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Public Service: Lean's Next Frontier?

by John P. O'Donnell & Lex Schroeder
December 16, 2014

Public Service: Lean's Next Frontier?

by John P. O'Donnell & Lex Schroeder
December 16, 2014 | Comments (4)

Photos courtesy of Results Washington

While the lean community has a history of contributing to social good, until recently it hasn't been recognized for doing social good. And at LEI, for the most part we haven’t spoken about ourselves this way. Lean is still largely considered an improvement methodology used in manufacturing to reduce costs and improve quality. It’s often misunderstood as being solely about efficiency (not effectiveness) gained through the use of tools and process improvement projects, often doing harm to both employees and community members whose organizations want to “go lean”. And unfortunately, some organizations do use Lean this way. 

As a result, in many circles Lean has an image problem.

Our view at LEI is that lean thinking and practice helps organizations create more value with less waste: time, human effort, capital, space, defects, and rework, etc. by focusing on the real “work” to be done and asking what type of management and management system is needed to get the work done in the best way. It’s about embracing the challenge of systematically developing people to solve problems and consuming the fewest possible resources while continuously improving processes to provide value to community members and prosperity to society. 

What We’re Observing

While the lean community has been growing, the field of social impact – with social impact as its organizing principle – has risen in influence. Today, many young people of the millennial generation (20 and early 30 somethings) across the political spectrum are leaving college with the desire to work in fields of social entrepreneurship or social change. This is not unlike the children of the ‘60s who heeded President Kennedy’s call to public service – both within government and nonprofit organizations – to address emerging social problems. 

We’re seeing young people build organizations (nonprofit and for-profit) based on lean and Lean Startup principles. We’re seeing large, established organizations looking to better understand what lean thinking is all about in order to do better by their employees and customers. And here’s another thing we’re noticing: the senior “social good” generation and younger “social good” generation may be split across generations, organizational structures, and experience level. They may use different language to describe themselves and have different knowledge and skills. But they have the same desire to “do good” and solve problems in common.

On the ground, the lean community is busy trying to improve how work is accomplished, focusing on ways to better deliver products and services that are valued by stakeholders in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Increasingly, we see the lean community moving into “public service” fields: 

Thinking Towards What's Next

Josh Howell, John Shook, and John O’Donnell at The 2014 Washington State Government Lean Transformation Conference.

These are just a few reasons why in 2014 we decided to investigate the need for, and feasibility of, a Public Service Value Network (PSVN) – loosely modeled after the learning and development of a community of practice that led to today’s Healthcare Value Network, first established in 2008.

The Healthcare Value Network emerged out of LEI’s partnership with one of the country’s leading healthcare organizations, ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value in Appleton, Wisconsin, in response to national problems in healthcare delivery (i.e. cost, quality, timeliness, access, etc.). The launch of this network was based on a foundation a community of leaders and practitioners who saw the results of a new way of thinking about and practicing healthcare delivery. Members saw the value and expressed a willingness to share and learn from one another. Why reflect on this particular network or story? Because, beyond manufacturing, the improvements in healthcare are the most successful examples of a lean “spin-off community” we’ve seen yet. In building PSVN, we want to learn from their example. 

The objectives of LEI's Public Service Value Network are to a) better understand the problems and needs these organizations are facing and experiencing and b) learn how public service agencies and organizations in the social service space themselves are attempting to improve by going to see their lean activities whenever possible. (In other words, “be lean” about supporting new lean applications and the development of new lean communities of practice.)

We’re also reaching out to other organizations in the public service world – government agencies, foundations, nonprofits, NGOs – to understand what work is already being done and what experiments people are running. With regard to government, fortunately for the citizens of the United States, the lean movement is rapidly spreading through all levels – federal, states, counties, and municipalities, as well as the nonprofit sectors at home and abroad. Our purpose in working with these organizations is to show that lean is not a program of tools, process improvement projects, random kaizen events, or training activities focused on certifications and belts. Training and capability development should be integrated with continuously improving the work by developing problem solvers at all levels. And leadership must exhibit behaviors – and support a management system  focused on developing people who know how solve problems, work effectively with other parts of the organization, identify real needs, and deliver on purpose.

