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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4 thoughts on “Lean Public Services

  1. calchaspss says:

    Seddon hates the word lean.

    This 3 minute video from his website ‘The Vanguard Method’, explains why.

    https://www.vanguard-method.com/content/380/

    • iancelliott says:

      Yes indeed. And that short video reinforces many of the points in my above blogpost. My decision to use the word Lean in the post was on the basis that that is the most commonly used word to describe the Toyota Production System.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Cameron Stark says:

    You’re right that Lean approaches depend on the knowledge of people who work in a service, and you’re quite correct that you can’t ‘do Lean’ to people. On the other hand, you probably do need to look at the organisational structures that support Lean.

    Ohno, mentioned in your post, was in a responsible position, and was able to introduce his ideas in his sphere of responsibility. As his star rose, and his area of responsibility increased, he was able to expand his influence.

    Many people in Public Services don’t feel that they are empowered to alter their own practice, so there is an argument for teaching senior staff about Lean, as well as front line staff, to try to produce a receptive environment for quality improvement work.

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