Monthly Archives: April 2013

Innovation

Recently I met someone with the word innovation in their job title. This struck me as quite interesting. I wondered, how innovative do they need to be in their job? Do they do all the innovation in their workplace or are others explicitly involved? Now I don’t want to question the work of this particular individual – which I actually know to be really important and valuable work. But rather I think there is a broader issue about the current fascination with all things ‘innovation’ within public service organisations.

Innovation as a contemporary issue

Current examples of how innovation is being promoted in the planning and delivery of public services include,

Innovation vs invention

The first thing to note about innovation is that it is not about experiments and people in white coats. The easiest way to think about innovation is about applying existing ideas or products in a new setting. That is what makes innovation different to invention-which is the creation of new ideas or products.

In this sense there is a long history of innovation in public services (although it may not always have been labelled as such). For example, where one local authority uses an example of good practice from another local authority that would be an example of innovation.

Innovation as a ‘good thing’

But is innovation a good thing in public services? Well yes, sometimes it can be. When people refer to innovation there is an implicit assumption that it is linked to some improvement – and so it should be. What it is not is doing everything you did before but with fewer staff and resources. There are many other words for that sort of thing.

In this regard it is unfortunate that the word innovation is becoming ambushed within some circles, along with other approaches such as lean public services, by those with alternative motives. Therefore it is important to understand exactly what innovation is and how it may help deliver better public services.

At the same time innovation may not be a ‘good thing’ and does not necessarily deliver better public services. Taking into account that innovation can be easiest understood as the implementation of an existing idea or product in a new setting we must ask, is it always appropriate for a public service to experiment with a new approach? Inevitably this will often involve some investment and success cannot be guaranteed. Do we (the public) want more risk-taking in the planning and delivery of public services? And are we willing to accept failure as a ‘learning experience’ when things go wrong?

Implementation of innovation

Ultimately, as with all change activity an innovation must be implemented properly and sensitively. Those who are charged with implementing the innovation (public service workers) must be engaged and should feel a degree of ownership of the change. The public must be willing to support more risk-taking and scope for mistakes in the delivery of public services. Finally it is important that the public recognise and support the improvement that will come from the innovation. Otherwise what’s the point!

The final point to note about innovation is that those companies who are particularly well known for it, say Dyson, Google, WL Gore, all invest heavily in it, are committed to innovation in the long-run and give their employees the autonomy to make changes where they see fit. For example, at W.L. Gore employees are given 30 minutes per week for ‘dabble time’ – time to do their own projects outwith their day to day duties. In other words innovation may lead to cost savings, or it may generate new revenue streams, but it is certainly not something that can happen on the cheap or during an away day. Nor is it something that can ever be the responsibility of a single person or “innovation centre”. Where it works well it is a common thread through everything the organisation does – from recruitment of staff to delivery of the business. It must be an integral part of the organisational culture.

Conclusion

There are lots of examples from across the private, public and Third sectors where innovation has delivered real improvement in the delivery of services. This does not need to be a particularly large project to count as innovation and nor does innovation necessarily require huge investment. However, those organisations that are known for innovation tend to invest in innovation, encourage their staff to experiment (and learn from mistakes) and they all take long-term view of innovation. One of the complexities of public service organisations is the nature of being accountable to the public. Unless your ‘public’ are bought into the idea of innovation there are always going to be huge risks involved. What’s more, if you have an organisational culture where “computer says no” is the automatic default or where budget cuts are the primary agenda item then you will need to change your culture or your financial situation first before thinking about whether innovation is for you.

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Lean Public Services

I was recently asked by a student on our PgCert Public Services Governance course to provide a brief account of the advantages and disadvantages of applying lean management systems in the delivery of public services. This is my quick attempt at a brief answer!

First of all, what is Lean Management? This is actually a rather difficult question as terms such as continuous flow manufacture; stockless production; lean manufacturing; Lean thinking; Toyota production system and systems thinking have all become associated to a greater or lesser extent with ‘Lean Management’. However, for me, this short advert for Honda (a key proponent of lean management) encapsulates the essence of lean management:

Key points from this clip:
  • there is no waste;
  • every part of the process has a purpose;
  • everything happens in a fluid sequence;
  • everything happens ‘just-in-time’;
  • everything ‘adds value’ to the process.

