This month, Ken and I wrote an article for another publication on a management strategy known as “Lean.” It’s a strategy that’s being adopted by state and local governments around the country that involves paring any given process down to its bare essentials.

When we were first asked to write something nearly seven months ago, we started a text message string to discuss possible topics. In the end, we thought the texts themselves could be an article. The editors, however, preferred a more traditional column, so we wrote that. But, we hated losing some of the Public Great flavor of the texts. So, now that the article is out, we wanted to print the texts as a way to offer some insight into our feelings about Lean and other management fads, and what governments can do to ensure that once the logos, mugs and t-shirts leave, the best concepts remain. The spelling has been cleaned up and the emoticons removed to hide the fact that we’re not as cool as we think we are.

Ken Miller: Did you see the email I forwarded to you about writing a Lean article?

Bill Bott: Did, but I did not see anything about writing on Performance Based Budgeting, Paradigm Shifting, or Strategery.

Ken: Not a Lean fan?

Bill: HUGE fan…and I was with TQM, SIX Sigma, and Zero Defects, and New Coke

Ken: How could you drink New Coke? It was like Jolt and Pepsi got drunk and had a kid.

Bill: Jolt … nice pull.

Ken: I gotta run — think about an article — everyone is talking Lean.

Bill: Everyone is talking about season 2 of Homeland, I’ll write that article.

Next day

Ken: I pulled some of my favorite articles and books on Lean, and put them on the shared folder online. Let me know what you think.

Bill: HOLY COW!!!! How much do you read????? I skimmed the titles, I get the gist.

Ken: “Sharpen the saw”

Bill: So what do you want to write about?

Ken: We need to encourage folks to embrace this for what it is — “a way” to help improve the capacity of their agencies — without making it “the way”.

Bill: So, how we use it without turning into the junior high kid who just found Axe body spray and bathed in it, or how we use it to do some stretches, but we don’t have to put yoga bumper stickers on the car.

Ken: I’m telling my wife you wrote that.

Bill: Namaste

Ken: The methods and tools of Lean can have–and from our projects–have had, a big impact on government. BUT, it is quickly becoming “the next big thing” and we have both been victims of “the next big thing”.

Bill: When I close my eyes I still see chalk outlines of the next big thing on the office floor.

Ken: Every initiative in government is done the same way. Big kickoff, acronym, logo shirts and mugs. People get “volunteered” to a steering committee. A whole bunch of training ensues and then a few teams working on non mission critical processes grab some low hanging fruit and we move on. The whole cycle takes about three years and then leaders pounce on the next shiny object thrown in their cage. Rinse and repeat.

Bill: I always like the certificates.

Ken: But here’s the million dollar question: What good things came from all those certificates?

Bill: From the actual “fad” initiatives? Not much, or they would still be with us. But there are tons of results that have come from people who could get past the framed certificate and use the training for the forces of good.

Ken: Agreed, but how do we make sure Lean is more than a certificate?

Bill: We write an article on the dangers of certifications.

10 Days Later

Ken: Did you do an outline for the article?

Bill: Nope – I’m the idea guy.

Ken: Do you have a good idea?

Bill: Percolating.

3 Days later

Bill: I was writing some notes down on the plane and I think I’ve got the idea — Don’t do Lean…

Ken: Sounds like the perfect way to get published. Do the opposite of what the nice people asked for.

Bill: “If you make Lean the new initiative, you doom it to failure”. Let’s just embrace the reality — I can name 10 things we’ve seen come and go – Strategic planning, balanced scorecards, employee engagement…I’m doing 360’s just thinking of all the ghost town offices that were developed as the next big thing.

Ken: The problem is context. All of these initiatives have value. All of them contribute to the knowledge base. Even when the fad dies – the insights remain.

Bill: Like the customer service fad…Remember the hours fighting over who the ‘customer’ was at a state prison? They may have abandoned “customer satisfaction” as an initiative, but they do recognize the prison programs must to serve the needs of inmates, or they’ll be repeat customers.

Ken: Or the performance measurement fad. During their time they were The THING to do. So they got training, acronyms and consultants. But even if the fads have died down – the insights they brought will be with us forever. We don’t have to talk about “focusing on customers” as much anymore or “measuring outcomes not outputs” because it’s now common knowledge. They used to be new insights and novel ideas and approaches. Now they are just how we do business.

