Lean in public administration

Optimisation with a human face

Lean is one of the major buzzwords within management today, and even though Lean is rooted in industrial production, the Lean wave is now sweeping across private service companies as well as public organisations.

Lean in public administration

This article was originally published in 2006 in Børsen Ledelseshåndbøger “Offentlig Ledelse”. This is a translated version of the article.

A lot has happened since 2006 – we know a lot more of how Lean thinking works in public sector organisations. The article illustrates what we knew at that time in the early years of Lean thinking in service. Today, we do not talk that much about Lean anymore, the hype of the 00’s has died down, but much of the Lean thinking is now an embedded part of operations in many public organisations.

1. Introduction

Lean is one of the major buzzwords within management today, and even though Lean is rooted in industrial production, the Lean wave is now sweeping across private service companies as well as public organisations. Typically, the motives for implementing Lean are a growing case backlog that cannot be handled by the existing staff or by using the existing processes, tight budget demands in terms of efficiency, a need for more transparency, a demand for faster administrative processes etc.

In this article, we will describe the first experience with Lean thinking in public administration in Denmark, where Lean has been practised for just a couple of years. We will explain how to apply the Lean thinking principles and share our experience of what to be aware of in order to successfully implement Lean.

The following main points are presented in the article:


Lean thinking works very well in public administration, and a number of Lean tools can be applied to this area.


Basically, Lean is about realising the employees’ potential for engagement, creativity and continuous improvement in all organisations. Tools and methods are merely used as a way to help realise these powers. The employees are the ones who need to have a key role in the continuous improvement of the operational processes – not Lean experts or Lean consultants.

Goals and performance management:

Performance management is a significant aspect of Lean, which is why it is important to set goals for all the main stakeholders, i.e. strive for a higher level of productivity, better service and quality and, not least, increased job satisfaction and a better working environment. By practising Lean, many people are able to achieve good results at the same time.

The right setting:

Lean is as much about the way people work together on the development of a workplace as it is about tools and methods. Therefore, the right setting plays an important part during the implementation process as well as when the Lean consultants have left the organisation.

Operational culture:

Lean implementation is about implementing a new operational culture, i.e. a new way of solving operational tasks and at the same time continuously improve the way of working. To many public organisations, it is a major task to redirect focus to operations after many years of focusing primarily on development and projects.

The primary driver of working with Lean is the engagement and commitment of the employees – and our experience shows that by setting the right goals in the right way, they really want to be part of the Lean journey. When you combine the common sense inherent in the Lean principles and Lean tools with an engaging approach to Lean practising, you can realise great employee energy potential.

By Lean, we mean the Lean principles and tools that have turned out to work well in production, and that we have now experienced also work in many administrative processes. Naturally, the implementation of Lean must be adapted to each organisation and its particular characteristics; however, at the same time, one of the major pitfalls in Lean implementations is cherrypicking only few of the Lean principles and thus risking that the coherence in Lean disappears. Another pitfall is changing the tools instead of using as many of the existing principles as possible that actually do work in most companies.

2. Is it Lean or not?

When a new management trend emerges, many people get involved in the public debate stating that “we have also worked with xx for a long time”. This is also the case of Lean. And with good reason, because we are already familiar with some of the main concepts of Lean from the quality management tradition that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, also in the public sector.

It can be discussed whether Lean is a method, a philosophy, a set of tools or something completely different. In our opinion, Lean is a combination of these, and in order not to focus on a more theoretical variant, we have chosen to refer to it as Lean thinking, or simply Lean, in the article.

This is how we define Lean: Lean means thin and well-trimmed. Becoming Lean means that a company cuts away any excess fat from administration, production, development, sales and all other areas in which repeated processes take place. At the same time, it is about getting started on a healthier lifestyle with the customer at the centre and designing all processes to meet the needs of all customers and not only the important ones. Lean is not about making rash decisions to lose a lot of weight, for example by dismissing employees or closing down units. Instead you should learn how to change your dietary habits in an intelligent manner. This way, you learn to use your energy on listening to the customer and delivering as promised – nothing more, nothing else.