We believe the Lean for social good movement goes far beyond reporting improvement metrics, reductions in processing steps, or reducing the time it takes to get a license. Lean is a way to improve the lives of individuals and communities, whether that's preserving and creating quality jobs; bringing together children in need of a loving home with couples who are able to provide one; providing food services to struggling, proud families with dignity; helping startups and social enterprises build sustainable businesses that treat people well; or improving education processes so more time is spent developing and coaching future generations.   

We’re in the process now of exploring partnerships with organizations already doing work in this social good space. We want to learn from you, share stories, and collaborate with you. Please share your successes, challenges, ideas, and thoughts. We’re also looking to connect with leaders and change agents who would like to participate in this budding community of practice. Contact us at psvn@lean.org.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  government,  leadership,  startups
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Jessie Reyes December 16, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment
It is great hearing that lean is being made more visible to not for profit organizations. For sure this is an emphasis long over due given most lean specialist are pursue weath through application in the private sector.

As a lean and 6 Sigma guru, I will be focusing my efforts, after I retire, in the  NGO arena coaching and teaching the science to save lives. Will be great to track as your organization progresses in this front.


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Joshua Drollinger December 16, 2014
3 People AGREE with this comment

I started my Lean journey as a participant in the State of Washington's first Lean projects in the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS); now, a few years later, I am a Lean Practitioner for DSHS, helping promote a culture of continuous improvement, and I couldn't be more proud of how far we have come and how committed we are to creating value for the citizens of our great state in the future.  LEI has been a HUGE part of that, and I'm truly grateful.



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Lester Sutherland January 12, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

This posting on LEI helping in Public Service is indeed welcome news for Lean practitioners of the state and federal level. I am a federal improvement team member in the Department of Housing and Urban Development and we are continually trying to improve. A Public Service Value Network (PSVN) will be very helpful in building contacts and sharing practices. In the Federal Government we have a Community of Practice (COP) of Lean Six Sigma practitioners that we named the Federal Improvement Team (FIT). This COP is working hard to share knowledge and achievements, but it will be very helpful to have support across a broader network. About 6 years ago there was a conference in Iowa called the Lean Government Exchange http://lean.iowa.gov/leangovtexchange/index.html that had good attendance and support from some states and federal agencies. It was a very worthwhile effort at low cost $150, and we had two speakers from HUD, the Housing Operations secretary and myself. The $150 price tag made it possible for Govies who do not have major corporate funding to attend. Most conferences are beyond the reach of practitioners who do not have support of their organizations to attend the high prices conferences. The FIT puts on free conferences in D.C. using our own people and buildings. I hope LEI considers what cost state and local practitioners can afford to spend on conferences and training. I am very thankful that LEI is interested and active in sharing their help with government agencies as was done with healthcare and look forward to similar results.



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Matt Horvat April 30, 2015

Young people are optimistic. Working in the mission driven space doing improvement work doubles the satisfaction. I first discovered mission driven businesses about 5 years ago. As a borderline millennial/Gen Xer I am constantly thrilled to see the incorporation of benevolence with improvement. My first 10 years in industry was with profit-focused companies.

Here are some of the examples of working in a mission driven company that have (pleasantly) surprised me:

* Employees constantly bridge the gap between process improvement and safety.

* Employees want to see a greater emphasis on the Social ROI.

* Internally, customer and employee satisfaction are among the highest motivators.

Mission driven companies need Lean more than any other. They might be the most disorganized sector of the economy. They want to do it all and are often paralyzed with overburden. They come from sectors well separated from our definition of Lean. In fact if you do an internet search for Lean Non Profit you get stories about staffing reduction.



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