Do not separate us, we grow together

Do no separate us

by France Bergeron and Joanne Gaudet, July 2015

When traveling to Singapore a few years ago, I tended to one of my passions: visiting local grocery stores.   As I was walking through the aisles examining local produce and intriguing advertising, my eyes fell on a sign beside the bananas: “Do not separate us, we grew together”. Sometimes I feel we need that sign to remind us of the relation between improvements and work. Let me explain.

Recently, the Public Service of Canada has been very interested in Lean as an approach to improve service delivery to Canadians and to reduce internal red tape. Although Lean is relatively new to the federal public service, Canada is not the first public sector organization to adopt it. Many before us, including the United Kingdom, had their share of successes and failures with Lean. One path that several public organizations in Canada are now engaging on is very similar to the path the UK took more than 10 years ago: creating armies of internal facilitators and over-relying on Lean workshops and tools. This path has proven to be unsustainable (Radnor, 2013).

The problem with armies of facilitators is the separation of work from improvements that reflects a lack of understanding of what Lean truly is: participatory science. Understanding  Lean as participatory science is to understand that knowledge about problems (and countermeasures) resides with the people doing the work, in their context. Lean is about creating a culture of making everyone, at all levels (including senior management) responsible and accountable to solve problems in their work, every day. In such a culture, value is determined collaboratively with external clients, not solely by and for internal clients.

In contrast, armies of facilitators assigned to specific “Continuous Improvement Divisions” or “Lean Units” generally lead to a culture of improvement ‘experts’ who are responsible for planning, implementing and reporting on improvement activities. A hammer looking for nails. Solutions in search of problems. Daily work meanwhile remains disconnected from improvements. Lean in these organizations is unfortunately reduced to applying the same Lean tools regardless of problems. Lost is the strength of participatory science: a deep, shared understanding of the problem, of what holds value and of countermeasures, in context.

Work and improvements cannot be separated. They must grow together!

Reference: Radnor, Zoe and Stephen Osborne. 2013. Lean: a failed theory for public services? Public Management Review. 15:2. 265-287.

Originally published on LinkedIn Do not separate us, we grow together

Lean for government… a fad that will pass… really?

KM-FishCartoon1The two days whizzed by. Executives dropped by our booth at the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada’s (APEX) annual symposium to chat about Lean for government. Lean thinking in the federal and provincial public sectors is definitely gaining momentum in Canada. One executive, however, surprised me when he assertively declared: “Lean. Here’s another fad that will pass!”

I spent 20 years in the federal public service, almost half of which as an executive. I saw fads, growth, cuts, re-orgs, decentralization and centralization, but never have I lived such a promising approach to truly improving government. Lean is a scientific approach to problem solving and creating learning organizations, where everyone at every level is a problem solver. With its pillars of ‘continuous improvement’ and ‘respect for people’ and its focus on delivering value for citizens in a better, faster, easier and cheaper way, Lean for government should not even be an option. Every taxpayer in this country wants his or her hard-earned dollars to be invested where value is delivered, every day. I have yet to hear one taxpayer who would declare ‘there is no need to continuously improve government every day’. Lean for government a fad? I don’t think so.

Originally published on LinkedIn Lean for government… a fad that will pass… really?

Beware of Lean Tool Merchants

Snake Charmers

“Snakecharmers” a chromolithograph by Alfred Brehm ca. 1883

By France Bergeron and Joanne Gaudet.

Increased interest for the Lean management approach at all levels of government in Canada is undoubtedly one of the best news stories of the decade for citizens and for public servants. Lean’s pillars of respect for people and continuous improvement (through rigorous use of the scientific approach to problem solving) help focus on delivering value to citizens. There appears to be a rising cause for concern, however, as some who are stepping in to fill the rising demand for Lean services in the public sector appear to be engaging in ‘fake Lean’, a term coined by Bob Emiliani.

Among other questionable practices, ‘fake Lean’ can haphazardly focus on tools by disseminating them indiscriminately to public servants with little regard for how these should be used and with no impetus to identify the root cause of problems these tool should be addressing. Band-Aid solutions, i.e., ill-chosen Lean ‘tools’, abound. Lean tool merchants are meeting market demand – but unfortunately it amounts to quick sales and unsustainable practices. You could compare this to surgeons dolling out scalpels and surgical instruments with nigh a worry as to how the instruments could be used nor if the problems they were intended to address were properly diagnosed and understood before a decision for self-surgical intervention was made – driving up surgical instrument sales, but causing mayhem, mutilations, increased costs in hospitals to address unintended consequences and decreased trust.

Given that Lean is science (read one of our previous posts), there is an insightful comparison that can be made with what is commonly known as Western science. In Western science, rigorous scientific methods (i.e., statistical analysis) are part and parcel of the scientific approach. Using scientific methods without first having extensively scoped and delineated a problem (i.e., not understanding the core issue and addressing most all assumptions), however, can lead to contradictory and inconclusive research results (see example of research on peptic ulcers). Until the root cause of a problem is identified, no matter how many tools are thrown its way, it is unlikely that it will yield intelligible research results.

One question this situation raises is how do ‘fake Lean’ practices come to be? In our view, a first place to look is how Lean is ‘packaged’ – as a generic set of tools and templates – by tool merchants and how it is ultimately understood by those involved. In contrast, Lean management as a contextual scientific approach to problem solving used every day by every employee to offer value from the perspective of citizens is real Lean. In essence, what appears to be a similar problem in a different context might require a completely different tool – problem solving, not tools, is at the core of Lean.

Unfortunately, when ‘fake Lean’ rises in government, everyone loses. Public servants lose because they are not engaged in sustained every-day problem solving. Governments lose because problems are recurring and this can lead to demoralized public servants and disengaged and disillusioned citizens. The scars from the application of ill-advised tools can run deep, only become visible in years to come and sow disdain for Lean management. There is a solution – let’s demand to make every tax dollar count and focus on real Lean!

Originally published on LinkedIn Beware of Lean Tool Merchants