First of all I think there is a lot to be said for a Lean Management way of thinking. Within public services perhaps the key text in this area is John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. Now, there are probably some who would automatically switch off at the very mention of Lean Management. It could be dismissed as ‘just another management fad’. But actually there is something to it and it is worth considering the positive aspects of Lean.

In my view, Lean is predominately about creating a learning organisation with empowered and autonomous workers. This is encapsulated in Mr Ohno, the Toyota executive who has been credited with the development of lean management, refused to have any of the lean management approach written down as then it would become crystallised and difficult to change – and would then stifle innovation. For Mr Ohno it was important that lean management continuously change and development. Consequently one should always be wary of any text or consultant who claims to be prescribing a lean approach (NB: that’s not to say that some books or consultants may have interesting things to say on the subject).

Nonetheless, there are some basic principles which can help with understanding a lean management way of thinking. The main focus of lean is on finding efficiencies in production through the elimination of all waste. Importantly the definition of waste is very broad in this area and has nothing to do with bins or recycling. Waste, in a lean management perspective, is any activity that does not directly contribute to satisfying customer needs. That is a quite radical way of thinking. Take a moment to consider the tasks you perform in an average week and ask yourself how many directly contribute to the satisfaction of your ‘customers’?

This is a useful way of thinking. So, for example, how is attendance at any one particular meeting going to directly enhance your customer’s satisfaction? Also, how does your organisation reward attendance at meetings vs delivery at the front line? However, this line of thinking when applied indiscriminately can be completely inappropriate; for example, empty hospital beds could be viewed as waste under this approach. Overall though there are undoubtedly many things that all businesses and organisations do that do not directly serve the needs of customers. As such this is a valuable mind-set to have.

It is workers at the front line of operations who are best placed to identify areas of waste and so the Toyota approach to lean management was to empower workers to identify areas of waste and to take responsibility for the inspection and quality control of their own work. A key argument being that failure, in the form of defective goods, represents a form of waste. Therefore a lean approach requires a commitment to ‘zero defects’.

In the public services John Seddon argues for the abolition of the Audit Commission, stating,

People’s work should not be inspected; people should be their own inspector.

Seddon (2008: 63-64).

However, this seems like a rather unrealistic goal within public services, even where the current UK Government may be working towards abolishing the Audit Commission there will always be a need for auditing and scrutiny of public services – hence the development of a new auditing regime. This is due to the demand (what John Seddon would describe as ‘failure demand’ for accountability in public services when things go wrong). This is heightened by the extent to which public services are often dealing with life-or-death situations with highly vulnerable groups. As the case of Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust shows, where failure does occur in public services it is important that lessons are learned and there is some accountability for the mistakes that have happened.

At this point it would be wrong to conclude that Lean is something that can only work within a manufacturing setting. As this article from the Harvard Business Review illustrates there is some relevance to the service sector. However, public services, which have their own distinct challenges, have particular characteristics that make a lean approach more difficult to achieve.

To some extent a lean management way of thinking is important in public services today. Public services are increasingly expected to be responsive to ‘customer’ needs and continuous improvement (and efficiency savings) have become an accepted part of how we plan and deliver our public services. However,  we are still accountable to the public and therefore good governance mechanisms are key. To an extent, when things go wrong in public services, we (the public) tend to fall back on bureaucracy – what policies and procedures were in place?; how was the service audited and inspected?; where does accountability lie?

There are in fact some positive aspects of bureaucracy which are important not to forget. As the former Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has put it,

In this country you can renew your car tax if you can prove you own the vehicle, it is roadworthy and it is insured. In other parts of the world all it takes is knowing which palms to grease. Bureaucratic systems are colour-blind, gender-neutral and they don’t care what you sound like. That brings fairness in a way more discretionary systems can never match.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, ‘There is no shame in being a bureaucrat’, Financial Times, 2013.

Finally, what I have found in speaking to those who have experienced the ‘implementation’ of lean management in public services is that there is a fairly piecemeal approach. Those aspects that are seen to deliver cost savings are pushed through with some gusto whilst aspects of empowering and developing staff (where investment may be required) are quietly forgotten. Yet the successful delivery of a lean management approach is totally dependent on a committed and empowered workforce. It is, in many respects (as highlighted by John Seddon) the very opposite of a traditional command and control form of management. So as soon as someone tells you to implement lean management – and dictates how it is to be done – you should consider what they are actually meaning.

There is lots more I could say on this topic but I was trying to keep this short so I’ll leave it for now. If you have any further questions please use the comments box below.

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