If Lean is implemented in an optimal manner, it will result in more customers, fewer costs and happier employees, which is the recipe for healthy growth, not a starvation diet. Lean requires that everybody – managers as well as employees – feels responsible for the company’s metabolism and blood sugar and manages to keep an eye on the bathroom scale so they can raise the alert when good intentions are about to unravel. Thus, it is necessary to get used to adjusting all the time, until the things you are working on fall into place.

2.1. What is new about Lean?

As previously mentioned, there are many familiar elements and tools in Lean thinking, especially to those who have worked with quality and total quality management. At the same time, there is also something fundamentally new to the approach. If we were to call Lean “old wine in new bottles”, which in our opinion is an appropriate metaphor, we must also emphasise that these are new bottles that add new qualities and characteristics to the wine.

Below is a short list of some of the aspects of “the new bottles”:

  • Value stream mapping as a detailed variant of process mapping that creates an overview
  • Waste as a common concept in the corporate language
  • Flow and takt – focus on how tasks or cases flow through the system as a supplement to the traditional focus on whether the quality is satisfactory as well as on total lead time
  • Visibility on a daily basis by means of planning boards and Kaizen boards on the shop floor
  • Gemba (= “the real place”). Discussion and implementation of improvements, discussion of results and follow-up on agreed improvements are to be moved out of the meeting rooms to “the floor”. Kaizen meetings are held in the working area, scoreboards are visible on the wall, implementation is carried out by us going out and implementing what we have agreed on etc.
  • Action orientation: Lean is an actionoriented way of thinking. Kaizen meetings and Kaizen Blitz are incredibly effective as symbolic tools of an action culture: If we agree on an improvement, we implement it now, and not when we think we have the time for it, or when we have just finished doing something else. Let’s do it!

From a mnemonic perspective, Lean thinking is actually quite simple, as long as you consider the rule of “5+7”: The essence of Lean thinking is 5 simple principles and a checklist consisting of 7 types of waste. Below, we will describe and illustrate these simple principles using concrete examples from public Danish organisations.

3. The 5 basic principles of Lean

3.1. Principle 1 – Identify customer value

The point of the first principle is for the organisation to focus on value creation from a recipient point of view – whether they are customers, users, citizens or the like – and work on ensuring that everyone in the organisation understands this basic rationale. This is the same kind of thinking that we have seen in service management and total quality management, and it is equivalent to the increasing focus on effect and impact measurement which the Danish Ministry of Finance, among others, stands for.

In a Lean organisation, everyone focuses on how each activity contributes to creating value for the customer and how to limit or eliminate non-value-adding activities. You become a little obsessed, so to speak, by the thought of constantly getting better at spending resources on something that creates value for the customer.

It is sometimes difficult to identify customer value in public organisations given that it can be quite a challenge to a number of organisations to clarify who the actual customers are, which is why the discussion concerning value creation is highly relevant as well as necessary.

A very simple method of testing the customer value approach is to imagine that we send an invoice to a citizen or user in connection with delivery of a service with a specification of resources spent, e.g.:

  • 10 minutes at DKK xx on receiving and registering enquiries
  • 20 minutes at DKK xx on finding a colleague to handle the case
  • 10 minutes at DKK yy on waiting, because the IT system is running slowly
  • 10 minutes at DKK xx on searching for relevant information or previous records, because the filing systems are not properly organised
  • 20 minutes at DKK yy on processing the case
  • 10 minutes at DKK zz on manager assessing the decision
  • 15 minutes at DKK yy on adjusting the wording according to the manager’s needs
  • 5 minutes at DKK zz on reapproval by the manager
  • 10 minutes at DKK xx on copying and journalising the case, including 5 minutes on finding paper for the photocopier
  • 5 minutes at DKK xx on printing a letter and putting it in an envelope
  • In total 150 minutes of work time

In addition to the above is the time spent while the case is at a standstill between the various activities, where no value is created and the only thing that is added is waiting time. The question is: If the citizen were to pay for this, would he/ she accept the items that have been specified in the invoice?

