Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Change Anyway: The 10 Paradoxical Commandments of Government

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

TheTenCommandmentsI was concluding a Better, Faster, Cheaper workshop last month with a wonderful set of government managers. These people were bright; they got the concepts; and their hearts were in the right place. But they felt defeated: Tired of fighting to change a seemingly unchangeable system, these folks were worn out.

They peppered me with questions that were all variations on the same theme: “Why bother? Why try?” The only answer that kept coming to me was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” I didn’t like the answer as it left my mouth each time. It felt like a pat cliché. But as I reflected on it on the flight home I came to be at peace with it. It was the right answer. It is the only answer.

My answer reminded me of one of those viral emails I received a few years ago, a list of something called the Paradoxical Commandments, or “Anyway.” Originally misattributed to Mother Teresa (she had them posted on her wall in a Calcutta children’s home), they were in fact created in 1968 by the author Kent Keith as part of a student leadership curriculum. His 10 Paradoxical Commandments include such masterpieces as:

• The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

• People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered. Love them anyway.

• The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

The root of the paradoxical commandments was Keith’s effort to embolden weary change agents. The heart of his message was that change is difficult and that change agents can’t be engaged for purely selfish reasons. Said Keith:

“I saw a lot of idealistic young people go out into the world to do what they thought was right, and good, and true, only to come back a short time later, discouraged or embittered, because they got negative feedback, or nobody appreciated them, or they failed to get the results they had hoped for. I told them that if they were going to change the world, they had to really love people, and if they did, that love would sustain them. I also told them that they couldn’t be in it for fame or glory. I said that if they did what was right and good and true, they would find meaning and satisfaction, and that meaning and satisfaction would be enough. If they had the meaning, they didn’t need the glory.”

(Keith also had another piece of wisdom: “If you don’t care, you’re not going to help anyone. Unless you have a deep feeling for the welfare of the people you are supposed to lead, please, stop leading.”)

The world needs change agents. Your organization needs change agents. You can be that change agent. Not for the glory or for advancement — you probably won’t get either. Not for admiration or even convenience — the path of a change agent can be lonely and often painful as you try to help others see what is possible, prepare for what is inevitable, and let go of what has sustained them thus far. Like great artists, change agents are usually only admired after they are gone. So why bother?

At the heart of his work, Kent Keith was pointing to a bigger motivation, something that today, 40 years later, seems like an old-fashioned notion and certainly not a phrase we use much anymore: brotherly love. As he said, “If you’re in it for other people, then helping them will give you satisfaction that having your name in lights could never compete with!”

It is easier to do nothing when you’re only concerned about your well-being. Customers in government are often hostages with no choice. Who cares if they are happy? The processes are arduous, cumbersome and get in the way of helping people. So what? The workplace policies and performance management initiatives are sucking the passion, meaning and personal satisfaction out of work. What can I do about it? The reality is that these things are all man-made. Humans created them, and humans can change them. Somebody started the ball rolling that got us here. Somebody can start the ball rolling that changes the course.

As the great change agent Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Grab the wheel.

With that in mind, I give you the Paradoxical Commandments of Government. These are the reasons why changing your agency is so hard — and why you should do it anyway. Of course, commandments, like hotdogs, only come in packages of 10 (even though buns come in packages of 12), so I had to whittle down the list. I left out some of the pithier ones, such as, “The councilman’s cousin is going to get the job; try hard anyway,” and “No one will read the report you are working on; write it well anyway.” I have also by no means exhausted all the possibilities. In fact, I’d love to hear more commandments from you, my fellow change agents.

The Paradoxical Commandments of Government

1. The reward for doing good work is more work. Do good work anyway.

2. All the money you save being more efficient will get cut from your budget now and forever. Find efficiencies anyway.

3. All the bold reforms you make will be undone by the next administration. Make bold reforms anyway.

4. There is no time to think about improving what we do. Make time anyway.

5. Employees may fight the change every step of the way. Involve them anyway.

6. The future is unpredictable and largely out of your hands. Plan anyway.

7. The press only cares when something goes wrong. Share your success stories anyway.

8. Legal will never let you do it. Simplify it anyway.

9. If you develop your people they will move on to better jobs. Train them anyway.

10. Your ideas will at best make someone else look good and at worst get you ostracized by your co-workers. Share your ideas anyway.

