The impact of lean improvement on employee skills

I work with a lot of organisations who are implementing lean, or some version of it, as a way of improving processes and saving money. For those readers who aren’t overly familiar with the concept of lean, you can read this really helpful summary by the Lean Enterprise Institute.

In short, lean was originally developed and used with manufacturing in mind, i.e. factories making physical stuff.

Fast forward to 2017 and lots of organisations, outside of manufacturing, are applying lean to processes that are less about making physical stuff and more about how decisions are made. And I can’t help but wonder if sometimes lean is getting misused, partly because it’s not understood well enough by decision makers and the managers who have to make it work.

This is why I was interested to read a recent research article, by Douglas Martin, in New Technology, Work and Employment about the impact of lean on the UK Civil Service and the potential deskilling effect it is having on employees.

The research

Martin was interested in exploring the extent to which changes to processes, using lean, were ultimately impacting the quality of decisions being made. The core of the research was to explore the extent to which lean “significantly reduces skills”, whilst at the same time increasing work intensity and reducing autonomy.

The research looked specifically at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) – two departments where decision-making at core to what they do.

Interviews took place with 39 people across both departments, including union representatives from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

The research used Jerry Mashsaw’s work in the 1980s as the basis for exploring the impact of lean on decision-making. Marshaw identified three approaches to administrative justice (i.e. making decisions in a public sector context):

  1. Bureaucratic rationality: Delivering accurate, efficient and concrete decisions based upon legislation;
  2. Professional treatment: Decisions based on good interpersonal relationships with clients, coupled with an element of diagnostic intuition (i.e. gut instinct honed by experience); and
  3. Moral judgement: Impartial decisions where competing claims are arbitrated using underlying moral principles.

The UK Civil Service model has been primarily based on the first approach, underpinned by elements of the second.

The findings

Using Marshaw’s model as the basis, the research found that changes using lean had significantly reduced the level of discretion that administrators had (i.e. their ability to use instinct and insight to make good decisions).

A big part of the issue is that lean did not always seem to be fully understood by enough people (namely managers) when it is introduced in to an organisation. Where the focus of lean is meant to be on improving quality, increasing productivity underpinned by a spirit of organisational learning, the research found that in the Civil Service there seemed to be a,

“tendency to rigid standardisation along with work intensification (which) limits workers’ capacity to use discretion and autonomy.”

In summary, the main issues the research found were:

  1. A reduction in the amount of time allowed for training and consolidation of learning of all aspects of administrative work. This led to some staff feeling more stressed and less in-control of their work. See last week’s blog post on learned helplessness as this is also relevant.
  2. Over-simplification of roles which, in turn, led to more silo-working. Changes to the nature of work and roles meant that individuals could only focus on one part of the overall decision-making process; being discouraged from stepping in to another part of the process outside their remit (even if they had knowledge and experience of that bit of the process).
  3. Assumed tacit knowledge of how the wider department worked and who to go to in order to get quick answers. This was more of an issue for those new in to each organisation, rather than those with longer tenure who would know how to navigate around some of the process and boundary issues. 
  4. A ‘one size fits all’ approach was used. Changes were applied in a homogeneous way rather than taking in to account local context, meaning that local offices were unable to adapt process and policy changes in a way that would deliver a better experience for their customers.
  5. Because job complexity was reduced, this impacted on employee motivation, with a decreased sense of meaning and motivation.
  6. Increased speed of decisions around benefits and tax did not necessarily equate to an increase in quality. By taking away autonomy and lessening an employee’s ability to use their personal judgement, the research suggested that an increased likelihood of inappropriate decisions. This was underpinned by performance management being purely focused on quantitative targets and not balanced with quality goals.

What this means for organisations and practitioners

  1. Check understanding of lean among decision makers: They need enough information in order to understand the implications (positive and negative) of changes made as a result of lean.
  2. Context is key: Help decision makers understand that the lean principles can be adapted according to the context a work unit is operating in. Things like volume of customers, along with patterns and trends of complexity of cases are key to this.
  3. Get staff involved right from the very beginning: Give them the opportunity to challenge and improve the initial ideas coming through via the lean process. This is a fundamental at the heart of the original lean, where factory workers ultimately took responsibility for process improvement. Organisations that force change on to employees and ‘do’ to them are missing the point of lean.
  4. Take the time to understand the complexity of decisions: A one size fits all approach, using lean, can be a dangerous thing in a knowledge-based environment. Especially when there are extremely vulnerable citizens at the end of any decision that gets made.
  5. Ensure that performance objectives measure both quantity and quality: This means working with line managers to help them understand this, and giving examples of what such objectives might look like in the new world.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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One comment

  1. This seems to be the antithesis of lean theory, with command and control strengthened as opposed to introducing a focus upon defined and understood outcomes, linked to measurable performance and quality metrics.

    Indeed, it would appear to have driven wasteful activities into the processes.


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