Current budget constraints in the public sector require an innovative response from executives, legislators, public administrators and government employees. Legislators must set the course with directive policy, administrators must develop the management plan and government employees must remain flexible and committed to the personal transformation required to do public business in a new leaner way. Bob Dylan said it right – the times they are a changing.
Citizens are demanding ethical and responsible government. Now, more than ever it is extremely important that programs and services using public funds are accountable and effective. Anything less is unacceptable. This is the beginning of the election cycle. We need to ask those who seek to lead our government some tough questions. How will government become accountable and effective? How can we maintain some compassion without encouraging unhealthy dependency? How can we as citizens know that our government is not spending money on unnecessary items, staffing or projects with little value to our citizens, communities and economy? Government functions must be measured against standards, but what standards do we use?
There are multiple ways to answer these questions. The most crucial factor is how we determine the standards to measure our progress. Business and public administration, statistics and accounting academic worlds can offer a myriad of possible measurement tools. Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, World Class Service, GASB, and Management by Objectives to just name a few. Many of these tools have been proven in the private sector. One particular approach, called lean thinking has been very successful in manufacturing and has in recent years been successfully adapted for use in the public sector.
Lean thinking, looks at the value of the work people do and directly connects it to the quality and quantity of the product or service provided to customer. It involves identifying and then comparing where human energy is focused and efficient or value added with where that same energy is unfocused and inefficient or unproductive and wasteful. In the lean thinking paradigm waste is referred to as muda. Reducing muda by focusing on value streams ultimately creates more efficient operations and more productive satisfied employees. Measuring work to increase efficiency is not a new concept. Both Eli Whitney with interchangeable parts and Frederick Taylor with scientific management attempted a similar kind of measurement that helped transform the industrial revolution. More recently Toyota is noted for this approach to organizational process and or production analysis.
Critics say these tools do not belong in the public sector. However, if administrative functions are financially lean, then more budget dollars can be earmarked for necessary programs that benefit the most needy in our society. Lean thinking is transforming public work environments from wasteful inefficient organizations with very unsatisfied employees to lean efficient organizations with proud motivated employees. Lean thinking is one strategy being used to achieve increased cost effective efficiencies without decreasing employee morale. This measurement of value and waste in the work environment has evolved to a place that is focused not only on the organizational bottom line but individual employee transformation.
This transformation is a difficult transition for some employees who have been doing things the same way for years. At first there is resistance, even stubborn objection. But as more efficiency is introduced into the work environment service quality increases, customers are happier and employees become proud of their work quality. This positive response increases employee satisfaction. I do not know of any working American who does not want to do a better job. That is the pride of workers in our country. This idea has moved in the public sector. Government services and performance are being measured using Lean thinking concepts in Iowa, the Connecticut Department of Labor, the Los Angeles Police Department and since June 2004 the Maine Department of Labor in an effort for continuous improvement of government functions. More government agencies will be looking at this because it works. Lean thinking is a process concept for government whose time has come.