Customers could be both internal and external. In addition to the end customer are the customers in between who take over the case or the product along the way. In a Lean culture, everyone is aware of who is at the front and at the back of the chain.

3.2. Principle 2 – Create value streams

A value stream encompasses all the actions (both value-added and non-value added) that are necessary to bring a product or service from the original concept through the development and/or manufacturing processes to the receipt of payment.

Tapping & Shuker, 2005, page 33

Lean is about identifying and improving the organisation’s or the company’s value streams. Cases that share characteristics may be divided into product families and then constitute a value stream.

A value stream mapping can tell us which way cases go through the system, and, subsequently, we will be able to create the most optimal value stream. Typically, this step is when we realise how much waste a company or organisation produces.

Examples of value streams in the public sector:

  • Registration of new companies – the Danish Business Authority
  • Decisions on permanent injury and loss of earning capacity in connection with industrial injuries – the National Board of Industrial Injuries in Denmark
  • Preparation of agendas for committee meetings – e.g. in Allerød Municipality
  • Handling of construction projects – municipal construction administrations
  • Patient pathways for day surgery patients

A value stream mapping is a type of process mapping, but it is called a value stream, because it ensures focus on the activities and processes that create value for the customer. The value stream mapping maps the activities in the value stream as well as a number of data relating to the value stream such as how long each step takes, including the time spent working on the case, and how long the case is at a standstill. A mapping is made showing waiting time or queue/inventory during the process, number of employees involved, change of responsibility etc. Furthermore, the flow of information relating to the value stream is mapped, such as booking of patients, preparation of production schedules on a weekly or daily basis etc.

Unlike other “optimisation strategies” such as BPR (business process reengineering), Lean is based on the principle that the employees are very important players in the mapping, and that they take ownership of this mapping:

When mapping the “flow” of a specific work task through the company, it is very surprising to see how many handovers occur in the process without anything actually happening.

Employee at a government agency after working with Lean for 9 months

Value stream mapping provides the employees with an overview of waste in each process, the differences in working methods as well as an insight into how often cases have to be sent back to previous process steps (rework), e.g. due to lack of information. We experience how being involved in value stream mapping is an eye-opener for the employees, and how they discover that they do things differently, and that many things could actually be done in a much more consistent manner. This is an example of how a high level of involvement truly creates impact.

3.3. Principle 3 – Create flow without stops

Once the value and value stream have been identified, the next step is to get the case or product to flow smoothly through the value stream without stops. This requires all steps in the process to move at the same takt. Imagine that the organisation has a metronome which indicates the tempo, and that everyone produces at the same takt. In an ideal situation, this would mean that all steps in an administrative value stream are capable of handling the 15 cases that come in every day. Thus, we will ensure that a case is completed every time a new one comes in. This is actually rarely possible in real life due to varying caseloads, however, experience with Lean shows that it is possible to get very far by coordinating the takt of the value streams.

In other words, it is the cases, not the employees, that need to be busy. A steady flow is characterised by the fact that cases are never at a standstill without someone working on them. To create a steady flow, it is often necessary to adjust the allocation of resources to the various process steps in order to ensure that everybody who is part of the value stream can work at the same takt. For instance, it is no use if employees in one process step are efficient and able to process many tasks if they just pile up in the next step which might be understaffed or experiencing a lack of flow.

During the work with the new value stream for P cases at the National Board of Industrial Injuries in Denmark, management and employees agreed to change the distribution of work between office and academic staff, and thus shorter lead time as well as a much more steady flow were achieved.

In order to ensure the steady takt in the organisation, it may be necessary to consider the following in connection with the optimisation processes:

  • Co-localisation – create an office layout that supports the solution of tasks rather than e.g. professional competences, which means that academic and office staff should not necessarily be separated but rather be placed together in order to work on tasks as a team.
  • Avoid “batching” of tasks, i.e. passing on 10 tasks at a time instead of 1 or 2. Handle cases as they are received, and pass on the tasks a few at a time, e.g. 4 times a day rather than once a day.
  • Strive for as few handovers as possible – and, to the extent possible, avoid involving the customer once the handling of the case has been initiated, as it stops the flow.

