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