Add your own paradoxical commandments of government in the comments at the end of this post.

The Promise of Going ‘Lean’: Increasing Government’s Capacity to Do More Good

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

In these incredibly tough budget times, you would think government agencies would be working extra hard to find ways of doing things more efficiently. Unfortunately, leaders across the country are grabbing the same old playbook — hiring freezes, travel restrictions, delaying maintenance and so on.

They’re not examining the actual work being done — the operations are fundamentally the same. Instead, they’re left with tired, overworked employees trying to do the same operations with fewer resources.

This approach creates an illusion of efficiency. Real efficiency is about looking at the systems — the way work itself is designed — and finding ways to streamline the work so that we do our important tasks very well in less time and with less hassle. Systems are where the costs are incurred. Systems are where the customers show up. Systems are where the value of the agency is created. And systems appear to be the last thing anyone is focusing on.

But there is one promising new fad on the horizon that may actually change this. Some of you may already be acquainted with it: It’s called “Lean.” Like most management fads, this one started in the manufacturing industry. In fact, it’s often referred to as Lean Manufacturing. Based on the system Toyota used for producing high-quality low-cost vehicles, Lean focuses on reducing waste. In this case, that means any activity that does not add value to the customer.

Lean is the reason Toyota dominates the auto market. Lean is the reason an Iowa business can get an environmental permit up to 90 percent faster these days. Lean is the reason Missouri taxpayers get their refunds in two days — all with fewer resources. Quite simply, Lean is the best hope for actually helping government deal with the challenge of crushing demand and limited resources. (more…)

Running Business Like A Government: There’s A Lot That Government Does Right. The Private Sector Ought To Take a Few Notes

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

bank-execs

If there is a bright side to this economic meltdown, hopefully it’s that people gain a new appreciation of what it’s like to manage government. I couldn’t help but chuckle when one of the failing bank CEO’s was brought before Congress and asked what he did with the multi-billions of taxpayers dollars his company had received. He seemed genuinely outraged that anyone would dare ask how the money was used.

The CEO’s outrage turned to indignation when one of the congressmen had the nerve to ask the dreaded “but-for” question. The congressman simply asked, “Could you please tell us how many more loans you have made since you got this money?” To which the CEO exclaimed that it was impossible to keep track of funds separately and that no one could possibly separate these dollars and show the direct impact those specific dollars achieved.

Really? Because that’s what we do in government every day. I remember a colleague of mine who had to fill out four different time sheets every month because his time was split across four separate programs and grants, each of which demanded full accountability for time, money and results. What the bank CEO said was impossible is actually business as usual in government. So rather than giving you advice on how you can help improve government, I thought we would take some time to gloat and perhaps reflect on what we do really well.

Here’s what government can teach businesses about their operations: (more…)

Change The Lens: An Open Letter to Barack Obama (And All Government Leaders) On The Best Way To Improve Government

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

obama

This year’s election season generated a lot of enthusiasm from all sides. The record-breaking voter registrations and the long lines at the polls are positive signs of an active democracy. The pundits are saying this election will drive renewed interest in public service the likes we haven’t seen since the 1960s. I hope that is true. The work of government is noble, necessary and too often thankless. But we can’t renew interest in public service until we reform the perception of public servants.

 

Government employees have been an easy target for far too long. Imagine how well a company would perform if the employees were continually berated by the investors, the board of directors and the customers. Imagine how inspired you would be if you were told that your life’s work was “the problem” instead of the solution. While you alone can’t change the attitude of taxpayers and elected officials, you can at least assure the employees that the CEO is supportive of them and their important mission.

