Lean Process Improvement in City Government

Today’s municipalities face unprecedented challenges. The public’s resistance to tax increases has resulted in flat tax revenues which contribute to perennial budget shortfalls. Compounding the problem, state governments are struggling with billion dollar deficits of their own reducing the givebacks to city and county governments making it necessary for these government entities to do more with less. Concerned city leaders searching for an answer will be interested in a highly successful management approach that has been recently accepted in government. The approach is based on the work of quality guru W. Edwards Deming who repeatedly demonstrated that excellence can be achieved at the least cost through process improvement.

While originally implemented in manufacturing, these process improvement principles have proven equally applicable to service industries, including government. City workers must rely on broken processes to accomplish their tasks and provide value to the customer. Deming’ s approach, dubbed “Lean Thinking” (by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for its ability to do more with less, focuses on removing unnecessary non-value added steps within these processes.


Many organizations in today’s economy face a similar do-more-with-less challenge. Interestingly, those who are successfully meeting it, regardless of industry, share a commonality – the focus on process improvement. This approach to improving performance and efficiency (doing more) while using the minimum amount of resources (with less) is called “Lean.” Lean Process Improvement does not relate to layoffs or downsizing. Rather, the Lean approach focuses on doing more with existing resources.


Lean is a program of organizational improvement that empowers each and every worker in your organization. The essence of lean thinking is to engage staff members responsible for the work in redesigning it, keeping in mind the need to provide the best possible product or service to your customers and to increase their personal performance and job satisfaction through process improvement. Lean engages everyone in streamlining their work processes by identifying and eliminating the steps within the process that are wasteful.

Lean is based on the customer’s perception of value. In Lean if a process step or activity is something that the customer is willing to pay for then it does not add value. In other words if the step doesn’t increase the form or function of the product or service it is non-value-added or in the language of Lean waste.


Lean partners city workers from every department and at every level to improve the processes that make up and facilitate the delivery of city services. It enables and supports those who perform each process and know it most intimately to streamline and cut the wastes of time and resources from the process itself, a little at a time.

The Lean program is not accomplished by creating more work for already overburdened city employees. Rather, it is a liberating program. It simply allows workers to use their creative genius to do their jobs more effectively and more efficiently.

The power of lean is derived from the speed and flexibility of its approach and the involvement of all employees. Because employees are encouraged to recommend change and participate in implementing change, they buy in to the Lean process.


Contrary to popular belief, Lean thinking is not just a manufacturing strategy nor is it a headcount reduction program. It is a continuous improvement strategy with universal application because its emphasis is on improving processes. The Lean Approach puts the customer first, increases employee involvement, and creates a workplace that actively supports and nurtures real ongoing improvement.

Lean applications have been effective and successful in every industry in which they have been applied including service industries such as banking, law enforcement, insurance, uniformed services, city, county and state government agencies, service bureaus, and most recently, health care. When tailored to the individual organization’s specific needs and systemically applied, Lean Process Improvement has produced the same outcomes, regardless of industry:

o Increased performance

o Increased delivery/effectiveness

o Cost savings

o Increased employee satisfaction

o Increased customer satisfaction/quality


Lean management is not a new concept in city government. The cities of Fort Wayne, Indiana and Grand Rapids, Michigan have implemented Lean and achieved some outstanding results in reducing costs and cycle time. There is no question that differences exist between a manufactured product and a city service. But common similarities exist in the value delivery systems of city services and a manufacturing operation, delivery systems made up of complex processes. Because all work is a process, many aspects of process improvement methodologies and other Lean tools can and do apply to city government processes.

Forward thinking City Managers recognize both the application and the implication Lean has for improving city government operations. Lean’s history of delivering process improvements in every industry that has applied the concepts demonstrates the wide-ranging utility of its principles.