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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Quality Improvement in Government?

In Paul Borawski’s ASQ post this month he raises the question about quality improvement in the public sector:
So, the big question of course is–why? Why do citizens expect and demand so little accountability for the poor use of resources in government? Why do so few leaders charged with leading countries, states, provinces, and cities require improved performance?

Like Paul there is no doubt of the direct applicability of quality concepts, techniques, and tools to assure improved performance in the public sector. Government agencies have found that Lean methods enable them to better understand how their processes work, to quickly identify and implement improvements, and to build a culture of continuous improvement.

Numerous government agencies, ranging from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the States of Iowa and Minnesota, are using Lean to improve the quality, transparency, and speed of government processes. Lean government proponents generally believe that the government should cut out "waste" and "inefficiency" from government organizations, which will result in overall better services and more value for tax-supported programs and services. Proponents also generally see Lean government as a means to expand the capacity of government to provide more services per unit of investment.

Yet the adoption rate versus the opportunity is remarkably low. I believe this is because quality improvement and politics don't mix very well. It’s not that I don't believe they can't mix, only that they don't mix very well. Politics in America is very short-sighted-a year, two years at the most, is all good politicians will invest before they expect a "pay-off." Simply speaking, a quality improvement effort won't pay off in such short time periods.

Government executives generally don't care about operations. Most elected officials and government executives didn't join government to manage. Instead, they are driven by a deep desire to advance a cause, a policy issue or a political agenda. They get excited about bold new programs and solving big problems

Another point is that considering a citizen as a customer is not always correct. Citizens are customers sometimes, but often they are subjects, voters, taxpayers, and users. When a parking guard or a policeman gives you a bill for incorrectly parking your car. Are you his customer? Are you in the position to say no and go to a competitor?

The nature of government has been to maintain the status quo. The trouble with this is that it leaves no opportunity for growth and improvement.

The irony is that good politicians must start doing this for our future. In the short term, quality should be implemented because it is the right thing to do. Quality improvement cannot be viewed as a particular politicians "program." If it is, it will last only the tenure of that politician.

I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.

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  1. Hi Tim. Interesting and well-written post today. I can’t get my computer to work with your comments section, so I thought I’d comment to your email address.

    One section of your post read, “Citizens are customers sometimes, but often they are subjects, voters, taxpayers, and users. When a parking guard or a policeman gives you a bill for incorrectly parking your car. Are you his customer? Are you in the position to say no and go to a competitor?”

    I’d say that even though a parking guard gives me a bill for incorrectly parking my car, I am still his customer, because I pay taxes that provide his service and I expect him/her to enforce the parking laws, even if I am the person breaking them. In fact, he is providing value to me when he gives me that ticket because he is actively engaged in doing what he is paid to do. Maybe this isn’t purely value in the most strict sense, and I may not like it, but holding people accountable is what he/she is paid to do. That is the value he/she provides to the tax-paying public.

    Am I in a position to say no and go to a competitor? Well, I am in a position where I can choose to park responsibly. If I choose not to, then the parking attendant does his job. Seen another way, I can say “no” if I choose to appeal the ticket. I can go to a competitor if I choose to live in another city. Quite an inconvenient choice, but it’s a choice nevertheless.

    Anyway, it’s sure sad that government is so short-sighted as you point out so well. So many of them are more interested in getting reelected than doing what’s right for the public. Some days it makes me want to just wash my hands of politics and issues altogether.

    Keep up the good writing. I enjoy your blog.

    1. Mark, You have some good points in rebuttal to my parking guard example. We do have a choice but my point is that with the rules (laws) in place in many situations when dealing with government the choice isn't entirely yours in reality. The free market works with competition I am not sure there is much in government. Your alternatives are limited therefore the desire/need to keep customers is lost. They have a captive audience in many regards.

      I don't know if my view point is popular. I am sure many disagree. But while I know we can benefit from practicing Lean Thinking in Government I understand that what makes it such a powerful methodology is lost in a Government setting.

      We need to keep in mind the real rationale for Lean. Customer focused approach to add value by empowering everyone in the process so we can grow our business. Anything less becomes an uncertain cost reduction (waste reduction) effort. For me personally Lean is much more than that.

      Thanks for commenting on this post Mark. I appreciate your feedback.

  2. The customer focus is interesting. The Madison Police chief gave people they arrested customer comment cards and paid attention to them. He wasn't oblivious to the fact that some of these people had an axe to grind, but you could learn what could be improved about the process even in this case. Of course he actually respected people (which seems absent in so many police operations lately). He retired to become a minister. The city (including the police) did lots of great work using management improvement ideas to better perform their mission.

    He for example, knew their job was to promote a peaceful society (which some police forces say but few act on - they mainly just deal with symptoms addressing crimes after the "defect" is already made.

    1. John this is great story of how improvement can work in government. Personally, I a skeptical because of the governments track record. However this doesn't mean elected official are like this. It is encouraging to see more Lean thinking being applied in government. This is a positive trend which is good since it is necessary.

  3. The real challenge, I would posit, is identifying what the corollary of "business growth" (alternately known as "the goal worth playing for") even is for government. We don't want them to get "bigger;" we do want them to get "better." But what is "better" to me is not necessarily the same as what "better" is to you, and we are both the "customers" requiring "service."

    The parking ticket example speaks well to this. You have the Marks of the world who recognize that there IS customer service on the part of the officer holding a citizen accountable for having parked illegally, but you will also almost certainly have those who feel that "customer service" would be the officer's leniency toward a citizen's genuine remorse and good intentions never to park illegally again.

    I think as a society we are not enough of one mind about what the public good, much less the public purpose of many governmental functions is -- and the parking officer is one of the more straightforward ones. As a result, we do not provide the leaders of government (who unlike leaders of business are legally beholden to respond to our opinions) enough consensus in our direction about how we want government to "grow." Business simply doesn't confront this confounding challenge at the same level.

    I don't think it is an insurmountable issue, but it is a truly complicating factor. The clarity of the goal is everything, really, when you're trying to "improve" anything -- including, and maybe even especially, for government.

    1. Very good points. I agree it is not insurmountable but challenging. The purpose and goal are not agreed to so the path is unclear. Their in lies the challenge with Lean in government comparatively to businesses who's goal is generally straight forward, to make money.