Posts Tagged ‘Government’

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…)

A Mug Full of Change: Employees Don’t Need Another Mug With A Catchy Slogan. They Need Context.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

mugIn my closet, I have a change mug. Each night, before I place my pants in the laundry basket, I empty my pockets and deposit the change in an old coffee mug. I noticed the other day, however, that my change mug was actually a “change mug.” That is, it was a mug left over from one of the numerous change initiatives I have experienced in my time in government. This one was a relic from the Total Quality Management days, complete with a picture of a non-smiling W. Edwards Deming.

 

I remember when I first got this mug, because its presence had been forecasted by one our organizations’ great cynics. I was pretty new to government and had been volunteered to represent my agency on the bigger department’s TQM steering committee. (I was to learn later that this was a clear sign the organization thought I was expendable).

This was my first change initiative, so I enthusiastically embraced it and felt with all my heart that it was going to change the world. With the zeal of the converted, I started proselytizing cubicle by cubicle.

Until I met Gerry, a 30-year veteran of state government. (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…)

Focus: Getting Things Done Often Means Knowing What Not to Do

Friday, May 1st, 2009

focusIn my last column I talked about guerrilla warfare — how to create change when you are not in charge. This month I want to flip it around. What do you do when you are in charge? You have a vision — there is so much you want to get done. How can you get everyone on board? How do you get all these people to move from here to there? How do you get it all done? It’s simple — you don’t. So much is possible when you realize you can’t do it all.

 

One of my favorite quotes, usually attributed to the Archbishop Oscar Romero, is: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

Put another way, it’s not important that we do everything well but that we do the really important things really well. What are those vital few things that, if done extremely well, will fundamentally transform your culture?

Buckminster Fuller, the late inventor/futurist/leadership sage, introduced the trimtab as a metaphor for creating change (so much so that “Call me Trimtab” is on his tombstone).

“A trimtab is a nautical device that acts as a small rudder used to turn the larger rudder of giant ships, offering tremendous leverage in terms of steering and changing the direction of the ship. Fuller, drawing upon his naval experience, saw the trimtab as a powerful metaphor for effective individual leadership: small and strategically placed interventions can cause large-scale and profound change.” (Leadership By Design: How One Individual Can Change the World. The Leadership Principles of Buckminster Fuller. Medard Gabel and Jim Walker, 2006).

The metaphor works as follows. Imagine your organization/department/bureau/section is a ship. You are the captain. As the captain, you realize that the ship is going the wrong direction. How do you get a large ship with a lot of momentum to stop, turn on a dime and (more…)