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At a Glance
  • Public-sector agencies cannot improve their performance by ignoring ‘soft’ aspect of operations. A balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ factors is needed
  • Agencies must identify the technical areas where improvement is needed and develop a corresponding management infrastructure to support the change.
  • In order to optimize the operating system, organizations must adopt appropriate metrices to measure value of each step of the process, gather and communicate performance data appropriate to right people, redesign and develop new roles to support change and create benefit sharing incentives to motivate employees.
  • Lean transformation can be sustained over time only when the culture and attitudes of employees are modified through creating a customer-oriented environment, changing bureaucratic mindset, communicating the urgency to adopt and maintain the new system by the leaders and reshaping the attitude of employees towards risk and performance measurement.

Lean principles and Six Sigma efforts can enable public sector organizations to improve their performance and efficiency, but for results to last, they need to focus on ‘soft’ aspects of operational decisions and changes.

Recognizing and Developing Capabilities

In the recent years, government officials have incorporated lean manufacturing principles and/or Six Sigma to develop operational-enhancement framework so that they can decrease the production of waste. The success of typical lean management approaches in reducing waste, inconsistency and rigidity in public projects is well-established.

However, corresponding to each success is a case where public agencies adopted a constricted approach to lean processes. Usually, these agencies solely concentrate on the ‘hard’ factors associated with operational enhancement, which include technical techniques and systemic assessment more effective in lean manufacturing and Six Sigma models. It does make sense as these are unbiased and well-defined approaches and warrant highly developed expertise for identifying issues and devising resolutions. However, it is essential to realize that an agency cannot elevate its operational efficiency by using trained technical specialists.

It is important for public agencies to recognize that by overlooking the ‘soft’ lean aspects can hinder and even halt the operational evolution. These ‘soft’ skills entail actions plans and effort that support leaders in influencing consistent development and modifying the attitude and approach of their employees. The ideal scenario for an organization to optimize and maintain their edge is to strike a delicate balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sides of lean program. ‘Soft’ lean factors should be incorporated into the operational processes by establishing a suitable management structure and by modifying employee’s thinking and skills.

Developing Management Infrastructure

The initial step for an agency is to recognize the potential for technical development within operational processes and programs. Once key areas of improvement are identified, they should build an appropriate management structure to promote and sustain these modifications. The management structure, basically, is the combination of organizational construct and operational processes that aids in maintaining systems and obtaining goals. There are several systematic actions that can support the development of management infrastructure and play a key role in achieving maintainable lean renovation.

Associated Value to Performance Metrices

In order to restructure processes effectively, an organization’s first step is to comprehend the end-to-end procedures and identify the value associated with every segment of these processes. For example, the security-clearance procedure was curtailed recently by a government agency. It was discovered that over time, the entire procedure had increased significantly causing substantial backlogs and of course higher costs. The government, in this case, did not imposed any changes without evaluation each step of the entire process. They determined the purpose and need for each step, accessed the value it offered in totality and pinpoint the causes of waste. This was achieved using an analytic tool called value-steam mapping. It is worthwhile to mention that the employees responsible for developing such maps must remain unbiased, a tough task for long serving experts involved. In order to deal with this complication, the best way to proceed is to create cross-functional unit with individuals able of relating to the same process in different capacities. This is exactly the approach adopted by the government agency and they were able to reduce the clearance period meaningfully.

Distribute Information to Key Personnel Timely

Management’s capabilities in monitoring and measuring performance and taking timely decisions ground in actual data is key in transformation and maintenance of lean function. Organizations can gather and circulate information manually or through IT based system, but the method chosen is not as significant as the metrices they use in their analysis. Management should identify and focus on the most valuable key performance indicators (KPIs), devise a direct approach of measurement and allocate suitable individuals for their timely monitoring and discussions. Agencies should take a direct and coordinated problem solving methodology and stay clear from practices that can discourage employees’ efforts. Data collection and distribution, when done in a positive method, can result in high employee spirits and morale.

Redesign and Create Roles to Support Change

Modifying the processes requires a redefinition and reallocation of organizational roles and responsibilities. For example, a policy-forming unit in a government agency realized that there were disparities in certain aspects of projects, which should be constant. They recognized this while undergoing lean transformation. These variant factors included scope definition, prioritization of projects, identifying key capacities, quality standards and developing specific timeline. In order to deal with this challenge, the division decided that all these responsibilities should be handled by same individual. Hence, they created a new post of policy coordinator with the task of collaborating with the management to guarantee constancy across projects. Later assessment of operation showed that as a result of creating this new role productivity increased.

