Posted by: Knightbird | August 19, 2013

Politicians Don’t Seem To Get Lean

At a banquet held in Juneau by the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indians of Alaska, I sat next to a State Representative and a staffer. As the evening progressed, I steered the conversation to lean thinking, as I do frequently when talking to politicians. I can get pretty flip when doing this, and good naturedly tell the politician that they are a huge part of the problem because of their constant meddling with process results that are within control chart limits (common cause). Of course they have no clue what I am talking about. My theory is that politicians curry good will through meddling with under control processes by calling the manager and demanding results. This meddling only creates greater variance and keeps the process complained about in a state of chaos. I shared a bunch of lean government efforts pursued throughout the country with the staffer. I had also shared this same information with a State Senator by email and in person. The in person contact was accompanied by a commitment “to get back to me.”

When the conversation was ending, the politician promised (and of course you know what value a political promise is) to contact me in the first couple of weeks of June to talk more about lean thinking for government. It is now the third week in August and true to form, the politician did not keep that promise. This politician is not the only one lacking curiosity about a management system that delivers on its promises of high quality performance with fast results. I have had this conversation with any number of politicians in the past with similar results.

What can lean government deliver for citizens? Exactly the same thing it delivers for other organizations. If implemented properly, lead times for services decline precipitously. Instead of waiting weeks or months for actions, a citizen waits hours or maybe days. The quality of the decision improves. The number of employees required to deliver the service declines by 25% to 40% so the cost goes down.

Information about services improves substantially so the politicians can make better judgments. And in a true lean culture, the improvement start within one week. Not years, but a week. I know many nonprofits receiving federal funding who have to submit GPRA data. (Government Performance and Results Act). They are very proud when they collect and submit the data on time and are recognized as compliant. They tout this recognition on their web sites. I have said it many times. GPRA is worthless. It gives no management useable data. It is essentially “Report Card Charting.”

Will the politician ever contact me to learn more about the potential for lean thinking in Alaska State Government? Most likely not. As I have discovered, being an advocate for lean thinking in Alaska is a lonely, lonely job. Any politician that takes it on is bound to be frustrated by the limited thinking of our chief executives (governor, commissioners, mayors, superintendents). I had been talking to a young special assistant to a commissioner, but haven’t heard of any initiatives from that department yet.

Politicians, like most executives, just don’t get lean.


  1. I believe the State Representative and Staffer does get lean, the question is; “What will motivate him to embrace and put lean in motion?”. Politicians get backing from supporters and these drive their political machinery even before they are elected in position. The opposite, if they are independent-they would need to get back their campaign machinery investment from the election bids.
    Politics, where all the beaurocratic red tapes and colliding agendas meet is the total opposite of lean. And I am not saying this as an excuse! I really wonder how both can work together with such conflicting power struggles. I have asked this question before myself, “Where do you start cleaning the barrel?” Do you scrape the rotten bottom? Or do you start to empty the top? You can’t clean the mess at the bottom unless you remove the good ones on top! And even then, a good sustainable process has to be accepted and put in place in order to avoid rotting at the bottom.

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