Who Will Be My Hero?

My friends who are on the forefront of building continuous improvement into public sector organizations are heroes. They have earned my respect, they are courageous, they have a clear goal, and they have noble purpose. Like all great heroes, they are utterly convinced that their quest is just in reach –and they persevere when they round a corner and find a mountain to climb that was not on their map.

They focus on building up their strengths. No knight ponders at great length the fearsomeness of the dragon. Joust, train, armor up, go forth. Prevail, because failure is not an option.

Great books on Lean are often written as heroic journeys. Lean Thinking[1] features three case studies in organizations of different sizes with different challenges, but each case study is fundamentally couched as the heroic struggle of a great leader who took bold stands, communicated clear direction, built up the capacity of their team, overcame great odds, and accomplished miraculous feats – by doing simple, fundamental things well and consistently.

In one of the critical moments of these heroic stories, the leader realizes she or he must win the trust of his team. Fundamental to this work of improving processes and banishing waste is that the waste can best be seen and the improvements best identified by the very people doing the work. But it is quite understandable that frontline staff are concerned about “working themselves out of a job.”

If I improve my process enough that we need one less person in my group, will I still have work? I have been through countless trials and challenges with Joe and Mary. I trust them (much more than the knight / expert who just rode into town), I like them, I want to keep them around. Why should I help this knight who carries the banner of Efficiency?

The advice in Lean Thinking is rather clear. Allowing Lean to become associated with repeated rounds of layoffs will be the kiss of death. If layoffs are going to be necessary, do everything you must all at once. Then turn to the survivors (and they will be feeling like the battle-scarred at that point) and promise them that you will do your utmost to never let that happen again. You may not have the same job, but you will have a job.

In the future, these heroic leaders tell their employees, things will be different. Lean processes will let the business grow. You will drive our price to our customer down and take more market share. We will make our production more flexible and diversify our product lines. Our business will grow and – most importantly – I recognize that you, the people who make this organization what it is, are our greatest asset.


If one work group becomes overstaffed, the most innovative thinkers – the ones that have “learned to see” – will be given opportunities to train, develop, and become leaders. If headcount actually goes down, it will be through the attrition of those who no longer want to be with an innovating organization or through the natural processes of retirement, relocation, and personal ambition.

This is a fundamental problem for the public sector. If the Washington Department of Corrections becomes the best in the country, it cannot put the Oregon prisons out of business. If it is the best-run agency in the state, it can’t take its lessons in efficiency and expand into running the schools.

At the individual level, private sector and public sector employees are remarkably similar – motivated by having meaningful work in an organization where they feel valued – but organizational motivation is very different. Corporate capitalism builds incentives for growth. Democratic bureaucracy is inherently more static.

Here is the good news. The public sector has something the private sector doesn’t – the unfunded mandate. That is, no public sector worker wants to say it out loud, but they are all painfully aware of the gap that exists between resources and expectations. The laws don’t always get enforced as written because the dollars available don’t go far enough.

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It sounds strange, but the unfunded mandate is the best friend of the public sector champion of process improvement. You have the key to doing “everything we know we should do” with the “resources we have!”

So, problem solved. Go forth, brave knights, with your A3 Problem Analysis, your Value Stream Map, your Visual Management and your 5S. Huddle! Coach! Improve! Bring great service to society. Remember that, in most cases, your agency was founded to redress some great injustice, to serve some noble cause, so strive to slay that dragon.

When I ask my brave heroes, what is the difference between Lean in the private sector and Lean in the public sector, the most common answer is “not much.” It is a wise and true answer. The tools are fundamentally the same. The lessons about coaching still apply. The wisdom of aligning organization and strategic goals with customer need is just as true. But these public sector knights are improving their strength and dexterity, mastering the tools in their hands, but going on their quest with bare feet.

I am still waiting for my hero.

In the public sector, we need more visionary leaders who pledge to protect their followers. We need more governors, mayors, legislators, and directors – the leader of leaders – who will stand up and say, loud and clear, directly to the frontline workers “It will be OK. You can improve and still have a job. Find waste, do more with less, and the ‘less’ will not be less of you.”

We still need more heroes.

[1] James Womack and Daniel Jones. 2003. Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, Revised and Updated. New York: Free Press.

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