Not as Paradoxical as You May Think: Lean Six Sigma's Place within Bureaucratic Government Agencies

James Gauci

Government agencies throughout the world are generally perceived to experience bureaucracy to varying extents. With Lean and Six Sigma methodologies possessing a strong orientation towards efficiency, their deployment within government agencies could appear to be somewhat paradoxical. A commonly asked question is, "Can Lean and Six Sigma, with their emphasis upon speed and efficiency, actually be applied successfully within organizations historically renowned for their bureaucracy the world over?" The answer to this is...absolutely, and here’s why and how.

To begin with, it’s important to understand what bureaucracy is exactly and whether the bureaucracy experienced is actually value adding (that’s right, there is good bureaucracy) or non-value adding. Bureaucracy in this context is defined as management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures. If we were to apply Lean principles to this perspective, similar to those used when value stream mapping, then value added bureaucracy experienced within a project would involve an essential step that results in a change to the fit, form or function of an output in a positive way.

An example of valued added bureaucracy occurred within a Lean Six Sigma project to improve government property maintenance cycle time. In accordance with their policy, government owned properties that are deemed to no longer possess any significant commercial potential are required to be considered for use by the broader community, for instance as boy scout clubhouses. Properties identified for this category (more an exception than the rule) then require an additional series of assessments performed upon them to ascertain their suitability and safety, etc., which is undertaken by a separate government department prior to any further maintenance being allowed to take place (in order to justify the expense), therefore extending the overall maintenance cycle time. While bureaucratic in nature, this is considered to be good bureaucracy as it often results in a good outcome for the local community and more prudent use of taxpayer owned assets. The impact from a cycle time perspective in this example should be acknowledged and treated as special cause variation. The emphasis upon this type of good bureaucracy is to minimize it, though not necessarily eliminate it, as doing so could compromise an important and valued outcome for the community.

An example of bad bureaucracy involves requiring excessive levels of approvals, sometimes extending beyond the government agency itself in order to recruit project resources, requiring many hours of people’s time over many weeks to complete and follow up on submissions, etc. This is bad bureaucracy, particularly when 95 percent or more of the submissions are approved in the first instance. There is virtually no value added in cases such as this, particularly when considering the amount of people’s time and effort involved. This is bad bureaucracy, and it needs to be eliminated wherever possible.


Bureaucracy versus Politics

Politics can often be misinterpreted as bureaucracy, so it is therefore important to distinguish between the two. Politics in this context is defined as intrigue or maneuvering within a group in order to maintain or gain control and power. It is important to realize that government agencies by their very nature will often possess strong political orientations acquired through decades, or even centuries, of political heritage. When a project is confronted with issues, roadblocks or barriers, etc., it’s important to establish whether these obstructions are in fact bureaucratic or political in nature, as the methods and techniques for effectively dealing with each circumstance are somewhat different.

The Consequences of Bureaucracy

Typically these involve greater lengths of time or resources required to complete a project. They can also create significant amounts of personal and group frustration, to the point that project teams can become highly disillusioned, and project momentum can become lost. As bureaucracy will often be a given in government agencies, the challenge is to acknowledge the good bureaucracy, while minimizing the impacts upon time and resource and removing (better still — eliminating) the presence of bad bureaucracy.


Effective Techniques for Dealing with Bureaucracy

You’ll notice that the core skill sets required to use these techniques involve strong project management acumen and not necessarily Lean and Six Sigma methodologies.

Robust Lean Six Sigma project team formation — This task starts with the project sponsor. Effective project sponsorship will often be the critical difference between successful and unsuccessful project outcomes. It’s important to establish and agree the sponsors roles and responsibilities with them from the very outset, which must include their commitment to removing barriers and roadblocks that occur during the project’s life cycle. If these barriers and roadblocks appear in the form of bureaucracy, then good sponsorship will often be able to navigate and fast track through them effectively. It is therefore important to have a sponsor who has the appropriate levels of seniority required to achieve these outcomes. Selecting people with solid professional networks and the ability to navigate effectively throughout the organization will often minimize, or even avoid bureaucratic issues that would otherwise exist. Another effective technique is to formally include within the project team a representative from the departmental area where the bureaucracy exists. For instance, if a project requires the development of data extracts to enable process measurement capabilities, and the IT department are notoriously bureaucratic to deal with, the inclusion of an appropriate representative from IT within the project team, with clear deliverables and accountabilities assigned to them will often make a difference, as compared to simply completing an IT job request, taking a number, and then hoping.

