• Opinion
  • June 10, 2019
  • 6 minutes
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What is Lean? An intro for public servants

Opinion: Here's what Lean is — and what it isn‘t

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


There are many ways to increase the value we provide to our customers and clients, internal and external, stakeholders and taxpayers writ large. In this article I’d like to elaborate on the role that “Lean” can potentially play in value creation.

Lean adherents promise “200% reductions in turn around times” and “process improvement savings in the millions of dollars”. I’m going to explore the concepts behind the hype and the potential impact they could have on your public sector endeavours.

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For this article, I am going to describe — at a high level — how Lean can aid in value creation (or non-value reduction), dispel some myths, and outline some factors that contribute to effectiveness.

What is Lean?

First, some tenets or cornerstones of Lean, a brief though not exhaustive list of concepts that contribute to its success:

Value: Lean sees organisational success hinging on providing customer identified-value with our processes and products.

Consulting customers and clients, and those engaged in the work increases the likelihood of positive outcomes for end-users. In government, we are sometimes separated from our customer by legislation, policy, forms, and other types of bureaucracy. We can break through these constructs and partner with customers to produce quality products that address customer outcomes.

Flow: Flow is the movement of “work” from one step in a process to the next.

Lean aims to maximise flow by identifying and eliminating (or at least reducing) interruptions to it. Value stream maps what and how efficiently happens at each process step highlights strengths and identifies opportunities for growth and improvement.

There is efficiency to moving beyond the silos we often work in.

Engagement and empowerment: Although everyone in the organisation has a role to play, Lean is very much a ‘bottom up’ approach to organisational efficiency.

Empowering and enabling front-line employees who actually work with the process can have dramatic results in making it easier, faster, more efficient and better aligned with customer need.

Liberated capacity is redirected to employee and team learning and growth, process enhancement and additional value creation: increased quality at reduced rates of delivery, better and faster processes.

– Continuous improvement: By creating and sustaining the conditions for a culture of striving, Lean can bring about dramatic results over time and without large-scale changes or investments in additional resources.

An environment that supports new ideas and embodies experimentation and innovation, Lean cultures are agile and adaptable, as well as being learning organisations capable of long-term sustained growth.

Waste- and defect-reduction focused: The target of Lean is not the people, it’s waste in the processes – more specifically, defects and variation that causes overwhelm and backlogs, and inhibits value creation.

What Lean is not

Despite quasi-mythic status in some circles, arcane terminology, and its martial arts-style belt system for levels of knowledge and achievement — Lean is accessible, adaptable, convivial, and comprehensible, if applied properly (potentially a big “if”, as I’ll explain in the next two articles). Most importantly, Lean seeks buy-in and engagement from all its stakeholders: clients; employees; and management.

Another Lean myth is that it is less applicable in non-manufacturing settings where the outcomes and products are less tangible particularly when government does not share the private enterprise profit motive.

Government typically has a monopoly on the services provided to taxpayers without the profit incentive to gain a competitive edge. Lean has proven to be just as powerful in a services-oriented public-sector environment as it has in manufacturing settings.

This can, however, require a mindset change for public sector employees to find opportunities for continuous improvement and for managers to ensure sufficient engagement of all stakeholders.

Setting up for success

Lean is robust, but still requires care, attention, and maintenance as well as support and resources to sustain it. A culture of continuous improvement is integral, but requires support from senior leaders, management engagement and employee buy-in.

When all the parts fall into place on an improvement initiative, the inertia can seem to carry itself. But complacency is always easy, as is falling into the old habits and “the way we’ve always done things”.

Sustaining an initiative is much more likely when tied to measurable, visible and — most importantly — regularly reviewed targets, something we’ll get into in the second article about Lean culture. — Timothy Francis

This article is the first in a series of three articles about Lean.

(Photo credit: Death to the stock photo)

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