By Jon Miller | Post Date: April 4, 2006 11:23 PM | Comments: 6
As Lean manufacturing and “Lean fill-in-the-blank” take root in mainstream business consciousness I am noticing more mention of “lean government” by politicians in sound bytes as well as press releases and articles. I’m afraid that to many people Lean government means something similar to the dreaded “lean and mean” or “lacking resources to pay for basic services”.
So what is a Lean government?
Singaporean Consultant Jian-Chieh Chew takes an operational excellence approach to this question and outlined his Eight Workable Strategies for Creating Lean Government. Mr. Chew’s eight points are:
No. 1 – Synchronization to Customer Demands
While Mr. Chew does a great job of explaining Lean transaction, it falls short of defining Lean government. Saying that processing information or serving customers one at a time in a flow synchronized to demand is Lean government would be like saying that having everyone working on an assembly line from call to cash in a manufacturing organization is the definition of a Lean enterprise. There’s simply more to it than that.
Perhaps in Singapore they do not have the type of government as we do in the U.S. with lawmakers who attempt spend tax payer money building bridges to nowhere. If you have a government that is free of these types of boondoggles then focusing on Lean transactions in the various ministries and offices may be a sufficient definition of Lean government.
But I am looking at the question of “What is Lean government?” from the perspective of the staggering basket of boondoggle that is the U.S. government. It’s a bigger target, so my definition of Lean government has to work harder. A Lean government is one that will:
1) Solve people’s problems based on facts, by using the scientific method
Kaizen is about getting rid of waste, burden and variability in all of their forms. The U.S. government is the number one source of waste in the world. Why do I say this? The United States has the largest economy in the world. It has the largest tax base and collects the most taxes. It spends not only these taxes, but also what it can borrow from other governments (!!). Much of the spending is waste. We are the champions of the world when it comes to government waste. It is shameful, but it is also a tremendous opportunity.
Lean government needs to address waste at both a strategic level (which pain should we relieve first?) and at a logistical level (how can we deliver the most relief as quickly and cost effectively as possible?). In our economy there are thousands of trained professionals who every go to work every day to solve exactly these types of problems. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have sufficient numbers of them at the top of the U.S. government to make a significant difference.
Lean government is not about how civil servants or political leaders come to power. In the United States we have something fairly close to direct elections. In other countries there are monarchies. Neither system is inherently more or less wasteful. Common sense would suggest that a system of direct elections would do a better job of making sure that the customers’ voice (the will of the electorate) was reflected in policy and spending. Yet there have been benevolent dictatorships in history, as well as diastrous examples of popular rule.
Lean government is not about a balanced budget. Businesses also carry debt. Businesses take risks, shoulder debt and strike out in bold new directions from time to time. Governments are not too different in this way. Governments invest in infrastructure (build roads, airports), identify demographic trends (what the population will need in the future) and craft policy based on some combination of facts, faith and will of those being governed. The key is to do this with minimum waste and where there will be maximum effectiveness.
Lean government is not replacing the human capacity for making decisions with one strictly based on numbers. But a Lean government would certainly be more fact based than the faith-based Presidency we enjoy in the United States today. By their own admission facts come in a distant second to faith in today’s administration. I don't know how to do kaizen without facts. I admire people who do.
In the absence of facts, I go with faith. In the presence of facts that do not agree with faith, I question the facts. But I generally regret it when I ignore the facts. It takes a kind of faith to rely on the facts that are presented to you when making decisions. A Lean government would learn from the factual results of these decisions, good or bad.
Economist Milton Friedman said “the business of business is to do business” or to make money in a sustainable way. The business of government is to redistribute wealth (tax and spend) for the maximum good of the maximum number of people in a sustainable way. A Lean government should do this as effectively as possible. That means doing it rapidly with low transaction costs while strategically avoiding boondoggles, also known fondly in my country as pork.
What can we do about achieving a Lean government? We can take one lesson from another not-so Lean government. Edson Oda from Gemba’s Brazil office had to make a visit to a government office in Sao Paulo recently to explain why he hadn’t voted last October. He was out of the country on a business trip. Manuel Fernandez from Gemba, who lives under the slightly Leaner government of Chile will tell you that if you fail to vote on Election Day in that country you’ll get a visit from the police. They will ask you if you have a reason why you were not able to vote. They care, because you should.
What’s the lesson here? Citizens are the customers of government. Those of us who are eligible to vote have the privilege of letting our voice be heard. If we don’t define value for the government, how can we criticize the government for being wasteful? But mandatory voting would probably be too much intrusion into the precious individual freedoms of the American citizen. So for now we’ll just have to chop away at the branches of government waste.Comments are moderated to filter spam and inappropriate content. There may be a delay before your comment is published.