Embracing ‘lean’ — It’s all about the process
More than 30 years ago, Total Quality Management (TQM) guru W. Edward Deming said: “If you cannot describe what you are doing as a process, you do not know what you are doing.” In fact, a need to focus on process is among the things that lean government, strategic sourcing, reinventing government and TQM all have in common. In order to be successful, all of them require the ability to describe current processes and make changes that lead to overall improvement.
When procurement professionals hear the term “Lean Government,” it’s likely their eyes roll back and they think: “Here we go again, another bureaucratic program.” Or they think: “This, too, shall fade away; I can outlast it.” Others are skeptical, too. In 2011, economist and consultant David Longstreet said: “Where’s the beef? I see a lot of words (a lot of bun), but little beef in this new ‘lean’ thing.”
Have you embraced lean government or is your organization between the last buzzword and this one?
Here’s a suggestion: Why not use the current euphoria over “lean” to justify changes you want to make in your organization? I’m not ashamed to admit that for periods of time during the past 30 years, I have become a TQM advocate, a reinventing government engineer, and a strategic sourcing proponent, all so I could get upper management’s approval for organizational changes that needed to be made for us to succeed. Success is doing what upper management always expects us to achieve: Doing more with less. “Lean government” means less waste and cost with better outcomes.
Embracing lean government, by definition, means you want process improvement with emphasis on “less” and on outcomes that are “better.” How many government organizations have actually written down their key business processes? Based on my personal polling while instructing classes made up of government purchasing people from around the state of Washington, I would say a very small percentage, certainly less than 20 percent.
Many organizations look for best practices they can adopt. The chances of successful adoption are minimal if you cannot describe your current process and determine what changes will work in your organization to implement the best practice. Behind any successful best practice implementation is some effort to map the current process and make changes in order to implement it.
Here’s an example: My department decided we wanted to adopt a best practice for obtaining vendor quotes over the Internet. When we began, we quickly realized we did not have a written process to describe how we were currently getting quotes. In fact, each buyer was doing things differently. Some were using phone, some email and some regular mail. However, once we wrote down what everyone was doing, it was fairly easy to map the results into a single process document.
After selecting a provider for registering vendors and receiving electronic quotes, we wrote down what we envisioned the steps would be to obtain quotes via the Internet. Then it was simply a matter of replacing old steps in the process with new steps. Much of the essence of the old process did not change, it was just re-worded. For example, quotes were still awarded based on low bid, but the evaluation was now done on-line and vendors were notified with a system-generated email instead of a buyer-generated communication. We did some testing and modifications leading up to implementation. Finally, as we gained experience, we tweaked the new process to make it even better.
Within six months the process was stable. We were saving time, getting more vendor participation and competition, leading to lower prices. From what we learned on the simple quote process, we moved on to receiving formal bids and proposals on-line.
In my business case for the “e-bid” project to the boss, besides showing a nice return on investment, I stated that what we were proposing was a “lean government” initiative.
There is no magic to lean government. You cannot wave a magic lean wand and generate better outcomes. What you can do is simple, but challenging: Dare to identify a current process and describe it (write it down). This exercise alone can help identify ways to improve the process and achieve better outcomes.
Steve Demel, CPPO, is purchasing manager of Tacoma Public Schools.