What is Lean Government?

As Lean manufacturing and “Lean fill-in-the-blank” take root in mainstream business consciousness I am noticing more mention of “lean government” by politicians in sound bytes as well as press releases and articles. I’m afraid that to many people Lean government means something similar to the dreaded “lean and mean” or “lacking resources to pay for basic services”.
So what is a Lean government?
Singaporean Consultant Jian-Chieh Chew takes an operational excellence approach to this question and outlined his Eight Workable Strategies for Creating Lean Government. Mr. Chew’s eight points are:
No. 1 – Synchronization to Customer Demands
No. 2 – Understand Variations in Customer Demand
No. 3 – Create Work Cells
No. 4 – Eliminate Batching Work and Multi-Tasking
No. 5 – Enforce First in, First out
No. 6 – Implement Standardized Work and Load Leveling
No. 7 – Do Today’s Work Today
No. 8 – Make the Value Stream Visible
While Mr. Chew does a great job of explaining Lean transaction, it falls short of defining Lean government. Saying that processing information or serving customers one at a time in a flow synchronized to demand is Lean government would be like saying that having everyone working on an assembly line from call to cash in a manufacturing organization is the definition of a Lean enterprise. There’s simply more to it than that.
Perhaps in Singapore they do not have the type of government as we do in the U.S. with lawmakers who attempt spend tax payer money building bridges to nowhere. If you have a government that is free of these types of boondoggles then focusing on Lean transactions in the various ministries and offices may be a sufficient definition of Lean government.
But I am looking at the question of “What is Lean government?” from the perspective of the staggering basket of boondoggle that is the U.S. government. It’s a bigger target, so my definition of Lean government has to work harder. A Lean government is one that will:
1) Solve people’s problems based on facts, by using the scientific method
2) Provide the highest quality of life to as many people as possible
3) Do this at the lowest cost
4) Do this as quickly as possible
5) Do this in a way that is sustainable beyond your tenure in government
Lean government is improving quality, cost, and delivery through kaizen.
Kaizen is about getting rid of waste, burden and variability in all of their forms. The U.S. government is the number one source of waste in the world. Why do I say this? The United States has the largest economy in the world. It has the largest tax base and collects the most taxes. It spends not only these taxes, but also what it can borrow from other governments (!!). Much of the spending is waste. We are the champions of the world when it comes to government waste. It is shameful, but it is also a tremendous opportunity.
Lean government needs to address waste at both a strategic level (which pain should we relieve first?) and at a logistical level (how can we deliver the most relief as quickly and cost effectively as possible?). In our economy there are thousands of trained professionals who every go to work every day to solve exactly these types of problems. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have sufficient numbers of them at the top of the U.S. government to make a significant difference.
Lean government is not about how civil servants or political leaders come to power. In the United States we have something fairly close to direct elections. In other countries there are monarchies. Neither system is inherently more or less wasteful. Common sense would suggest that a system of direct elections would do a better job of making sure that the customers’ voice (the will of the electorate) was reflected in policy and spending. Yet there have been benevolent dictatorships in history, as well as diastrous examples of popular rule.
Lean government is not about a balanced budget. Businesses also carry debt. Businesses take risks, shoulder debt and strike out in bold new directions from time to time. Governments are not too different in this way. Governments invest in infrastructure (build roads, airports), identify demographic trends (what the population will need in the future) and craft policy based on some combination of facts, faith and will of those being governed. The key is to do this with minimum waste and where there will be maximum effectiveness.
Lean government is not replacing the human capacity for making decisions with one strictly based on numbers. But a Lean government would certainly be more fact based than the faith-based Presidency we enjoy in the United States today. By their own admission facts come in a distant second to faith in today’s administration. I don’t know how to do kaizen without facts. I admire people who do.
In the absence of facts, I go with faith. In the presence of facts that do not agree with faith, I question the facts. But I generally regret it when I ignore the facts. It takes a kind of faith to rely on the facts that are presented to you when making decisions. A Lean government would learn from the factual results of these decisions, good or bad.
Economist Milton Friedman said “the business of business is to do business” or to make money in a sustainable way. The business of government is to redistribute wealth (tax and spend) for the maximum good of the maximum number of people in a sustainable way. A Lean government should do this as effectively as possible. That means doing it rapidly with low transaction costs while strategically avoiding boondoggles, also known fondly in my country as pork.
What can we do about achieving a Lean government? We can take one lesson from another not-so Lean government. Edson Oda from Gemba’s Brazil office had to make a visit to a government office in Sao Paulo recently to explain why he hadn’t voted last October. He was out of the country on a business trip. Manuel Fernandez from Gemba, who lives under the slightly Leaner government of Chile will tell you that if you fail to vote on Election Day in that country you’ll get a visit from the police. They will ask you if you have a reason why you were not able to vote. They care, because you should.
What’s the lesson here? Citizens are the customers of government. Those of us who are eligible to vote have the privilege of letting our voice be heard. If we don’t define value for the government, how can we criticize the government for being wasteful? But mandatory voting would probably be too much intrusion into the precious individual freedoms of the American citizen. So for now we’ll just have to chop away at the branches of government waste.


