By Akintola Benson-Oke
Lagos State Civil Service has come a long way in reducing waste while increasing productivity. This is partly the result of the extensive investments in knowledge and skills by the administration of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode. For these investments, the state Civil Service remains grateful.
The importance of eliminating waste cannot be over-emphasised. Countless studies have shown that, with good and sound processes relating to management of time and resources, one finds that meagre resources can be extended to produce outstanding results. In other words, organisations and individuals can achieve more with less.
Indeed, it would be a great achievement if the Lagos State Civil Service is able to import the principles of lean operations from the private sector and apply them, mutatis mutandis, to the operations of the public sector.
It has been rightly noted that the lean management and production techniques have their roots in the manufacturing sector. Specifically, the car manufacturer, Toyota, has been singled out as demonstrating the profitability of the techniques over the years.
This is why, according to McKinsey & Company, many “businesses have followed Toyota’s lead and undergone a lean transformation. A major European telecommunications company, for example, successfully applied lean techniques to a problem that was leading many of its customers to switch to competitors: the repair of faulty telephone lines. The company found that its call center operators, diagnostics experts, and repair technicians operated as though they actually worked for rival employers. As a result, it took an average of 19 hours to repair a line.
Using lean principles, the company realigned its organization and invested in the development of team leaders. In the first few months of its pilot project, productivity increased by 40 percent and recurring failures fell by 50 percent.
The programme was then rolled out across the company’s national network, where it achieved similar success.1Likewise, a major European bank used lean techniques to reduce the processing time for mortgage applications to 5 days, from 35 days. Because fewer applicants dropped out of the process, the bank’s revenues grew by 5 percent even as processing costs fell by 35 percent.”
The question, of course, is whether any of this is relevant to the public sector? As noted, it is not surprising that the concept and language of lean, rooted as they are in manufacturing, spark cynicism among many civil servants. Some feel that their priority should be matters of policy, not operations; others resent the notion that they are somehow part of a production line. Moreover, without the incentive of the profit motive, these government managers may believe they have neither a reason nor the levers to pursue a lean approach.
Yet practical experience suggests that they can. A study has shown that in a UK government office processing large volumes of standard documents, lean techniques achieved double-digit productivity gains in the number of documents processed per hour and improved customer service by slashing lead times to fewer than 12 days, from about 40, thus eliminating backlogs.
The proportion of documents processed correctly the first time increased by roughly 30 percent; lead times to process incoming mail decreased to 2 days, from 15 days; and the staff occasionally attains the nirvana of an unprecedented zero backlog.
Now, I will be the first to acknowledge that, as has been well documented, persuading people to embark on the lean journey, where the last stop may be their own removal or reassignment, is not easy. To succeed, public-sector organizations must find a way to align their growth strategy—providing new and better services at limited cost—with a regard for the interests of their workers.
Although lean programmes may cut the number of public-sector jobs over time, the goal is to make the remaining ones more rewarding. Incentives come from the prospect of more meaningful work, potentially with room for greater autonomy or a chance to develop new skills.
If the Lagos State Civil Service is able to perfect the art of lean management and operations, the service will become able to eliminate the so-called “Three Sources of Loss,” which are waste, variability, and inflexibility. A lean operational system will also ensure that the Lagos State Civil Service creates and maintains the beneficial ability to improve itself constantly by bringing problems to the surface and resolving them.
In this area, the public sector often finds itself in a weaker starting position when compared to private sector entities, with gaps in skills and entrenched mind-sets. The adoption of a lean operational system will help the Lagos State Civil Service adopt a performance culture. This is because, “when improving long-term performance is the goal, changing the process or the operating system will not suffice. The organization’s culture must also change.”
Undoubtedly, “some of these changes will be wrenching. A lean process, for example, requires a performance-tracking system that breaks down top-level objectives into clear, measurable targets that workers at every level must understand, accept, and meet.
When performance isn’t up to the standard, action is required. Tackling problems quickly and holding colleagues accountable for poor performance raises efficiency as well as morale. A lean process also tends to address the problem of “sticky” resources, prompting organizations to allocate them to shifting priorities more flexibly.”
In the final analysis, we find that there is much to gain from embracing a lean operational model in the Lagos State Civil Service.