In Our View: Streamlining State Agencies

Is LEAN for real, or just another management fad?

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f you're unaware of the LEAN management system — or have become confused by its complexities — you're not alone. Start with the term itself, which is billed inconsistently as LEAN or Lean or lean, depending on your source.

But the system has a successful track record in the private sector. Toyota is often credited as the pioneer of LEAN, a coaching, mentoring and training program that can improve quality while reducing costs. Boeing also uses LEAN. How well it will work in Washington's state government remains to be seen, and we'll wait patiently in the "believe it when we see it" camp until the public sector can match the private sector's accomplishments. Here's what we already know:

LEAN is touted as an effective plan for eliminating waste and increasing value for the customer. In state government, the customer would be agencies on the front line, and indirectly taxpayers and recipients of government services. LEAN advocates say it's a good way to avoid tax increases.

Both gubernatorial candidates preach the LEAN doctrine, especially Democrat Jay Inslee, who was quoted by KING5.com: "… you know this LEAN management system that I'm going to embed throughout the state of Washington, when it was used at Salmon Creek hospital in Vancouver … they have reduced their overtime cost by 60 percent."

But Inslee is a bit disingenuous when he implies he would be leading the LEAN charge into state government. Fact is, on Dec. 20, 2011, Gov. Chris Gregoire issued an executive order for state agencies to implement LEAN. The House Committee on State Government & Tribal Affairs added its blessing a couple of months later.

Furthermore, Inslee's Republican foe, Rob McKenna, in his role as attorney general, has already achieved savings of $402,086 in his department using LEAN practices.

Tuesday and today in Tacoma, Gregoire is leading a LEAN Transformation Conference. The Washington Policy Center reports that among the actions at the conference is to advertise for LEAN contracts with vendors. The House committee mentioned in its report last year that agencies would be allowed to spend $200,000 on LEAN contracts that would increase efficiencies. Those gains would include reducing backlogs and lead times, streamlining processes, and improving reviews and inspections. A report issued by Gregoire said 6,400 state employees and more than 1,600 leaders have undergone LEAN training.

Of course, there are skeptics, some complaining that LEAN is just another fad, remindful of the giddy department head who exclaims to eye-rolling workers: "I just returned from a conference and, boy, do I have some great changes to make!"

Democratic House budget chair Ross Hunter of Medina expressed both concern and optimism in a recent Northwest Public Radio interview, maintaining that "most LEAN stuff costs you money in the short run because you have to spin up employee groups, there's training you have to do. You start getting savings three years out and that's a good thing, absolutely, we should be doing it."

If our state government can become more lean with LEAN … or Lean … or any other management system, we'll lead the applause. If the introspection and training ultimately yields the same benefits for state government that were recorded by Toyota and Boeing, then taxpayers will have reason to rejoice. For now, waiting and watching is the most practical approach.