sector jobs, the goal is to make the remaining ones more rewarding. Incentives come from the prospect of more meaningful work, potentially with room for greater autonomy or a chance to develop new skills.

There are four steps the public sector can take to begin their lean transformation.

One way to identify—and then focus on—the customer is to discuss these issues with the staff, ensuring that any improvement effort is framed with the customer very much in mind.

The first step is to be in the customers’ shoes, which can be especially challenging for public servants, since most public agencies are monopolies, meaning that “customers” don’t really have another choice. It is therefore important to begin identifying your customers first, before attempting to take their perspective.

The second step is to define and manage end-to-end process. However, there are challenges facing the public service:
1. Public servants may lack the skills, experience, and mind-set to take this approach.
2. Growing propensity of governments to use outsourcing as a cost-cutting measure without always considering the impact of the outsourced service on the overall process flow.
3. Coordination issued due to work that cuts across agencies and boundaries.

The third step is to expose and solve problems.

A key characteristic of a lean organization is its ability to improve itself constantly by bringing problems to the surface and resolving them.

Public agencies may not be too keen to allow problems to surface and attempt to mask problems so that they do not become exposed. In the event that problems arise, most would rather put a bandage over them than to solve the issues.

Moreover, high-ranking civil servants tend to be organizationally and culturally removed from the delivery of frontline services, so policies are often made without a clear understanding of their effect on customers.

It takes brave leadership and people with the courage to uncover problems and propose a solution. Instead of glossing over problems, we need to have the courage to bring them to light and solve the issues.

The final step is that relating to culture.

When improving long-term performance is the goal, changing the process or the operating system will not suffice. The organization’s culture must also change.

Culture is the most important component of an organisation and it is therefore vital to create an environment and facilitate a culture where the lean process is allowed to flourish.

Lean requires more than the courage to uncover deep-seated organizational problems; it may call for the ability to deal with job losses as well. Without ducking this simple truth, politicians and public-sector leaders must outline the need for change, explaining its benefits and the logic of the planned approach. They need to tell all stakeholders, including civil servants and the public, a compelling story about the impact and long-term benefits of change. The challenge to do more with less will not go away. A lean approach, with its emphasis on lower costs but higher quality and customer service, is surely worth investigating.

The civil service has done a great job over the past 50 years in Singapore due to solid leadership, quick and wise decisions and civil servants with the courage to surface and solve problems. As we begin the journey into the next 50 years, will the civil service continue to exhibit the lean methodology in their functioning and operations?

Leave a Reply