Interviews

Interviews By: Roberto Priolo

Washington State: using lean production in government

INTERVIEW - Thanks to strong leadership support and an effective system to partner with private sector firms, Washington State is proving how successful lean production principles can be in a government setting.


Interviewees: Wendy Korthuis-Smith, Director of Results Washington; Darrell Damron, Enterprise Lean Consultant; Hollie Jensen, Enterprise Lean Consultant; Rich Roesler, Engagement Manager


Roberto Priolo: It’s hard to find a lean initiative in a government setting that is as broad and all-encompassing as the one Washington State is carrying out. Where does Results Washington get its inspiration from?

Wendy Korthuis-Smith: Inspiration comes from leadership, no doubt, and we’ve been fortunate in that regard. Thanks to the Government Management Accountability and Performance (GMAP) program, which previous governor Christine Gregoire had introduced, performance management was already strong at Washington State. When governor Jay Inslee took office in January 2013, he immediately understood where we were at that point in time and how to build on previous achievements.

The first thing he asked us was: “How many citizens are engaged in this initiative?” While we were great with the data, we weren’t doing as good a job at engaging people. The governor encouraged us to go big, to focus on what we could achieve and on the partnerships we could leverage to bring value to Washingtonians. He wants to take the organization to the next level.


RP: The state of Washington is something of a lean lab, with pioneering organizations like Boeing, Starbucks, Alaska Airlines, and Virginia Mason – just to name a few – operating within its borders. Would Results Washington look the same if the state didn’t boast as much lean expertise?

WKS: Had we done this by ourselves, we would be nowhere near where we are today. Indeed, our work with partner organizations has been very inspiring: to be able to learn from organizations like those you have mentioned has been truly invaluable. Darrell, would you like to say something about the Lean Expert Partnership Program?

Darrell Damron: Certainly. Under this program, private sector organizations volunteer to provide advice, training and coaching to state employees, in order to contribute to the development of their lean capabilities.

The common perception is that, from a lean perspective, government is 20 years behind the private sector. What the partnership program has done is bringing credibility and validity to the principles this administration is advocating for, which has in turn helped our employees understand that this is not just another management initiative, but a set of principles that have been successfully applied in the private sector to bring value to employees and customers. And that using them in government is possible.

In the past couple of years we have been fortunate enough to have partnered with 191 lean experts from 85 organizations, the vast majority of which are located here in the state of Washington. It’s true, we have a lot of organizations of all sizes here that have really embraced lean principles and tools and used them to become world-class in their industries.


RP: This level of engagement with the business community as well as with Washingtonians almost hints to the bigger goal of creating a leaner society in the state of Washington. It sounds like a very holistic approach.

DD: It goes even beyond that, because we are also connected to the other state governments. There is a network across the U.S., and I can see a day when all of the states embrace lean thinking and partner not only with lean experts, but everybody in the state. It may look like we are cutting edge right now, but we are not alone in this.

Hollie Jensen: We are lucky to have so many partners nearby. It helps us go further, faster. However, this should not be discouraging to others who might not have the same leverage within their local areas.


RP: The issue of proximity is very interesting – how do you reach out to people across the state, for example in counties and cities? How do you get lean principles to trickle down to the local level?

Rich Roesler: It’s very much a work in progress. When we launched Results Washington we held several informational meetings with key stakeholders, including cities, counties, labor groups, business groups, etc. We reached out to anyone we thought would be interested in the work we intended to do. We are now at the second stage, developing implementation and improvement strategies with the goal of engaging people in actual change initiatives.

WKS: I can share an example. One of our five goals is world-class education. As part of it, we are trying to increase graduation rates across the state. We identified the most involved stakeholders, principals and superintendents, and went out to talk to them in each of the state’s nine Educational Service Districts, to discuss working together to improve graduation rates. They were very willing to share information on the barriers they encounter, some of which cross our goal areas (for instance, we heard a lot about poverty).


RP: Looking at the structure of Results Washington, it really does look like you are trying to change the life of citizens in every possible way. How did that structure come to being? A lot of your goals overlap or, at the very least, influence each other. How did you prioritize and adjust over time?

WKS: Good question. We started out with 53 agency directors, and broke them up into the five ‘macro-goal’ areas. They started to draft the map, as we encouraged them to focus on issues that crossed agencies. One of the groups comprised 11 agency directors… who brought 11 different issues to the table! They discussed and discussed, trying to identify the one that, once tackled, would bring most value to citizens.

There were dozens of iterations of the map, and when we rolled it out we asked the input of Washingtonians, too.

Results Washington is of course very broad, and one of the challenges we find is prioritization. We are doing well in some areas, like with our target of zero road fatalities by 2030. We have worked on that for a couple of years, developing a very mature measure that touches four agencies working together on a strategy and talking to the governor with one voice to suggest what is needed to decrease the number of fatal accidents on Washington’s roads.


RP: How do you engage Washingtonians? How do you make sure you really understand what the customer wants?

RR: We engage citizens with a mix of technology and face-to-face interaction. We have gone out of our way to create a website that would allow people to narrow their comments down to specific subjects, so they can give us feedback on exactly what interests them most. More importantly, when you are sharing your opinion, the website brings up other relevant comments to help you to see all sides of an issue. We think there’s great value in that.

We also carry out stakeholder meetings. We find Washingtonians who want to help and try to put them in touch with the agencies working on improvement efforts. Some of these are engaging end users in specific lean projects, for example, and it’s proven extremely effective.



RP: What do you think the main challenges are in implementing lean thinking in Washington State?

HJ: I joined 10-12 months ago, and soon realized that one of the main challenges we are facing is to move from a project-focused expert-led approach (which is necessary to get momentum by completing projects and showing results) to one where we think more in terms of a leader-driven cultural transformation.

