• Opinion
  • August 1, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Lean for public servants — changing culture from the inside

Opinion: You’re not going anywhere unless everyone is on board

This article was written by Timothy Francis, project manager at Veterans Affairs Canada. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


In my previous article about Lean for public servants, I alluded to the need for an organisational culture that supports and sustains continuous improvement. 

In this article, I will explain in more detail what this means (and requires). 

But first, a definition: Culture in a workplace is simply “how we do what we do”. It is evidenced by the collective observable behaviors of the people in the organisation in pursuit of its short- and long-term goals. 

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My previous article suggested that in order to achieve continuous improvement, you need not only the support of senior and middle management but indeed at all levels of the organisation. I also suggested that measurable, visible and — most importantly — regularly reviewed targets are critical to success.

One of the key roles for management in both the public and private sector is to foster an environment that drives employees to do their best work, making it possible to achieve your organisational goals.

Senior leaders, listen up

In the absence of adequate senior leader support, success becomes much harder to achieve. 

While senior leaders can’t singularly impose a desired culture, they do have very strong influencing abilities. By setting the “tone from the top” they can have a dramatic impact on an organisation’s transformation journey. 

Such role modeling can go a long way in showing what the organisation’s “new culture” looks like — and making it safe for others to follow — and decreases the likelihood of relapsing to “the way we’ve always done things”.

It is not sufficient or meaningful to make changes if the impacts are not measured and followed up on

Even with engaged senior leaders, it is important to note that it is not enough that they simply communicate and demonstrate what changes are necessary, but also signal the importance of why they are necessary. 

Without this, the initiative could do more harm than good, as employees could become fearful and uncooperative after drawing their own — possibly inaccurate — conclusions. People are not inherently afraid of change, but they are afraid of uncertainty. 

It is incumbent on management to ensure that both the “what” and the “why” are understood.

That said, it isn’t just senior leadership that has a role to play in this initiative — every employee at all levels has a role to play in a transformation initiative. 

Transformations take time, and there must be continued and ongoing effort to ensure that meaningful changes are sustained and supported at all levels and that opportunities to course correct are identified again and again.

By setting clear, ambitious (but achievable) targets that are process-driven (i.e. not people-driven), meaningful and regularly reviewed, performance can be enhanced and the culture shift will evolve at every level.

Measuring what matters 

I introduced the concept of “Plan-Do-Check-Adjust” in my first article: Identify and analyse a problem worth solving, and develop potential resolutions; PLAN how you will test the potential resolution(s), including what you expect the results will be; DO whatever your plan was in order to test it out; CHECK to see if you got the results you expected; then ADJUST accordingly based on whether you got the results you expected or not.

Then repeat. And again. And again.

This is what continuous improvement looks like. This is the “cultural shift” that managers want to encourage. 

In order to achieve this, however, managers must do two things: (a) be clear about, and ideally show, what it looks like — as discussed above; (b) make it safe for employees to experiment; and (c) track progress and actively identify and remove potential interruptions to Flow. 

Lean organisations actually encourage failure, subject to three caveats: (1) fail, but fail fast; (2) don’t fail the same way twice; and (3) don’t fail big when it matters (i.e. contain the consequences).

This is how a Lean culture supports the organisation: by supporting experimentation; by setting and regularly reviewing and adjusting for meaningful measurements; by focusing on waste- and defect-reduction, value creation, Flow, and embracing continuous improvement. It is not sufficient or meaningful to make changes if the impacts are not measured and followed up on. 

Value creation makes stakeholder involvement critical. Talking with your clients is the only way to establish truly meaningful measures.

Beyond the Basics

Equipped with an understanding of Lean and it’s cultural components, we’re ready to embark on a transformation journey. 

Our organisation, teeming with untapped value, employees engaged and enthusiastic and clients waiting to take centre stage in our value proposition – what could go wrong?

In my third and final article in this series, I’ll look at obstacles to transformation initiatives — and the visual tools that can help overcome them. Stay tuned! Timothy Francis

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)

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