Three Thresholds

Last month I had a very encouraging surprise — lean is spreading like wild fire across the public sector! What began several years ago in healthcare and defence is now beginning to transform many other departments delivering all kinds of services to the public. Some departments are just beginning their lean journey by discovering how lean works in their kinds of processes. Other departments are just moving beyond the stage where they need lots of support from outside consultants. But they all fired up as they recognise that lean is the only way they are going to be able to fulfil the politicians’ desire to deliver enhanced public services with far fewer resources in the years ahead.

However for this to become a reality I’ve outlined three major thresholds they, and any organisation going lean, will have to pass. The first threshold is whether there is real evidence that lean thinking has taken root at the Gemba. By this I mean whether anyone visiting any place of work could see from the visual management boards the current state of the process, the problems being encountered today and what is being done to get back on track and the record of past problems to be prioritized and the subject of root cause analysis later.

Looking at the process itself, have staff actually created standard work for the main process steps and a standard management review cadence? And are local managers really using A3 thinking to help their staff develop their problem solving skills in analysing the root causes of problems and in planning a series of countermeasures to solve them. If these are in place then I have every confidence the process will continue to improve over time.

The second threshold is whether the organisation is able to work across functional and departmental boundaries to see and redesign their core end-to-end processes and to synchronise all their support processes with them. This is proving hard to do as well intentioned initiatives are frustrated by metrics encouraging every department to optimise their own activities, rather than optimise the process as a whole.

Cross departmental projects will Not happen unless a senior person is given the responsibility for the end-to-end processes — a value stream manager. Their job is to engage all the involved departments in agreeing the problem to be solved or the performance gap to be closed and to collectively collect the facts and map the process to establish where it is broken and why. They have to work by gaining agreement based on the facts of the situation rather than controlling the resources themselves.

To do this they also need to report directly to top management in parallel with function and department heads, so that the inevitable conflicts between the departmental targets and the needs of the process can be surfaced and resolved.

The third threshold is the way top management sets priorities for action across the organisation. The traditional bilateral discussion between the strategic needs of the organisation and the allocation of resources to departments to achieve them has to become a trilateral discussion. The first step is to turn high level goals into clear performance gaps that need to be closed.

The second step is understand that closing these performance gaps will not be achieved by simply squeezing budgets and leaving managers to meet their targets as they can. Instead these goals will only be met by using lean methods to redesign the core end-to-end processes and the enabling support processes. The third step is for the value stream managers to build a business case for the resources needed to accomplish this. This in turn provides the basis for a high evel discussion with function heads on how they will allocate their resources.