3.4. Principle 4 – Implement new management principles

In production environments, the main idea behind the fourth principle is that production is not initiated until the customer orders a product, instead of producing for the warehouse based on expected demand. This is obvious to many service companies and public organisations. They simply do not get started on production or case handling until a citizen or patient has made an enquiry. However, in its consequence, the fourth principle is about the control principles that are used in the entire organisation. The fourth principle is often called the “pull principle”, as it refers to letting the customer “pull” the order through the system rather than the organisation pushing the task through the system. If we take a look at the internal steps of a value stream, it will often be possible to reap the optimisation benefits by focusing on changing push to pull.

In relation to the P cases at the National Board of Industrial Injuries in Denmark, a problem had arisen in that the cases were piling up when they were ready to be written, i.e. when all relevant information had been gathered. What happened was that the employees had unintentionally created a baglog instead of controlling the flow according to when the case workers who wrote the comments were prepared to take on the next case.

A possible consequence of the “pull” principle is suboptimisation: Each unit attempts to optimise their own part of the value stream, and if they do it well, they risk creating a problem at the next step of the value chain – which will not be able to handle the cases at the same takt as the previous unit.

3.5. Principle 5 – Practise Kaizen every day

One of the cornerstones of Lean thinking is continuous improvement, which in Japanese is called Kaizen. Continuous improvement is not a new concept, and it has been a key element in the quality tradition and in the excellence models. The methods that are used for improvement in Lean thinking are neither new nor ground-breaking; however, the improvements are typically anchored in a fixed meeting structure with a regular frequency – the so-called Kaizen.

Ideas for improvements are gathered, particularly from the employees who handle the tasks on a daily basis. Then the ideas are sorted and prioritised, root causes are analysed, and the initiatives that have been selected are followed up on systematically. However, the basis for identifying improvement opportunities is different, among other things due to the fact that the value stream mapping as well as the work with flow and takt provide a better insight into areas with waste and thus improvement potential.

In Lean thinking, the work with Kaizen can be approached in two basic ways:

  1. Short, regular stand-up Kaizen meetings that are run by the employees and with participation of the immedi- ate manager. These meetings are typically of 15-20 minutes’ duration and take place once a week or every other week. The Kaizen meetings are used as a forum for the continuous improvement of operations and provide the setting for subject matter improvements, which means that the content is also in focus in the handling of the task. The Kaizen meetings are held on the shop floor, e.g. in the hallway or in a corner of an open-plan office. Furthermore, at the Kaizen meetings, whiteboards are used that contain an over view of production and flow as well as a whiteboard that is used to prioritise and follow up on the improvement initiatives.
  2. Situational Kaizen Blitz activities in which a large improvement is carried out and implemented by a group of employees during a 3 – 5-day intensive process. After the Blitz, the improved process is implemented and up and running.

It has been a relevant and fun project. Many improvements, both big and small, have been made which have helped ease the work procedure. At the same time, some minor annoyances relating to the technical aspect of the system have been solved.

Office assistant at public organisation, HK

The 5 principles are summarised in text box 1, and a number of questions are listed, which may help you reflect on the situation in your own organisation – consider whether it is something you know based on measurings etc. or if it is something you believe.

Principle 1: Identify customer value

  • Are there examples of processes where resources have been used which the user would not pay for if given the choice? Make a list of examples that include e.g. overproduction and unnecessary bureaucracy that does not add value to the user.
  • Are there examples of processes where the customer does not achieve the desired value, e.g. if something is missing compared to what is expected, if it is taking too long etc.?

Principle 2: Create value streams

  • Make a list of important value streams in your organisation, and for each value stream make notes of who the customer or recipient is.

Principle 3: Create flow without stops

  • Are there value streams where the flow is not steady, e.g. are there many baglogs or different levels of strain at each step? Make notes of the symptoms of lack of flow.

Principle 4: Introduce new guiding principles

  • Are there examples of tasks being pushed through the system before they are ready to take over at the next step? Make a list of examples.

