Magazine article Government Finance Review

Is This the Best We Can Do? Making Continuous Improvement a Core Value

Magazine article Government Finance Review

Is This the Best We Can Do? Making Continuous Improvement a Core Value

Article excerpt

An anecdote about Winston Lord and Henry Kissinger provides a glimpse into the heart of the idea behind continuous improvement and Lean thinking. The story goes that Winston Lord, during his time as special assistant to then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, submitted a draft of a Presidential Foreign Policy Report to Kissinger for review. The next morning, Kissinger called Lord into his office and asked simply, "Is this the best you can do?" Lord replied that he thought so, but he would give it another shot. So he revised the report and resubmitted it. And the following morning Kissinger called Lord into his office and again he asked, "Are you sure this is the best you can do?" Disheartened, Lord again took the report and made improvements. The same scenario played out six more times. Finally, after Lord submitted the report for the ninth time, Kissinger again asked if it was the best he could do. This time, Lord replied, "I know this is the best I can do: I can't possibly improve one more word." Kissinger looked up at him and said, "In that case, now I'll read it."

Amusing, but what does it have to do with Lean and continuous improvement? Everything. The moral of this story is that only your best work should be advanced to the next level, station, or person in the value stream. Does this happen in your organization? Probably not--perfection cannot be a standard. Instead, it is an ideal we should have as our goal. Continuous improvement is a theory that pursues the unattainable goal of perfection with the idea that there is always room for improvement.

Winston Lord found ways to improve his report eight times. And although he eventually felt that he'd exhausted every opportunity to improve his work, other opportunities to make it better probably still existed. But that report had to be produced and delivered in a certain timeframe, Lord had other responsibilities to take care of, and after reviewing a document eight times, he may have reached an improvement plateau. Herein lies another important point of continuous improvement: "Best" and "perfect" are two entirely different things. The best that you can do is a ceiling of capabilities, circumstances, and experience; perfection is wide open. Lord reached his ceiling for this particular report, but where do you think his floor was the next time he delivered a document to Kissinger for review?


Moving away for a moment from the "why," let's discuss the "how." Specifically, how is it possible to realize the promise of Lean? This issue of Government Finance Review discusses many aspects of Lean methods, including Kaizen, the Plan-Do-Check Act cycle, and value stream mapping. Gwinnett County, Georgia, has used all of these methods in its Department of Financial Services for many years, with a good deal of success. This approach has produced several significant projects, and using teams to perform Kaizen events has spread Lean knowledge to many employees who were not initially trained in using it.

The current process-oriented version of the county's Lean program has been successful, but this is merely the basis for building the program ever higher. The county's plans for the program are based on the following points:

* Continuous improvement and Lean are more than a methodology; in its ideal form, continuous improvement becomes a core value of the culture.

* We will not focus on attacking only the obvious or surface-level Lean opportunities. …

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