John Pryor

John Pryor

Criticism of Lean Six Sigma as it’s applied to the management of Kern County government is always helpful, even if it’s misleading or misguided. Addressing those criticisms creates added opportunities to help Kern residents better understand what is actually intended.

Michael Lukehart’s April 26 critique of Lean Six Sigma (“Another View: County govt, not a business, is resistant to metrics”) is a good example. His description of the history of Lean Six Sigma is accurate. His list of the three major elements of Lean Six Sigma is not.

He says they are a focus on achieving measurable and quantifiable returns; personal emotional buy-in by management; and a commitment to making decisions based on verifiable metrics. Wrong!

The three major elements of Lean Six Sigma are significantly different. They are a focus on the customer; continuous process improvement; and professional development.

A “customer’ is anyone – internal or external — who is the recipient of the output of a process. A process is part of an overall system. Professional development is education and training.

This leads to another difference in the critique’s approach and Lukeheart’s likely mindset. Attorneys understandably tend to think in terms of laws and regulations. They also tend to think in terms of policies and procedures.

In LSS the focus is quite different. It is on systems and processes. This is a major differentiation.

The critique focuses on LLS as a source for increased efficiency and that’s correct; however, no mention is made of LSS as a source for increased effectiveness. The difference is critical:

“Efficiency” generally means “doing things right.” “Effectiveness” generally means “doing the right things.” Both are needed, of course, in any organization – public or private.

The major criticism of LSS in government is where it shockingly misses the mark and the true value of LSS. A variety of illustrations in the critique describe the inappropriate use of metrics. It demonstrates how narrow and misleading this critique is.

Yes. Metrics matter. However, how metrics are applied and the kinds of goals and objectives to which they are applied are what matter. Wrong!

The first element to be addressed, customer focus, is a major departure from the critique’s mechanical application of measurements. LSS focuses on the needs of customers – internal and external. It includes the human element the critique says is direly needed and missing in LSS.

The second element, continuous process improvement, is focused on county systems and processes already in place – and how they can be improved and streamlined through innovation, performed faster at lower cost to taxpayers, etc.

The third element, professional development, translates to training and education of all team members in any County department – and, in appropriate cases, external customers (contractors, vendors, taxpayers, et al).

As Harvard Professors Robert Kaplan and David Norton have proven time and time again in organizations of all sizes and types (including public entities) all over the world, proficiency in the performance of these three elements in a balanced manner — so no single element overpowers another — the magic of this overall approach is accomplished. What is that magic you ask?

It’s a solution – at least in part — to our County’s overriding problem and concern: financial solvency and budgeting for needed services. Therefore, the fourth element in this LSS system is a series of (measurable) objectives that represent financial goals – both short-term and long-term for the foreseeable future.

The critique concludes with a concern that “Budget decisions are always tough for politicians; they constantly face the practical reality of an infinite demand for services and finite resources with which to satisfy that demand.”

Very true – but as indicated above, LSS is not focused on manufacturing widgets. Its initial focus is on people – whether County employees or others who need services not otherwise available from the private sector.

LSS is not focused only on 3.4 defects per million opportunities. It is focused on continuous process improvement that includes response to “the infinite demand for services” by Kern residents. Process improvement is measurable and on-going improvement is appreciated by all!

LSS does not ignore – as does the critique – the need for continuing education and training of county employees (including the Continuing Education of the Bar for county attorneys) as well as certain external customers.

We taxpayers need to give Lean Six Sigma a reasonable opportunity to be tested and employed. Perhaps County leadership should begin its transformation with a “pilot” department to prove its viability.

Why not the County Counsel’s office as the pilot?

John Pryor is a local management consultant with CSUB’s Small Business Development Center. The opinions expressed are his own.