Tag Archives: Lean

Who’s overseeing the overseers?

The government provides oversight over projects and programs. Interestingly, this oversight often happens outside of the normal reporting structure of the government agencies. It is considered important for these overseers to be independent – not part of the organization that is sponsoring or administering the project. While this allows for some objectivity, it also means that the overseers have little “skin in the game” – they do not have to live with the consequences of their decisions. The team running the program does.

Now suppose – this is theoretical, of course, and would never happen in any situation I am familiar with, ahem – suppose that the oversight body imposed substantial burdens on the programs it oversaw. Suppose that it demanded extensive documentation that no one ever read, nit-picked on the format of the documentation, imposed supposed “best practices” that were not actually best practices, and frequently asked for data or status updates that distracted those managing the program. Suppose further that the overseers themselves were not always efficient; held up the programs while they tried to schedule review meetings, gave the programs contradictory direction, and argued amongst themselves or prepared inadequately for review meetings. The problem could be exacerbated if the overseers did not themselves have the experience of running programs, and therefore their understanding of best practices was at best theoretical, at worst superstitious.

If that – ahem – ever happened, then given the power oversight bodies have, they would essentially be ordering the programs to waste money. They might also add risk to programs. Since the job of the oversight body is ostensibly the opposite – to prevent waste and mismanagement – this could be a critical issue. What controls are in place to prevent this? Is the oversight body perhaps incentivized to make “corrections” to the programs to demonstrate its own usefulness?

Because the oversight bodies are not “inline” with the management structure over the program, they have no obligation to cultivate the program team as employees. They do not need to encourage program staff, deal with any issues of demoralization, provide positive feedback, make a comfortable work environment that will attract more great performers into program management. Oversight in such an environment runs the danger of focusing on negativity and control, rather than on successful execution.

How can we improve this? Oversight bodies must be measured by the success of the programs they oversee, not by their willingness to cancel failing programs. They must be composed of people who are experts – not in overseeing programs, but in executing them. They must work to optimize their processes and to minimize the waste they add to programs, and must solicit feedback from programs to understand what waste they are causing. What I am saying is that oversight must create value for programs, and only the programs can judge whether they do.

Can a bureaucracy be lean?

We so often about “bloated bureaucracies” that the two words seem to belong together. Webster’s even uses the expression as a usage example in its definition of bureaucracy: “Both candidates pledge to simplify the state’s bloated bureaucracy.”

It might seem strange, then, that the sociologist Max Weber in his 1920 book The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, claimed that “experience tends universally to show that the purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization … is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings” (337). In his view bureaucracy was the application of knowledge and expertise rather than capriciousness in an organization. “Indeed, almost all the benefits we take for granted in today’s society—modern medicine, modern science, modern industry—rest on a bureaucratic foundation” (p233).

If the government bureaucracy is bloated, can it be un-bloated? What if we were to look at government processes through the lens of lean management technique? Could we apply Lean Startup ideas, and use Lean Software Development to IT needs, and take a Lean Six Sigma knife to the government? Could we trim out all of the waste? (What would be left then?)

I think maybe we can do this.

Welcome to the blog

The U.S. federal government spends about $82 billion each year on information technology investments. Does the public receive good value for this investment? There are really two questions here: (1) Is the money spent effectively? (2) Is it spent on the right things? The technology environment has changed greatly over the last few decades, as have the country’s needs. Perhaps more importantly, management theory and best practices have changed as well. Has the U.S. government changed to keep pace? Has it incorporated best practices from the private sector, or even from other governments? Is it making the most effective use of its technology to deliver value to its public?

I am not just asking about whether the government is up to date in adopting new gizmos and products that are being invented. I’m asking whether the government is managing its technology investments in the best possible way, and whether it is focused on the right investments.

I hope to start a discussion on these topics by drawing on a number of strains of contemporary thinking, including: agile and lean software development, continuous delivery and DevOps, cloud infrastructure, adaptive leadership, Government 2.0, open data, crowdsourcing, and the work being done by the UK federal IT staff.

Please note that all opinions expressed here are my personal opinions, not those of the government agency I happen to be employed by. I am blogging as an individual citizen, not in my role as a government employee.