Quality in Government: Answers, Questions, and the “AS IF…” to “BOTH…AND…” Challenge

Hi again, to all interested in process and organizational improvement.  After a personal leave from the blogosphere, I am back with my fellow ASQ “Voices of Influence.”  In this post, I am playing a bit of “catch-up.”  This post responds to ASQ’s Paul Borawski, and Paul’s post of March 15th, entitled “Local Governments and Quality.”

In his post, Paul notes the quality and organizational improvement achievements of Baldrige winners in Coral Springs, Florida, and Irving, Texas.  Paul commented also on new initiatives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in Shanghai.  In closing, Paul asks the ASQ community where we think “quality is taking root in city, local, and state or province management?”

The question might seem straightforward.  But just like the challenge of people sitting together to improve a business process, there is more to Paul’s question than what we observe on the surface.

We can talk about so many examples, at all levels, in all parts of the world.  The city of Madison, Wisconsin, and their Police Chief’s great initiative for citizen engagement.  The Lean initiative in Erie County, NY, whose published results became a political football.  The Iowa Lean consortium, the Connecticut Department of Labor, the New York State SAGE Commission, King County, in Washington State, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the Lean efforts in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in State governments in Georgia and Maine, just to name a very few.

But when we look at these organizations, we must ask several questions about the challenges, responses, and outcomes over time:

  • What were the challenges or problems these organizations identified?
  • What tools and methods did they use in order to improve results?
  • Did they use approaches that deliberately addressed process improvements, such as CQI or Lean?
  • How did these organizations define “quality?”
  • Were the improvements achieved, sustained over time?

It’s easy to think that government is very different from private industry.  Government lacks shareholders and the profit motive.  Yet government has stakeholder citizens, and legislators who provide funding.  Do a really bad job, and your “market share” in terms of budgeted dollars, will shrink or vanish.  Think government has a monopoly on its services and products?  In many cases, they do.  But there is a growing inquiry around the concept of government as simply a manager of contracted services.  What happens to quality and improvement, when the low bidder, whose employees have no personal stake in the outcome, take over from a government organization?

In the examples I noted above, many of the government organizations dumped their quality/improvement initiatives as soon as a new administration was sworn in.  This has been the case in Iowa, Georgia, Erie County, and more.  We know that to achieve Dr. Deming’s “constancy of purpose” requires constancy of commitment over time.  Leaders must actively and publicly support improvement initiatives.  This is often cited as the single most important driver of sustained improvement.

The final question, and for me, perhaps the most significant, is how to overcome what I’ve seen as the single biggest cause for failed improvement initiatives.  This is what I call “AS IF…” thinking and behavior.  It is indeed hard to make change, and improve outcomes in a highly complicated business process.  Recall Toyota’s much-publicized electrical problem a few years ago.  But the right experts could fix the problem.  Why then, was there a delay of many months in Toyota’s response?  The work of change is hard.  Movement from the status quo is toward the values and beliefs of some, and away from those of others.  We become afraid of failure.  Toyota’s engineers were afraid to report the problem to the CEO.

Organization leaders treat what are in fact the complex challenges of making change with the people at the table AS IF these were the kinds of technical complicated problems that any expert could fix.  Sadly, too many Lean and other improvement consultants, are only too happy to sell their services to government orgs, and make promises based on the same flawed thinking.  The traditional tools and methods of what we know as “quality improvement” are great for getting potholes fixed in less time, or at lower cost.  They do not address what Harvard’s Ron Heifetz calls the “adaptive challenges” of change leadership.

During my nearly 15 years on the Board of ASQ’s Government Division, I began work on what has now become a signature approach to both helping government improve, and to gathering stories of improvement initiatives around the world.  Keep seeking those organizations – in or out of government – who sustain their commitment to continuous improvement, and who do so through an approach that recognizes BOTH the need to focus on process improvement, AND the complex adaptive challenges of change leadership.

DO NOTE… that I am an ASQ Voices of Influence blogger.  I receive some small bit of compensation for this, which does not influence my thinking or writing at all 🙂


This entry was posted in Adaptive Capacity, ASQ, Change, Complexity, Continuous Process Improvement, Government Improvement, Quality. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Quality in Government: Answers, Questions, and the “AS IF…” to “BOTH…AND…” Challenge

  1. kerrieannec says:

    wow – that is quite a spray on local government and quality …. must admit what I’ve seen is the difficulty in sustaining quality initiatives over the political cycles

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