Over the next four years, people will be approaching you with any number of initiatives to improve government. Many of these initiatives will be directed at improving the performance of the people of government. On the surface, they may sound well-meaning, but I challenge you to search your heart and ask what assumptions these initiatives make about people. Through what lens do they view the work of government? Are they assuming government employees are looking to avoid work and responsibility? Are they assuming that government employees are motivated by money? Do they assume that the customers of government are all out to cheat the system?

As you embark on your new administration, I challenge you to change the lens. To start with a fresh perspective. To see government employees as they truly are — hard working, creative, mission-driven, passionate people who want to make a difference in the world.

With that perspective in mind, what can you do to radically improve the performance of government? (more…)

“Zip It”: Why Naming Your Initiative Is The First Step Toward Failure

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

zip-it

In a previous column, A Mug Full of Change, I asked the question, “Why do we have so many change mugs?” With each new initiative comes a new mug — and rather than helping to make change, they often end up merely collecting change. I reasoned that we have so many mugs because we have so many flavor-of-the-month initiatives. I shared seven areas our organizations will always be working to improve. It is the job of the leader to provide the context for new initiatives — to show employees that we are not jumping on another fad, but rather continuing our journey to get better every day. We may introduce new methods or approaches to doing the seven things — a new strategic planning model or different process improvement techniques, for example — but we will never not be doing the seven things.

 

In this column, I’d like to address the other reason we have so many mugs: the almost universal desire to name our change initiatives. Look around your cubicle at all the logo-adorned mugs, pens, paperweights and mousepads. See what I mean?

What could possibly be wrong with naming your change initiative? As someone with a marketing degree who had named several initiatives and held big kickoff events, I had assumed that was step one in creating change: Create a brand, a catchy name that people would remember. (more…)

Free the Hostages: Sure Governments Are Monopolies. But They Don’t Have To Act Like It.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

hostage

Difficult economic times have government agencies searching for ways to be more efficient. One solution that’s always trotted out is the concept of outsourcing — turning to the private sector to fulfill functions previously performed by the public sector.

There are definitely times when this solution can be advantageous: When the expertise is too rare and too costly to develop, or when there simply isn’t enough capacity inside the agency to keep up. Good examples include using private collection agencies for outstanding fees and taxes, or employing private after-hours child-abuse investigation units.

In most cases, though, outsourcing isn’t being done to supplement the work of government employees. It’s done to replace them. The assumption behind most pushes for outsourcing is that the private sector can do it better. Many people hold this as a universal truth, that private sector employees are simply better and more efficient than public sector employees. (And after corporate America’s stellar performance in 2008, who could argue?)

But is this true? Are those of us in government defective in some way? Have all of the slow, inefficient, customer-hating people gravitated to one industry? (more…)

The Crazy Cycle: The Crushing Effects of Backlog and How The Golden Arches Can Help You Avoid Them

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

Climbing a Pile of FilesI wrote in a previous column about the incredible opportunities available to speed up the operations of government. I stressed that it’s not a people issue. Rather, it’s the systems of government that are dysfunctional.

Research and my own personal experience have shown that in most processes the labor or work time is less than 5 percent of the total elapsed time. For example, it may take 60 days to get a health permit, but the actual labor required to produce one is likely measured in hours. It may take three months to fill a vacancy, but the sum of all the labor adds up to less than a week.

Where does all the time go? Again, it’s not a people problem. Individuals are deluged with tasks, and most of them are doing those tasks the best they can. The lost time happens between the tasks.

One of the biggest time culprits is backlog — the piles of work in front of each person, waiting to be done. Quite often the problem in government is not that we are slow, just that we’re behind. If you are overwhelmed with backlog (and with the rash of hiring freezes sweeping the nation, you may soon be), I’m going to give you a piece of advice that I know may severely underwhelm you. The secret to dealing with backlog is to never get behind in the first place. (Send all thank-you emails to ken@changeagents.info.)

