Lean Government

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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 as well as press releases. I am afraid; 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?

First let’s take an operational excellence approach to this question and outlined what we describe as 8 Workable Strategies for Creating Lean Government.
1. Synchronization to Customer Demands.
2. Understand Variations in Customer Demand.
3. Create Work Cells.
4. Eliminate Batching Work and Multi-Tasking.
5. Enforce First in, First out.
6. Implement Standardized Work and Load Leveling.
7. Do Today’s Work Today.
8. Make the Value Stream Visible.

While the above 8 workable strategies 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 if you do not have the type of government as we do in the U.S and Europe; 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. and European 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.
2. Provide the highest quality of life to as many people as possible.
3. Do this at the lowest cost.
4. Do this as quickly as possible.
5. Do this in a way that is sustainable beyond your tenure in government.

Lean government is improving quality, cost, and delivery through kaizen.

Kaizen is about getting rid of waste, burden and variability in all of their forms. The U.S and European government are number one source of waste in the world. Why do I say this? The United States and Europe has the largest economy in the world. They have the largest tax base and collects the most taxes. They 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 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 government to make a significant difference.

Lean government is not about how civil servants or political leaders come to power. In the United States there is 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 disastrous 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 enjoyed 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 U.S and Europe as pork.

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