Bill: And Lean will be the same thing. But it seems like we are always jumping. Performance measures then planning then customer service.

Ken: We always will. Look, the Baldrige award recognized there was no silver bullet.

Bill: Seriously? 1992 called and wants its TQM binder back.

Ken: Okay, again a useful concept that got fadded out when people were forced to use it rather than embracing it when there was a true need. But, what the Baldrige award recognized was that all great organizations continuously improve in 7 areas — long term planning, customer focus, people development, measurement, process improvement and results.

Bill: So Lean helps one of the seven.

Ken: Exactly. It’s a new toolset that helps organizations do process improvement better — and thereby delivering better value to their customers. Great organizations focus on all seven areas. Process improvement may be the area that needs emphasis now, and Lean may be the most helpful toolset for it. But we shouldn’t make it the “only thing”.

Bill: But leaders rarely put it in that context. They emphasize it to the point it overpowers all the other areas and since employees have seen this movie before, it feels like the flavor of the month.

Ken: Because we added the Lean flavor doesn’t mean we no longer care about customer satisfaction or measurement. We added to the knowledge base. We don’t throw out the other flavors.

Bill: Were you one of those sixth graders at the movies who filled up his soda with a shot of each kind?

Ken: Loved that…We called it a “mix-up”.

Bill: Maybe that’s the article, there is a danger to drinking too much soda…Unless you mix them all together.

1 Month Later

Bill: OK, I have an outline, but I hate it…it’s too lean on the Lean.

Ken: Is there a way to talk about Lean as a great tool? But only a tool. Despite the hype, it’s not a lifestyle or a life raft. It’s a method and some great tools that can help you increase your capacity to do more good. If capacity is your problem then Lean is your answer. The problem comes when we buy the tool before even knowing what needs fixed, simply because our neighbors have that tool and love it.

Bill: Whoa, you’re screwing with the time continuum again. That’s how we work in government…the private sector does it, the vendors talk about it, the legislators get excited about it, someone tries it, the conferences light up with it, we all rush in, we make fun of it when it doesn’t work, and then we wait for the next thing. This is life.

Ken: That’s the crazy cycle that has grown up in place of the process improvement cycle. All these should not be looked at as movements, but as tools. TQM was a tool to minimize defects. Six Sigma is a tool to reduce variation. If the problem in your agency is that you mass produce millions of widgets and some are defective, then these are the tools for you.

Bill: The issue is tools become fads when we think the hammer is the thing that will fix everything in the house. Tools, in the right place.

Ken: Lean is in the danger zone. It is so faddish right now that it’s being used to describe so much more than system work. No doubt it can be the right tool if waste or capacity is the problem. However, some agencies have problems that are completely different. They may be pursuing a dying mission or not even know their mission.

Bill: “Our mission is to become a world class organization.” How can we go wrong?

Ken: My point is if you don’t know your agency’s purpose, doing it more efficiently won’t help. For others their issue is not how they make their widget, it’s not process, it’s the widget itself. Customers don’t like it, can’t use it, etc.

Bill: OK, recap — There are 7 areas, not 1…A singular focus on process improvement does not a quality organization make. Fads are bad…bad for business, bad for morale. Making it a fad is wasteful. Tools are good… And learning to use the tool is important, knowing when to use what tool is equally important. Lean is a good tool — if that’s what you need to fix your problem, use it.

Last Week

Ken: Did you ever get them an outline?

Bill: Nope — I got caught up trying to get everything done for the new year, then took some time off, and then kinda forgot.

Ken: Did we decide for sure which idea we are going with?

Bill: I have 4 different analogies…Tools, soda, axe body spray, and yoga…I defy you to choose one over any other.


Bill: I just read through this text string…I think we should just submit this. It covers most of what we think about Lean in government.

Ken: I’m not sure anyone would print it in a publication. Particularly one dedicated to finance officers.

Bill: It beats writing a big long-winded article about the financial benefits of a Lean organization

Ken: OK — send them this as a draft and see if they like it.

Bill: There is no way they will print this.

And they didn’t. Not this version anyway. Is your agency using Lean? What’s your experience with it? In what context is your agency looking at the latest management fads? Have any good concepts become engrained in your culture after the certificates and acronyms were gone?

*Originally published as Learn About Lean and Other Management Fads from Texts (Public Great @, May 21, 2013)

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!