Robust Lean Six Sigma project scoping — Lean and Six Sigma practitioners who are experienced in government agency projects will often seek out potential bureaucracy issues when initially scoping the project. This can be done far more effectively when project teams have been well selected, as it is these people who often know where these issues will reside and importantly, why. Well scoped projects provide more accurate indications of project timelines, particularly when bureaucratic factors have been identified. If these factors are considered to have a significant impact upon the project timeline and/or resources, then this should be highlighted at the beginning of the Lean Six Sigma project, particularly with the sponsor.

Effective Lean Six Sigma project status reporting Highly effective project managers understand the importance and value of robust project status reporting techniques. Turning a project status to yellow or red, with a well worded explanation as to why, will often grab the attention of project sponsors and key impacted stakeholders. This is a particularly effective technique for dealing with political factors within your project. For instance, if a certain stakeholder group will not attend meetings or contribute required inputs due to internal politics, then notifying them of the impact that this has had on the project, along with your need to reflect this in the status report, will not only make this issue transparent, it will often compel that group to reconsider their actions or behaviors. In the case of bureaucratic factors, remember, if the bureaucracy is known, then this should have been reflected within the original project plan timeline, and if necessary, dealt with at that point. If the bureaucracy is taking more time and/or resource than originally anticipated, then effective status reporting techniques will again make this more transparent.

Tolerance of good bureaucracy — Government agencies often exist because the services they perform are not considered commercially viable within the private sector (for instance, Social Services is not a profitable industry). These agencies often perform services that nobody else is prepared to do and are subject to budget constraints, as well as public criticism, when something goes wrong. The very nature of the services they perform can therefore drive bureaucracy such as the earlier example involving the boy scouts clubhouse. If a clubhouse was handed to the boy scouts, however it was unsafe for their use, then this would be unacceptable. Good bureaucracy prevents this from happening and this should be tolerated. If the consequences of good bureaucracy involve additional time needed, then this should be accepted as a "necessary evil" and the additional time required to undertake these services should be factored into the project schedule and/or process cycle. Ideally, the time and resource required to deal with this bureaucracy is minimized.

Using Lean and Six Sigma to minimize the impacts of bureaucracy — If the business problem you are experiencing involves excessive time and/or resources required to perform a bureaucratic function (even when it’s good bureaucracy), then Lean and/or Six Sigma principles can also help address this. For instance, the application of Lean principles can assist in identifying process steps that add very little or no value, or are prone to other types of waste, such as errors and re-work. This will often reduce the amount of resources, hand offs and cycle time associated with these activities. Budgetary factors and increased public expectations have influenced government agencies to become more conducive to driving greater efficiencies within their service offerings, which is why the use of Lean and Six Sigma techniques have started to emerge within them. Good Lean and Six Sigma practitioners are capable of identifying and exposing inefficient bureaucracy, then applying strong influence and guidance through the use of the methodology to remove these inefficiencies, creating efficient, value adding bureaucracy.

Eliminating bureaucracy through robust Lean Six Sigma project selection — Projects with high strategic, or commercial priority, etc., that are sponsored at the CXO level can avoid typical bureaucratic (and political) hurdles, predominantly due to the high profile that they experience. If bureaucratic and/or political factors represent heavy risks to successful project delivery within an organization, selecting high profile Lean Six Sigma projects with strong, executive level sponsorship can prove to be a good mitigation technique, particularly when robust project management skills as described earlier in this article are applied.

Public sector agencies by their very design will almost always experience bureaucracy within them. The challenge for Lean Six Sigma practitioners is to be able to differentiate good, value adding bureaucracy from bad, non-value adding bureaucracy with a view to minimizing the former and eliminating the latter wherever possible. Differentiating between political issues rather than bureaucratic ones will also enable more effective responses to these as they emerge. Time proven project management techniques, such as effective project team formation, objective status reporting and tactical project selection have also proven to reduce the presence and impact of both bureaucratic and political barriers.