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Can a Japanese Business Process Help Solve Our Complex Social Problems?

Governments are using the "Lean" model to bring efficiency to their operations. But it could be doing a lot more.

As the business approach known as "Lean" that was born in the Japanese auto industry decades ago spreads through American government, it's making its mark on processes, from the issuance of driver's licenses and business permits to the work it takes to manage the case of a foster child. At its core, Lean focuses on the elimination of process steps that do not add value from the customer's perspective, delivering high value at the lowest possible cost.

But of course there's far more to government than simply improving routine bureaucratic functions. There's no reason why the concepts of Lean couldn't be applied more broadly, including bringing its power to bear on some of our most challenging social problems. Lean, after all, teaches us to examine from the customer's view the outputs of our processes. Lean's lessons apply to societal failure; when our society's processes fail on one end, we have to pay for that failure at the other.

When a child drops out from school, for example, we know that that has serious long-term effects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a young person who fails to attain a high-school education earns $9,620 a year less than one who receives a diploma. Is a child who drops out a failure of our education process? What we do know is that it destines these citizens to live uncomfortably close to the poverty level -- at best.

If they aren't in prison, that is. According to the Women's Prison Association, 78 percent of incarcerated women in this country do not have high-school diplomas. Other research places the percentage of imprisoned men without diplomas at 68 percent. All in all, the collective cost to the nation over the working life of a high-school dropout -- in decreased tax revenue, social services and other aid, and the expense of incarceration itself -- is about $292,000, according to a 2009 Northeastern University study. Is an individual who is incarcerated representative of some kind or breakdown in society, a process failure somewhere in our education, human services, gang prevention or drug treatment programs?

What Lean teaches us is that defects -- anything that comes out of a process that falls short of what is expected -- are very expensive. More money will inevitably be spent to make it right. Scott Graves of the California Budget Projects estimates that his state spent $62,000 annually on each prison inmate in fiscal 2014-15. That's seven times the $9,200 it spends per child each year on K-12 education.

So what are Lean's lessons for dealing with societal failure? It is certainly indelicate and inappropriate to refer to a high-school dropout or a woman in prison as a defect of society. Yet we must acknowledge that some kind of process failure has occurred. Whether individuals are struggling academically, using drugs or suffering abuse at home, society has failed to identify the problem -- the defect -- and intervene.

We learn in implementing Lean that to eliminate a defect we have to find the root cause. We have to go to the earliest point in the process where the breakdown occurs. Otherwise, we are destined to treat only symptoms and to pay again and again for the shortcoming.

No process is perfect. We will never eliminate human struggle. But one has to ask: If, as an example, we had capable processes in education to help those on the fringe succeed, what impact could we have on the rate of high-school graduation, and what impact would that have on the percentage of Americans who spend their days in jails and prisons?

Finally, one last lesson from Lean that gives me great hope is the practice of benchmarking: looking for best practices in any given process. Across the nation, it isn't hard to find governmental and non-governmental organizations that consistently deliver high-school graduation rates far in excess of the national average of 80 percent. These programs simply prove that with the right process in place, we could deliver far better results as a nation.

Senior fellow, Governing Institute
Special Projects