Underwhelmed? Well, let’s look at this pearl of wisdom a little more closely. This diagram depicts a typical backlog situation: (more…)

Competing Interests: What Toothpaste and Tax Forms Can Teach Us About Simplifying Government For Citizens

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

 

toothpasteI thought April would be a good time to write a column about taxes and a topic people in government love just about as much as taxes — customers. As many of you may know, one of my previous jobs in government was as deputy director of a large state agency responsible for taxes and DMVs. Much like the “I learned in Kindergarten” book series, everything I ever needed to know about customer satisfaction in government, I learned there.

 

I learned that people don’t like the word “customer.” I learned that telling auditors “the customer is always right” doesn’t win friends. I learned that customer-service training washes off the first time there is a two-hour line and the computer stops working. But most importantly, I learned about competing customer interests — a reality we all face in government at every level in every agency.

One of the push-backs I get in my workshops about customer satisfaction in government is, “Ken, this would all be so easy in the private sector. They just have to worry about one customer. But we have multiple customers with competing interests.”

I sympathize with that sentiment. In many ways, the concept of customer in the private sector is much easier, but the reality is that the private sector struggles with the same issue we do.

Let’s use a very simple example: toothpaste. Our common notion of customers is of someone who walks into a store, buys something and walks out happy. So when it comes to that tube of Crest, determining who the customer is seems like an easy exercise. If I walk into Target and buy a tube of toothpaste, I am the customer. There, that was easy. (more…)

Profit Sharing in Government: Motivate Your Employees By Giving Them a Stake in Your Success. Just Don’t Try to Do it With Money

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

helping-handsLast month I wrote an apparently controversial column called “Greed is Good.” (Thanks for all the “fan mail.”) In it, I tried to make the point that government does exist to make a profit; it’s just not measured in dollars. Profit is the outcome or result measure for the private sector. To say in government that we are not here to achieve a profit is akin to saying we are not here to achieve results. Try opening with that one at your next appropriations hearing.

For government, profit is measured in far more important things like quality of life, a clean environment, healthy kids and a vibrant economy. The point of my previous column was that we should be as focused on delivering these results to taxpayers as the private sector is on delivering profits to investors. Once we recognize we are here to achieve a “profit,” we’ll be better able to communicate our value to investors, develop innovative alternatives to achieve more profit — and finally, share our profits with employees.

How could we make profit-sharing work in government?

Let me start with how not to do it. The typical way we have interpreted profit-sharing in government is to give monetary rewards to employees. Borrowing ideas from the private sector, we have tried numerous ways to incentivize employees with money — a merit increase, a pay-for-performance-scheme, a “keep part of the savings” incentive, rewards for offering ideas. These programs have had limited success for a couple of key reasons. First, they are expensive and rarely survive a budget crisis. Second, they are built on some pretty strong assumptions: Namely, that you can motivate people, and that you can motivate them with money. (more…)

Greed is Good: Making a Profit Doesn’t Always Mean Making Money

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

 

Greed is good?

Last fall I had just completed a workshop about the concepts in my book We Don’t Make Widgets when I was approached by one of the participants. She said, “Look, I get where you are going with this: We do have widgets and processes; we have customers; we should try to improve our operations. But” — and I knew exactly what was coming — “you just can’t run government like a business.”

In my most sympathetic voice I said, “I understand your feelings. When you say we can’t run government like a business, which aspect are you are most concerned about?”

Her body then contorted and convulsed, like someone who’s been told they have a bug on them. “Businesses are so … so … greedy,” she said. “All they care about is profit.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “Now imagine if we were as greedy about profit as the private sector. How great would that be?”

The look on her face said what I’ve heard a thousand times: “We’re not here to make a profit.” Except that we are. It’s just not measured in dollars.

In the private sector, the performance outcome is obvious — money. We in the public sector are here to achieve a profit also, but it’s shown in the form of results. As I contend in my book, the purpose of any organization is to maximize return to its investors by building better widgets for customers in more efficient factories. Investors? ROI? Customers? Have I lost you? Let’s step back.

(more…)