Taking the “Lean Government” Path to Success
December 22, 2016
By Johanna Matt-Navarro
Lean was officially established as a cross-cutting agency policy in a released statement in June 2016, so my arrival to EPA the beginning of the summer coincided perfectly with a reinvigorated Lean effort throughout the agency. When implemented correctly and thoughtfully, Lean and its many offshoots have the potential to improve the workings of the federal government in meaningful and lasting ways, and having the opportunity to engage with and improve the framing of Lean initiatives was a very illuminating experience.
The Lean Practices that EPA has began adopting stem from the first kind of Lean operation, called Lean Manufacturing. One of the earliest stages of Lean Manufacturing was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Henry Ford’s production methods for the Model T automobile. The story of the Model T automobile is relatively well known: Ford, by implementing an assembly-line form of production, eliminated many of the existing inefficiencies of then-traditional manufacturing practices, and catapulted the Model T car to extreme popularity because of its relatively low cost in the early 20th century. Many decades later, the book The Machine that Changed the World by James P. Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel T. Jones distilled the Model T situation and subsequent examples of efficient production into a series of manufacturing practices that became deeply influential beginning in the 1990’s. These practices are as follows:
“Specify the value desired by the customer; identify the value stream for each product providing that value and challenge all of the wasted steps … currently necessary to provide it; make the product flow continuously through the remaining value-added steps; introduce pull between all steps where continuous flow is possible; manage toward perfection so that the number of steps and the amount of time and information needed to serve the customer continually falls.”
Since the 1990’s, these practices have been applied, when appropriate, to different styles of fields, leading to development of Lean Startup, and most relevant to my experience at EPA, Lean Government. Even though the technical elements of these different version of Lean vary and certainly have evolved through time, they all are similar in that they aim to reduce waste.
Often, when people think or speak about government, they are quick to point out many of the perceived inefficiencies and roadblocks there are to administrating, legislating or executing particular goals effectively. Lean Government aims to target the causes of these sorts of criticisms, and improve the ease with which constituents or government employees navigate the systems in place. Among other things, Lean Government at EPA aims to reasonably reduce defects, overproduction, waiting, underutilized resources and talents, excess transportation, inventory, unnecessary motion, and processing time. One way I saw Lean Government being utilized during my time at EPA was with paperwork. At EPA, all employees must fill out a job performance evaluation forms titled PARS forms. In the past, the PARS form was an extremely frustrating-to-edit document that was difficult to complete effectively because of unwise formatting. In the office I worked at, they initiated a Lean project where they converted the PARS form to a fillable PDF form, that greatly simplified the entire form completion process. Even though it may seem that this project was relatively minor, it was an easy solution to a pervasive frustration in the office, and reduced time the PARS form took to fill as well as residual and completely unnecessary irritation the form previously caused.
Learning and working on Lean communications projects this summer impressed upon me the power and impact that small, deliberate adjustments can have on productivity and work satisfaction. There are places in which a Lean project may not be a perfect fit, and the practice of continuous improvement is certainly an ambitious pursuit, but in situations where Lean is attentively and deliberately applied, it can precipitate positive, consequential change.
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