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What Is a Lean Government?

Marlene Garcia
Marlene Garcia

A lean government defines an agency that reduces red tape by eliminating unnecessary steps to meet the demands of the public. It is based on a concept of streamlining processes to enable government workers to do more with less, and improving response times with reduced staff. The concept first emerged in the manufacturing industry with the mass production of automobiles. Government agencies recognized the benefits and began implementing the philosophy in the public sector to provide better service.

Consultants typically assist with analyzing and employing lean government strategies. They might monitor existing functions to identify steps that cost money and waste time, delaying service to the public. Depending on the method used by consultants to achieve lean government, the aim is to eliminate non-essential work and waste.

A lean government tries to handle things right away, instead of allowing paperwork to pile up.
A lean government tries to handle things right away, instead of allowing paperwork to pile up.

One style of creating a lean government uses continuous flow of tasks to speed up work. For example, a member of the public applying for a building permit typically waits until the application meanders through several different departments. When lean government is implemented, the level of customer demand is monitored and staffing adjusted to meet that demand.

Departments might be consolidated to eliminate the time wasted as a permit moves from one department to the next. Employees who take original applications might be trained to complete all the steps necessary for permit approval in one area. In theory, this reduces delay and resources needed to get the job done.

Another concept typically used in lean government revolves around the first in, first out concept. Typical government procedure incorporates in-trays for work needing attention. As the work piles up, the first task ends up at the bottom of the pile, which delays processing for customers who submitted paperwork first. When work received that day is handled that day, it speeds up processing and eliminates the accumulation of paperwork as the workweek progresses.

This strategy might also standardize the work load for individual employees. Instead of workers who perform more efficiently doing more, each employee would be responsible for his or her work each day. Within the department, each employee is trained to handle the customer request and complete the task without delay. Staffing levels might be adjusted to handle customer demand by monitoring available time in relation to workload.

Lean government might use the six sigma concept that touts changing current practices to examine service from a customer’s point of view. It basically uses mathematical formulas to compute the number of mistakes and set acceptable standards for errors. The six sigma philosophy suggests defects are unacceptable and the source of errors should be removed.

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Discussion Comments


I have mixed feelings about the lean six sigma philosophy. On the one had it can have real results for institutions looking to improve efficiencies. But in other cases it creates a bureaucracy that is bigger and more burdensome then the one it was trying to replace.

How do you guys feel about it? Does anyone have experience going through this kind of institutional change? What were the results and how did they effect you?


There is a fine line between making an agency lean and stripping it of its ability to do its job and carry out its mission. Even the most well intentioned reformers often cross this line.

We all want to believe that government is big and bloated and filled with redundancies. And in some cases this is absolutely true. But it is not nearly as systemic as some commentators would have us believe. When you shrink government you often shrink the level of service that it provides. And that has real consequences in people's lives.

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    • A lean government tries to handle things right away, instead of allowing paperwork to pile up.
      By: pixelrobot
      A lean government tries to handle things right away, instead of allowing paperwork to pile up.