WKS: Sometimes people still see this as flavor of the month. With governor Gregoire we had GMAP; now we have Results Washington. When we talk to our employees, they sometimes appear concerned that this is not going to add any value, and that it’s only going to last one or two terms.

What we try to do is telling them that lean thinking has been around forever, that there are examples of it in history (like the Venetian arsenal), and that it is about building on what makes sense in the way the work is performed.

DD: We have a great opportunity to tap into the drive of our employees to bring improvements wherever they work, be it a school, a prison, or the police. They are passionate about what they do, and I believe the flavor of the month feeling comes from the traditional understanding of work and management. But if we find a way to help employees to deliver more value to Washingtonians while improving their work so that they can do the things they joined the government to do, then the ramp to overcome hesitance gets really short.


RP: I assume communication is very important to achieve this.

RR: It’s tremendously important. When you talk about cultural change, you need to reassure people that it is genuine improvement we are after, that lean is real and that it can empower them.

Every large organization has silos, and we too have a long history of agencies focusing predominantly on their own efforts. Part of the value we can bring as Results Washington, however, is to help with communication enterprise-wide: for example, we regularly send out updates enterprise-wide on what we achieve. We also provide people with an easy way to join training. The overarching goal is to get everybody on the same page and show how it’s working.

WKS: Keeping it real is critical. Before each agency meets with the governor, we ask them to always be honest. If they have doubts, problems or reservations, we don’t want them to tell us everything is going great. We are not interested in a ‘Pollyanna approach’.


RP: What is the role of the Communities of Practice you have put in place?

DD: The idea is to support a group’s common endeavor to get better at what they do by learning and working together. We picked up on the idea of creating these communities of practice to break down the silos Rich was talking about.

There are three communities we are fostering at the moment: the first is Lean Practitioners, which is open to anyone in state government who is trying to apply lean principles and tools to their work. We started in our office, and now we have 655 employees who showed interest from across the state. In the Olympia area [Olympia is the capital of the state of Washington] we do face-to-face meetings, and we normally have between 50 and 100 lean practitioners attending. On those occasions, we facilitate communication and provide training on lean principles and tools. People don’t need permission to attend; they just show up, learn, meet other practitioners, and contribute to building trust across agencies.

The second community is represented by our technology folks, and is built around the agile methodology. We organize webinars (we have one scheduled for every Friday from now till July) delivered by our agile experts and partners. We have 200 of our I.T. people registered, and we only started a month and a half ago. It has grown exponentially.

The third community is the state-wide group of Agency Lean Advisors: each of the 53 state agencies appoint one or more advisors, whom we meet with each month. By providing them with training and improving communication among them, we try to break down walls and bring clarity over what each agency is doing. To do this, we also leverage our partnership program, with experts coming in and delivering training. That’s how we get the critical buy-in we need.


RP: Essentially, are people able to ‘pull’ the information they need when they need it by deciding to attend a training session?

DD: You can’t lead a lean effort by pushing training their way, it has to be spearheaded by leaders who create expectations in each division. Of course, we do offer training, and people tap into it for topics and activities that are relevant to what they do and where they are in the organization. 

It’s about providing opportunities for development where it makes most sense. We don’t have the one training that everybody in the organization has to attend, because each of our agencies is at a different stage of lean maturity.

HJ: Results Washington is like a multi-lane highway, and the structure provided by the Lean Transformation Model will help us put in place the guardrails. But within that framework, agencies have a lot of autonomy to work on these goals the way that works for them.

In providing opportunities for professional development, we also set a target and establish a system for accountability. Governor Inslee does want every employee trained, and the encouragement we provide is aimed at supporting the momentum we are experiencing in our lean journey.

DD: By the end of 2015, we’ll have reached all 58,000 employees, one way or another.

WKS: Governor Gregoire mandated GMAP. So this time we are making the conscious effort to try and build lean organically in Washington State, providing information as people in different agencies got interested.


RP: Hollie, how are you bringing the lessons you learned at Starbucks to Washington State?

HJ: In transferring from the private to the public sector, what I have found is that the two are not as different as people tend to think. One of the key ideas I’ve been able to validate when I joined Washington State is the critical role that leadership plays in promoting a quick uptake of lean thinking.

There are a couple of other things we struggled with at Starbucks and that led to great learning’s I can share here at Washington State.

First of all, bringing lean to 200,000 employees and 15,000 stores in the U.S.  was a big ship to turn – we struggled to understand what to make a standard and when to give stores enough autonomy to run their business. We got to a point where we became more principle-focused and gave them the space to make their decisions on how to perform the work. That’s something I can apply and coach people on here – and the fact that Starbucks is a sexy brand people want to hear about helps!

The other element is the focus we had in the last couple of years I spent at Starbucks on stabilizing the systems of work and turning leaders into coaches, giving them the opportunity to see the work and become teachers instead of simply telling people what to do. We are starting to do more of this here at Washington State as well.


RP: How would you describe the approach of leadership at Washington State?

WKS: Among other things, leadership encourages, inspires, and sets a strategy. And it all comes down to personal engagement. Having a governor who every month holds meetings to hear the progress made by departments, and then goes out on surprise visits to individual agencies, has been really powerful.

HJ: Governor Inslee’s ability to communicate the link between what he sees as he walks around the organization and where he wants the organization to be is keeping the momentum alive. It’s really inspirational. He didn’t just talk about lean during the campaign and at his inaugural speech – he keeps talking about it, making all the relevant connections for people.

DD: Another thing he does is providing those guardrails, encouraging every individual to embrace the scientific method and start thinking in terms of value to the customer. It’s a leverage point to sustain results over time, winning the hearts and minds of our leaders and employees and convincing them to successfully use the principles of lean production in government.


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