Principle 5: Practise Kaizen every day

  • What is your scope for a systematic dialogue about continuous improvements and for follow-up on decided improvements?
  • How many improvements have been carried out in your area in the past month? Within the past year?
  • How many implemented improvements are based on the employees’ ideas?

The article continues below 

4. The 7 types of waste

Eliminating waste – or, in Japanese, Muda – is an integrated part of Lean thinking. Waste can be many different things; some types of waste can be eliminated, whereas you can learn to live with other types of waste such as complying with legislation, requirements for auditing etc. or simply to be able to manage a company. Strictly speaking, record-keeping is not value creating, however, it is a necessary task.

According to the Lean theory, double signatures on payments are also considered waste, however, it is sometimes necessary due to the rules relating to auditing. Therefore, we talk about waste that can be eliminated quickly, as opposed to necessary waste that cannot be eliminated until we have changed the way we work. If, for instance, we switch to digital signature, the waste created by the double signatures will be eliminated. However, all organisations have a lot of waste that can be eliminated without difficulty. 

The Lean theory works with 7 types of waste (illustrated in the figure above), an experience-based checklist that lists various types of waste and helps employees identify what to look for.

In addition to the 7 classic types of waste, we believe that there is an 8th type of waste: waste of the employees’ motivation and ability to make improvements. In our experience, the employees want to contribute to improving their own and the customers’ work life. The problem is that in many organisations there are a lot of barriers, obstacles or, in other words, a specific culture, and as a result too many suggestions for improvement are actually not welcome. One of the purposes of Lean is to create an improvement culture as well as an improvement process which are able to handle the large number of suggestions for improvement in an efficient manner.

The various types of waste exist, to some degree, in all organisations. Consider examples of waste in your organisation – list each of the 8 types of waste and write down the examples. Your colleagues will most likely be able to provide further examples.

5. How to ensure the full effect of Lean?

In order for Lean to work, you need to consider the whole. As previously mentioned, it is not just about methods and tools; first and foremost it is about people and how we, with help from good, simple tools, motivate employees to contribute, to a higher extent, to the daily improvement of value streams and working environment.

5.1. Interaction between different talents

There is a different angle on considering the whole and how to draw on each employee’s talent – the Whole Brain model. The model was developed by Ned Herrmann and is used for identifying the preferences of each individual and our working styles. Usually, people have one dominating preference, but everyone has elements of the 4 basic preferences, which are illustrated in the figure below where A is blue, B is green, C is red and D is yellow.

When working with Lean, we need employees with all 4 profiles which illustrates the qualities that are required to achieve success with Lean:

  • People with a blue preference profile (rational) are needed for e.g. performance management and follow-up on production and takt
  • People with a green preference profile (practical) are needed to ensure action and progress and to follow up on whether the things we have agreed on are carried out
  • People with a red preference profile (emotional) are needed to ensure that we organise the work and processes in an energising, positive and appreciative manner and that we remember to include everyone, even in times of change in the organisation
  • People with a yellow preference profile (experimental) are needed to come up with creative, innovative and offbeat ideas, to organise our work in a more clever way, to identify waste and to find solutions for eliminating waste. Furthermore, we need the experimental aspect as the core of the Kaizen culture in which it is also about testing new methods, even though it has not been proven that they work better. People with a yellow preference profile are part of creating a desire and mood for testing something new and not be stopped by the fact that it might not be a better solution. In Kaizen, it is completely acceptable to test new ways and methods, learn from one’s mistakes and maybe go back to how things were done before.

Thus it is, among other things, about involving everyone, about practising Lean in a fun and engaging manner and about focusing on taking action in order to avoid improvements being lost in committees and speculations.

5.2. The right setting

An effective way of ensuring positive involvement from the beginning of the process is to carefully consider how to introduce the Lean implementation. The right setting may include the use of games to make the introduction of Lean inspiring, fun and energising and, above all, focus on not making Lean appear to be technically “heavy” and boring.

