In the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling across the country talking about our need for an Extreme Government Makeover. I’ve come across more than a few people – and received more than a few emails – asking me,”Aren’t you talking about LEAN?”

My answer remains the same: No. And yes. And kinda. And it depends.

Certainly, we recognize there is potential in Lean to help government. Of course, we also saw potential in Six Sigma, and we saw it in Total Quality Management. There is always potential. Unfortunately, there is not always improvement.

(Sidenote: I know some of my readers may be hugh proponents of Lean, or black-belt Six Sigma folks, or die-hard TQM’ers who are holding out for a revival, jumping up and down, yelling, “That’s what we said 20 years ago!” To all of you I say, don’t take this post personally. I am a recovering TQM’er myself, and there was a time I was convinced that if only more people fully understood, we could change the world.)

Truth is, people don’t rally to a methodology, no mater how much Kool-Aid we pour down their throats. And they are smart not to.

When TQM was the thing, I was at the point in my career when I starting foolishly thinking, “I may be smarter than the people in charge.” I wasn’t jaded and bitter, closed-minded to new concepts and new opportunities. I embraced TQM with all my soul. Not only did I soak up every bit of training I could, but I even designed my own version tailored for our agency: “The ABC’s of Quality — Attitude, Behavior, and Customer Service.” It was every bit as horrible as you are imagining.

In my enthusiasm, I started trying to find areas to put the training into practice. I went from office to office looking for opportunities to run teams and improve how we worked. Time and time again, I was turned down. By year’s end, I had trained everyone and done nothing. I was discouraged by the failed attempts, but I found solace talking to TQM offices from our parent organization. They were working on a new workbook that would outline a manager’s responsibility to identify and then work on improving processes. They asked me to help work on it.

A month later, the workbook was my Mona Lisa, my TQM masterpiece. It tied customer comment cards to key performance indicators, which rolled back to strategic outcomes, which in turn rolled up to our mission and vision. All complemented by a continuous improvement model that used a metrics-based approach to selecting the areas to improve first and incorporated senior leadership input to setting performance targets and …, well, I still get smitten just thinking of it. But another year passed and nothing really improved.

The next year I was invited to the big leagues: encouraged to start my black belt training. But by then, I was convinced things had to be done local, and I was jaded to any of these large initiatives. My head still hurt from banging it against the TQM wall. (Plus, I could never get past the whole “black belt” thing. Who thought of that? It’s like having a Chess Club “Captain,” or being a “mathlete.”) Anyway, that was my mug-full-of-change moment and I was done chasing a methodology to help us get better.

What my bosses knew all along (and kept to themselves) is that these things come and go. TQM was just the next thing in a long line of things, and I was the sucker who made sure we did just enough to tell the higher-ups we were working on it until the next thing came. These things roll in and out of government like the tide. At present, a tsunami of Lean is crashing on our shores. But make no mistake, it too will subside.

Unfortunately, when these fads do subside, the potential good of the effort is all too often lost. If you’ve been in government for a couple decades, you’ve probably lived through at least three waves. Chances are you’ll see a few more. But before we doom ourselves to the same fate, let’s explore why these efforts flop.

First, they concentrate on training. We spend an enormous amount of energy trying to get everyone on board and trained up. We spend so much time on training that by the time we try to apply the training, people who went through first forget what they were trained on. This is the inflated expectations phase in which we all start dreaming of the car we’ll drive after we hit the lotto.

Second, the well-intentioned offices that are set up to help people with the methodology get so caught up in “how” they forget the “why.” Remember when strategic planning was the rage? How many of us had templates dictated to us? Many were so cumbersome and packed full of mandated filler that they became merely an exercise is compliance. We all had two different plans: The one we submitted to the strategic planning folks, and the one we actually used. When the process becomes the product, your initiative is in trouble.

Third, and most important, we work on the wrong things. If you want results we have to be fixing pipes, looking at a specific piece of the critical work our organizations do. If you want to make a better product, quit working to fix Human Resources or improve communication, and start looking at how you make your stuff. If you’re not convinced government doesn’t make products, grab a copy of We Don’t Make Widgets from Governing.

Frankly, any improvement effort has a better chance of success when you are looking at the pipes. And none of them have a chance of success when you ignore the pipes in favor of culture, communication and esprit de corp.

So if you want your improvement efforts to thrive, don’t train people, don’t dedicate resources to an oversight office, and don’t work on the things people complain about the most. Easy enough. Truth is, these efforts don’t need the first two, and the third is fooforaw.

What you need is a dedicated team looking at the work, applying the universal principles of reducing backlogs, batches, bottlenecks, errors, rework and every once in a while making sure your customers are happy and getting what they need. If Lean gets you there, great. If it’s something else, great.

We won’t be advocating any one over the other (except of course for my “ABC’s of Quality,” copyright 1994). What we will advocate is doing something to improve our work by focusing on the work, and our analogy for that is the pipes of government.

Now sign up today to become certified as a Pipe-Plumbing Ninja for only $19.95.

*Originally published as Management Fads in Government Come and Go (Public Great @, September 11, 2012)

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