Leading the Way on 'Lean'

Washington state has made one of government's strongest commitments to this approach to government efficiency, one that's likely to survive a change in administrations.
by , | November 13, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire clearly was pleased by the standing-room-only size of the audience that greeted her as she climbed onto the Tacoma Convention Center stage recently for the Washington State Lean Transformation Conference.

But the enthusiasm of the 2,200 attendees for the "lean" management techniques that are intensely focused on the elimination of waste from business processes probably was no surprise for the governor. Washington, like many other governments, has a closet filled with well intended attempts to transform government for efficiency and productivity that have ended up having little long-term impact. But Washington's governmentwide lean initiative, mandated by Gregoire a year ago, has managed to cross at least two critical hurdles to sustainability.

One of the strengths of lean is that it both causes and allows the people who actually do the work to lead the way in taking the waste out of the their processes. No employee group I have worked with wants to fix broken processes more than those who work in government. What Washington State has achieved with its first batch of lean results--95 completed projects--can best be captured in the word hope--hope resulting from the experience that state workers have had in their initial lean projects to make sense out of long-established processes.

Just a few examples of the completed projects: Washington's Department of Agriculture completely eliminated livestock-inspection nonpayment and reduced cash payments by 90 percent while cutting non-value-added steps by 20 percent. The Department of Fish and Wildlife reduced the time to manage commercial -fishery harvest data from 90 hours to eight. And the Department of Ecology reduced the number of days between guidelines issued and the start of grant negotiations by 48 percent.

The other result of what Gregoire has called a "historic effort" was that to the state's citizens "lean" has become synonymous with state-government transformation. The evidence of that emerged in the hotly contested race for the election of the next governor. Throughout the campaign, both Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee routinely talked about their commitment to lean, virtually ensuring the sustainability of the effort from one administration to the other.

All of this is good. But having been involved in efforts to implement lean in both business and government for two decades, and having seen it fail to achieve anywhere close to the possible results in the vast majority of those implementations, I have some words of caution. Studies show that 80 percent of lean efforts, no matter how enthusiastically they are embraced, are abandoned within three years of their launch.

At the conference, I co-presented with Marcie Frost, deputy director of Washington State's Department of Retirement Systems, on the reason for this failure and how her agency is ensuring success. Lean is not simply about cleaning waste out of one work process or another. It is a mindset and a toolset that everyone must learn and use across the organization. Many think lean initiatives fail because of resistance to change from frontline workers or middle management. But the root cause of most failures is actually top management. Lean is a different way of thinking about and managing work. To understand the difference, management must apply the concepts to the work of management before it can understand how it to apply them to everyone else's work.

"This is not just about how people do their work day-to-day," says Wendy Korthuis-Smith, Gregoire's director of accountability and performance. "It's about how we think about everything we do."

In short, lean is a management philosophy that demands the creation of a new organizational culture. Culture shifts begin with leadership modeling new behaviors. Luckily for Gov.-elect Inslee, Washington State has begun that transformation, providing him with an opportunity to show other states how to do it right.