The right setting also comprises regular Kaizen meetings with the employees as well as gemba activities in which time is allotted for identifying waste as inspiration for improvements or for helping each other implement operational tips and tricks such as how to use relevant keyboard shortcuts etc. in the software programs that are used.

I am very pleased that we have learnt about Lean. It is great. One of the advantages is that the managers now have the opportunity to see their employees “in action”, which has been a good thing, because I have been given more responsibility as well as a higher number of projects and work tasks. It is part of making my workday more varied and less tedious, which results in greater job satisfaction.

Office assistant at government agency

5.3. Balanced Lean success criteria

An important element of Lean is the overall goals and success criteria. Productivity gains are often referred to in connection with Lean, and it is a strong message that many companies and organisations have experienced productivity improvements of 20-30% within the first year of their Lean journey. However, these results have been achieved by simultaneously improving quality and service (such as shorter waiting time) and by creating a better working environment with a reduced level of stress and more influence.

Thus, in our experience it is a good idea to set balanced goals at the beginning of a Lean journey, that is, goals that involve benefits for the relevant stakeholders (customers, organisation and employees). If possible, it is also a good idea to set motivating goals in terms of what to use productivity benefits for. Naturally, it is easier to motivate employees if part of the benefits are allocated for reducing stress, creating more room for development and training or for solving new and exciting tasks without getting a heavier workload. The formulation of goals for the benefits achieved from Lean may be seen as a trade-in deal. The customers get something and so do the organisation and the employees. In order to be able to get the employees to implement Lean, they need to be able to see their organisation as a better place to be in the future than what it is today – otherwise, they will not be contributing to it.

Figuratively speaking, we recommend that, at the beginning of a Lean journey, management make a wish list of what to spend released resources on.

6. Where do we start with the Lean journey?

It is obvious that Lean thinking is easily implemented in productionrelated processes, as the methods have been developed in production environments. Lean is a type of operational thinking – therefore, activities need to have an operational character, e.g. by them being frequently repeated. The first experience with Lean in public administration came from different kinds of case production, ranging from private claims at the National Board of Industrial Injuries in Denmark, wage payment at the Administration Centre at the Danish Ministry of Employment to creation of committee agendas in Allerød Municipality.

Once people have gained experience with Lean in areas comprising production- related value streams, we will most likely see Lean thinking spread to other value streams such as development processes, as is the case with production companies. Using certain adjustments, the principles can be applied to parts of the development task as well.

Once it has been decided to introduce Lean, it is also relevant to identify the improvement potential. In terms of potential, we are not only talking about productivity improvement, but also improvements for customers as well as employees. If Lean is introduced in a positive way by involving the employees, it is possible, in a short period of time, to reap the benefits for the working environment. After just six months of Lean implementation in the business register at the Danish Business Authority, a survey among the employees showed the following results:

  • 79% are experiencing greater job satisfaction
  • 89% are feeling less stressed compared to 6 months previously
  • 100% believe that they have a higher degree of influence on the development of work procedures

The results may be expressed by the following comment made by one of the employees:


An exciting time where many work procedures have become easier, letters have been improved, and computer registration has become simpler.

Thus, one of the strengths of Lean is that improvement of productivity and employee satisfaction go hand in hand – when it is approached in the right way. However, rather than being perceived as a project with an end date, Lean should be seen as a completely new type of thinking to be adopted by a company, creating even bigger potential. Lean is a process that continuously will affect the culture in a positive and self-perpetuating manner, which is why the potential is greater than the results measured after the first year. The more the Lean culture is anchored in the company, the more of the potential is realised.

7. The typical pitfalls: Six roads to failure

Pitfall 1: Management lose focus on Lean

It may seem very easy, however, implementing Lean is in fact a very demanding challenge for the management of the organisation. Fortunately, there are many roads to success, which means that the company is able to plan its own way. However, there are some pitfalls to be aware of in relation to Lean. The main pitfall is that management – despite good results – lose their focus and do not systematically follow up on the anchoring of Lean. Thus, Lean will become just another example in a long line of “this year’s campaigns”. Lean is a lasting change that will involve the whole organisation and its future. If this is not clear to the organisation, they should not embark on implementing Lean. Therefore, it is our pitfall no. 1, and we have added five others.

