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Solving Problems Across Political Divides

by Lean Leaper
October 2, 2013

Solving Problems Across Political Divides

by Lean Leaper
October 2, 2013 | Comments (0)
John ODonnell
John O’Donnell

John O’Donnell is COO at The Lean Enterprise Institute and executive director of the Lean Global Network (LGN). Prior to LEI, John worked for 30 years with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA). Typical programs involved evaluating the socio-economic and market factors related to the adoption of new transportation technologies, assessing the safety of transportation programs and systems, and developing effective public policies and regulations. In light of this week's events in Washington, Lean Post Managing Editor Lex Schroeder sat down with John O'Donnell to discuss lean thinking in government.

The US government is in shutdown. What do you think the opportunity in government is for lean thinking?

The opportunity is huge, but the challenges are significant. Most people enter the public sector because they are mission-oriented. At the start of my career, I wanted to help the country become better through an improved, more informed energy policy. Others enter the public sector to improve the nation’s health and welfare or public safety. The list goes on and on depending on the mission served or societal issues to be addressed. As a result, most people are mission, not process thinking oriented. 

One of the things I struggled with was the frustration I felt around a lack of a clear purpose for many programs. In government, you are dealing with significant, complex societal goals and problems. People are quick to offer preferred solutions without a clear understanding of the real problem being addressed, root causes, or the result of potential countermeasures. In too many cases there is not a tight connection between the purpose we are trying to achieve or serve and the problem we aim to solve. Once a solution is put in place, there is no process for PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Adjust). Too often solutions are offered one after another and no real progress is made. 

Whether it’s the public sector or any private sector organization, it's good to go back to the fundamentals. Does the organization have clarity around purpose? Is there a process to achieve the purpose? How do you engage people in the process to achieve purpose? Is management focused, engaged, and committed to the purpose and process? Do managers serve as coaches developing people or "command and control" task masters? Lean focuses on the process of achieving the work to be done and effectively engaging and developing people.

Public policy by nature is complex, the problems people are trying to solve are complex. There are a lot of stakeholders with strong opinions on how to solve problems. Problem-solving in this realm is difficult. It's not like seeing a scratch on a fender and saying, "Let's figure out why this scratch is happening." Is it a challenge to apply lean thinking to government? Yes. But most of the work that gets done in the world is made up of processes, so there's a tremendous opportunity to improve the business and organizational processes that support meeting national goals.


How did you personally come upon lean thinking and practice?

In 1977, I joined the U.S. Department of Transportation’s research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was a product of the '60s and '70, the Kennedy era, when working for the public sector was a noble cause. People wanted to address social issues and make the world a better place for all. 

My background was in economics: the connection between microeconomics, industry analysis, and urban development. Why did regions of the country propser or enter periods of decline? We were responsible for developing fuel economy standards for the auto industry. I had an opportunity to work on energy policy issues and learn about how standards would affect the auto industry and the resulting impact on industry, employment, and regions of the country. 

I learned about developments in the Japanese auto industry and the emergence of Japan as a global economic power in its very early stages. It was clear in the late 70s and early 80s that a new way of producing vehicles and managing operations was about to shake up traditional industries in the US and Europe. I worked on other transportation policy and regulatory issues such as safety, airline competitiveness, new transportation technology investments, and transportation system mobility and capacity issues. A big challenge for transportation is how to decide between investing in new technologies or infrastructure versus developing ways to manage the existing infrastructure more effectively. 

Along the way I spent time at MIT where I worked with Jim Womack on the International Motor Vehicle Program that led to the book, The Machine That Changed the World. Five years ago I joined LEI to help organize the Lean Global Network and help develop LEI’s research capabilities. 


Lean is moving into new and different sectors. Where do you see it being applied today?

I worked on the line at Herman Miller last summer and made chairs. The work to be done and supporting processes are all right there in front of you and visible. If someone isn't doing what they're supposed to be doing, it's immediately apparent. Defected products are built or the line stops. It doesn't mean they're a bad person, it usually means the process isn't functioning properly or the individual needs additional training. But the work to be done and problems are all very visible. As a result, where the work and related problems are very visible you see lean advancing... clearly manufacturing and lately, healthcare.

Most of the work people do in a service economy isn't visible. It's hard to see how work is performed, when and how it needs to be done, standards and expectations. In many organizations, it's challenging to even raise a problem. If you don't fix the problem, you have angry customers, either within the organization or those people you are trying to serve. When waste (wasted time, resources, defects, energy) isn't made visible, problems don't get addressed and the organization doesn't improve. However, we are seeing advances in the service sectors where financial documents are assembled and processed. We see advances in state governments where customer facing processes have been mapped and improved. All of these efforts involve making invisible processes visible.


How does Lean help you do your job every day?

Very little of our work is visible. Lean is logical, common sense and straightforward in principle, like eating healthy, practicing, and exercising. But it's difficult for many of us to commit to these things. It takes discipline to work in a new way. It requires people to go against their natural instincts, the way they have been conditioned to think, react, behave, and function. People say you have to "unlearn" what you've learned in order to do Lean well, and I think that's true.

We strive to make key work-related and organizational performance activities as visible as possible. Just knowing what people are working on and whether or not they are struggling is critically important. We try to develop our coaching skills as managers. I spent 30 years having people come to my office asking me to help them solve a problem. Too often I used my years of experience to justify offering a solution. Fortunately I was right a few times. Now I try to ask questions to get my co-workers to think more deeply about the problem and come up with their own solutions. It takes longer, but in the end everyone owns the solution and you develop better problem solvers.

For the person who is new to lean thinking and practice, why does it matter?

Let's go back to the public sector. How do we solve our big societal issues? I'd like to see more of a willingness to engage in problem-solving, a problem-solving/PDCA culture. I think a lot of taxpayers are frustrated because they don't believe the way the government conducts business is effective. There's little clarity around purpose or real problem solving going on. People sense there is a lot of waste and no desire or capability to effectively work together to solve problems. 

Too many of our programs either lack clear purpose or are designed to address broken processes. Many of the budget issues we face go far beyond just improving the work to be done. There's a lot of opportunity for real problem solving, which will result in better, more effective government.

At LEI, we partner with organizations that sense there's a better way to do the work that needs to be done and are striving to make things better. We are working with community members now to get their stories up on The Lean Post.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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