  1. ronald holmes

    April 5, 2006 - 1:07 pm

    My family and I enjoyed living in Si ngapore for 12 years. It is truly efficient and a real pleasure

  2. chew jc

    April 11, 2006 - 4:17 am

    Haha. Its true. In Singapore’s government does not build bridges that lead to nowhere.

  3. Stephen Crate

    April 12, 2006 - 12:28 pm

    I think many people believe lean government means small government and
    that is an unfair characterization. The size of budgets and the amount
    of allocation for each particular program or service is decided by the
    politicians. The public administrators decide whether to spend the
    money in a lean fashion reducing waste and increasing value or
    otherwise. Lean is about making the process of providing government
    services efficient with as little waste as possible.

  4. Arthur S. Davis, Jr.

    September 8, 2006 - 2:29 pm

    Consider this, for Lean government (a much better, more exact term is Operational Excellence) to become a reality in government; one would logically start as Mr. Chew suggests:
    “No. 1 – Synchronization to Customer Demands
    No. 2 – Understand Variations in Customer Demand
    No. 3 – Create Work Cells
    No. 4 – Eliminate Batching Work and Multi-Tasking
    No. 5 – Enforce First in, First out
    No. 6 – Implement Standardized Work and Load Leveling
    No. 7 – Do Today’s Work Today
    No. 8 – Make the Value Stream Visible”
    However, before explaining why, let’s explore the definition of government.
    Government, “A government (from the Greek Κυβερνήτης kubernites – steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder) is an organization that has the power to make and enforce laws for a certain territory. There are several definitions on what exactly constitutes a government. In its broadest sense, “govern” means the power to administrate, whether over an area of land, a set group of people, or an association.” It seems to me that Government is a bit more than “the redistribution of wealth.” It’s more a matter of providing the ‘glue’ (laws) that hold a set of people together. And yes, there are laws established to enable the redistribution of wealth.
    Lean government – I believe both answers are correct; Mr. Miller’s view that Mr. Chew’s definition of Lean government leaves out, perhaps, the primary reason for government, the making of law, rule and regulations*. Mr. Chew is correct in that the second most important element of government is execution, i.e. turning the laws, rules and regulations into products, services and actions. Further, since by definition “all work is a process,” and Lean is, if anything, ‘a process-fixing’ tool (and a method of leading and managing), Mr. Miller is again correct. Lean can (and must) be applied to the rest of the system, i.e. applied to all of the governing body for Lean government to become a reality.
    Government isn’t that much different than manufacturing, both transform something from one state to (often) a different state: manufacturing transforms materials (base, raw, etc) into products; government transforms laws, rules and regulations into services, products and actions. Without this transformation, in either case, materials or laws would have far less value. What is critical is that only a limited number of people see that this condition, or opportunity, exists. Therefore, I am investing my time in the process of implementing Operational Excellence in State Government.
    What is the opportunity? It has been demonstrated more than once that a transformation process can be change. Toyota did it therefore; the rest of the world can do it. So, the place to start to achieve Lean government is doing the exceedingly hard work that Mr. Chew prescribes. Once the transformation processes are approaching a state of ‘being in control’, it will then be more appropriate to tackle applying Lean to the law-making portion of government. I am convinced that, in the short term, changing the law making processes is going to be a nearly impossible task.
    To make laws in a dem ocrac y may (more than likely does) require that there is an inexact process. Its inexactness may be its perfections. For example, the day is far away when all of the wealthy will agree that their wealth must be redistributed. For starters, who is wealthy? Those individuals making $100,000.00 per year and above; $50,000.00; or, multi-millions per year? I can imagine a family of four making, say $9,000.00 to say $14,000.00 per year thinking (for the first two to three years) that $50,000.00 per year is ‘a lot of money!”
    *In a dem ocrac y, of course, these as expressed by the people

  5. Jon Miller

    September 8, 2006 - 3:01 pm

    Mr. Davis:
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful and valuable input in this debate.
    Perhaps I was being cynical when simplifying the function of government to the “redistribution of wealth”. I am not a great student of government and no doubt I am missing much of what is government.
    However it seems to me that redistribution of wealth is the single common factor among governments across history and geography, if “wealth” is defined broadly as both taxable income and assets and the natural assets of a state, or those assets under or above the soil of other states.
    Governments may provide the “glue” to keep a nation together and they certainly create laws and regulations… but to what end? Nations are somewhat arbitrary things when viewed in the long arc of history, and it’s a rare law that does not directly or indirectly have a hand in the redistribution of wealth.
    Maintaining and improving economic position (power in the form of wealth) appears to be a common denominator in the desire for nationhood through history, and whatever ideal people in government have (to do good) they must first do well for this to be possible.
    Taking this simplified economic perspective of government makes the applicability of operational excellence practice and principles quite logical to me.

  6. Chew JC

    December 11, 2006 - 10:05 pm

    Hi Guys
    I wrote that paper frankly out of frustration because i see so much waste in the Public Services Organizations (hence not really the sum of all things Government …. just the execution part of it) and i am sure it is everywhere in the world.
    I did not have very high minded goals. I just wanted to keep it to the basics. Basically, i was just shouting out – lets do the simple things right and here are some thoughts (and some things i have personally tried that worked)
    Hope this clarifies. Anyway, apart from you guys, not too many people read that article i think. Some of my far worst articles are more well received.