Promote Motivation Through Incentives

Usually, the initial phase of lean transformation is undertaken by employees with excitement and dedication but there is high likelihood that this enthusiasm may fade. Organizations often offer a variety of incentives – Monetary and non-monetary. For such motivational tools to work, they must be developed and designed tactfully and provide advantage to staff and the organization itself. Organizations have observed a morale boost when benefits are shared and the net savings from the transformation efforts end up being reinvested in the agency itself. This approach strengthens the process of continual growth. However, if the reinvestment does not take place at the correct level, the incentive may lose its value. For instance, net savings achieved by one aircraft maintenance division of a government’s defense department were reinvested at a departmental level and not for benefits of the division itself. Due to this, divisional employees did not enthusiastically participate in the ambitious cost-reduction goals. On the other hand, it was observed that, when the same division’s contractors were provided with an incentive to share benefits, they completed their work at a lower cost (than agreed), there was a positive change in attitude. They were prepared to share their technical information and employ innovative methods to lower cost.

Modifying Attitude and Skill

When lean principles are incorporated in operational process, often organizations are unable to maintain the modifications over time. The cause is the management’s inattentiveness to staff’s skills and attitudes. In order to motivate employees to support change and observed newly developed standard in long-term, organizations must move to performance-oriented atmosphere. Of course, this change must be coupled with simultaneous modification to operation framework and management structure.

Develop Customer-Centric Environment

The mightiest challenge to overcome in public-sector setups is to develop a customer-oriented environment. The impact of discontented customers is great in corporate organizations than in public agencies as there are no other competition and hence no impact on overall returns. However, employees can be assisted in comprehending the customer’s point of view. One approach is to get employees to experience what customer feel. Few agencies got employees to shadow customers’ complete contact with an agency staff. Employees can experience the actual frustration of long waiting period or encountering unfriendly reactions and share the data with their colleagues. Empathy with the customers can prepare the staff for training on capabilities such as developing trust, conducting tough conversations, building active listening skill and resolving issues.

Dismantle Bureaucratic Silos

Bureaucratic mindset is yet one more problem in implementing lean principles to public-sector agencies. The problem becomes more significant when dealing with other government divisions which is mostly the case. However, such bureaucratic silos should be dismantled. One approach is creating awareness among these units about the function of other units. Conducting informational meetings or getting staff from one agency to follow their associates in the other can help achieve this. Another way to go is develop shared performance metrices and better comprehension of shared objectives. Teams can be created with experts from various divisions to undertake problem resolution exercises. For instance, a security clearance procedure developed high level of complexities because the intelligence divisions involved had varying requirements. Each unit regarded their criteria to be exclusive and hence, different sets or processes and procedures were requested. In order to resolve the situation, a cross-functional unit was developed with professionals from each division. It was their responsibility to comply with a governmental directive for new processes and they soon recognized that higher productivity can be achieved through a central unit administrating a joint procedure. In addition, loyalties were developed among the members which aided in resolving friction they originally might have felt performing within their own silos.

Communicate the Urgency of Change

In order to make lean transformation efforts effective, the public sector leaders must communicate the urgency for such modification to their staff. A court system needed to reduce their overall operating budget, so they decide to employ the lean method. They committed considerable hours in recognizing the potential areas for improvement, developing and implementing a performance-based management framework and redefining roles and responsibilities but the expected outcome was not accomplished. Reassessment of the processes showed that it was essential for certain activities to be completed in shorter time span. As the leaders failed to communicate the urgency to adopt the modified processes the staff remained unmoved to perform their work differently.

Overcome Risk Aversion Attitude

The public-sector agencies have an attitude which stems from avoidance and dislike of performance assessment and taking risks. The common mentality is that there are more disadvantages to highlighting issues than advantages of making upgrades. The main influence to changing such mindset lies mainly with the management. It is important for management to appreciate their staff for adopting new methods and concentrate on issue resolution and not allocating blame for shortcomings. A government agency was so dominated by risk aversion mindset that upon the commencement of lean-transformation action plan, leaders compared it with “turning a battleship”. The division dealt with this challenge by incorporating employees input in development of their performance-based management model. The wide array of best practices suggestions enabled the management in remodifying the method of working. They also created a unit to identify future improvement methods and support their application. As a result, for their efforts, they were able to achieve significant yearly savings.

Lean transformation requires a consistent effort and commitment to change. There are always chances for fast results, but they are not long lasting or contain much value. Impactful and long-term enhancement cannot be achieved by spending few weeks in training or recognizing waste sources. Public organizations need to implement and promote an environment of sustainable improvements. All employees should participate in generating improvement ideas. Managers should observe the performances up-front and lead by example in adopting new procedures and adhering to the changes so that other employees can follow, and a culture of continuous improvement is developed.