Pitfall 2: We do not succeed in moving from Lean project to Lean operation

Lean should never just become a project with a start and an end date. It is a process – or we prefer to call it a journey – that never ends. Nevertheless, it is completely normal for Lean to start off as a project that is to create change in the organisation. This is why one of the major challenges of Lean is to anchor a Lean culture in operations. Lean will probably always start off as a development project with a specific and limited time frame. The challenge is how to ensure that Lean is still part of operations when it is no longer in focus and the project period is at an end.

Pitfall 3: Insufficient involvement of employees

In continuation of the above, the next challenge is to ensure that Lean is sufficiently anchored among the employees. There is only one way to ensure this, and that is strong involvement of the employees.

This particular pitfall has two sides: Firstly, it may consist of only involving selected employees, e.g. in a classic setup where external consultants work with Lean together with selected employees so that it becomes an expert solution without being anchored among all the employees.

Secondly, managers may not be able to or have the desire to let go of the control and leave some of the initiative for continuous improvement to the employees. Concretely, this may be reflected by managers who also head Kaizen meetings instead of stepping back and letting the employee take over. The manager is the one who facilitates and demands change, whereas the employees need to feel that they are part of driving the improvement work, see the following statement:

The Lean project has, to a high extent, been driven by the employees’ ideas, which has had a positive influence on the development of the work processes. Once you have become used to the Kaizen meetings, it is a good discussion forum for improvements. You get surprised by how many good ideas you and your colleagues come up with.

Caseworker, administrative officer at a government agency

Pitfall 4: Insufficient internal anchoring of Lean knowledge and competences

If external consultants are used to assist in the introduction and implementation of Lean, the challenge is to ensure a systematic transfer of knowledge to make sure that the organisation’s own employees build up competences to be able to continue working with Lean when the consultants have left the organisation.

In this case, the pitfall is that the organisation leans back and expects the consultants to create the change and implement Lean and then “leave the building” so that the organisation can continue on their own. This is another fundamentally wrong perception of what Lean actually is. Lean should not be regarded as a project with an end date. Lean is a process that never ends, which is why the organisation needs to ensure that a systematic transfer of knowledge takes place.

Pitfall 5: Insufficient performance management

Furthermore, Lean is about performance management, and an important part of ensuring the progress of continuous improvements is to measure the results among the employees on an ongoing basis. The challenge is to ensure that measuring of performance/KPIs are used and integrated in the daily work, e.g. making them visible on boards in the departments where the tasks are carried out as well as gaining acceptance and ownership of the measuring of performance/ KPIs among the employees.

In some public organisations, it has been quite a challenge to “demystify” measuring of performance and making the results visible. In our experience, the sooner the organisation gets started on using measuring of performance as part of implementing Lean, the faster the implementation will take place, because the employees will become familiar with measuring performance as part of their daily work at an early stage.

One of the pitfalls may be that the organisation does not have the courage to measure the most relevant results. It may be difficult to implement performance measurement if there is resistance among employees or management to measuring specific results.

Pitfall 6: Lack of management power and visible Lean management

As is the case with other corporate philosophies, management models, methods etc., the results depend on management’s understanding of as well as their ability to motivate and engage the employees in the implementation process. In this case, the pitfall is that the managers do not familiarise themselves with Lean and that they do not participate to the extent necessary. It is not possible to delegate Lean as one might do with implementation of a new IT system.

8. The paradox of Lean

Lean is almost too good to be true. It is a simple mindset that does not involve any breaking news, and it delivers fantastic results in just a few months. The employees love it, when it is approached in the right way:

Working with Lean has been interesting and different (…). It has been and will definitely be a major motivational factor in going to work every day

Employee at a government agency

Naturally, there will be some pitfalls, and Lean is not a miracle cure. Has your organisation started practising Lean? If not, we recommend that you imagine meeting a colleague from another public organisation who enquires into why you have chosen not to work with Lean. Prepare your five best arguments: