The financial crisis and a changing level of customer expectation have spurred a shift in the public sector to have a stronger focus on costs and efficiency. Rhoda Avanzado, acting assistant service manager of licensing at Westminster City Council, looks back at the beginning of the council’s lean journey.

The public sector does not, in general, have the capability to implement change as quickly as the private sector can. As one of my lean practitioners said, “The public sector is a super tanker and not a speedboat.”

Whilst there certainly are private companies that fit into the super tanker category, the heavyweight processes and strategies needed to steer large organisations are standard practice across the public sector. These are often accompanied by an entrenched culture of bureaucracy and a “this is the way we do it and why change” attitude. At the level of day-to-day operations there is often little incentive to make the sweeping changes now being demanded, and often small scope to reward improvement. When combined with an organisational culture which has historically been very top-down and directive, the obstacles to the implementation of a bottom-up methodology like lean can seem large and quite daunting.

The solution we found for premises management was to implement lean in an incremental manner where improvement projects were driven by the service teams themselves. We have seen the benefits and are now reaping the rewards of more than a year’s solid work. Some benefits of lean we have found are:

  • More engaged staff and better morale – lean recognises the team’s expertise on their own processes, giving them the opportunity to identify improvement steps and implement the changes themselves, often allowing them to get rid of the tasks that aren’t adding value to the process flow and are wearing them down. They have more time to invest in more value added activities and to develop their skills and capabilities.
  • More satisfied customers – because processes are reviewed and waste eliminated, processes are more streamlined resulting in quicker turnaround times.
  • Better value for money – by applying the lean methodology, management and staff can be confident that all steps in every process are essential. Lean enables the public sector to not only provide services the customers want at the right time but also in a cost- efficient way.
  • Culture of excellence – lean recognises there is always room for improvement. Staff foster an environment where things get better naturally.


In June 2010, premises management of Westminster City Council embarked on its lean journey.

Our first encounter with lean was through a free training course my colleague Claire Weeks and I attended. At that time we had traditional projects running but we wanted to explore new ideas to improve our services. Our department had been through a series of re-organisations and we wanted to ensure we could support the outcomes of those as well as any from future re-organisations.

The course was refreshing. We learned that lean principles were very much aligned to the Westminster Standard that the Council is promoting: excellence in customer service, empowering staff and doing things right first time round. Lean provided us with tools that are underpinned by the same principles that our organisation believes in. We thought this was a good start and started talking to our director and the rest of senior management about implementation within Westminster.

Our proposal was to start with two pilot projects in two service areas. We delivered them with no extra costs by implementing lean alongside our dayto- day project management. The teams were enthusiastic as we picked two areas previously identified by the teams themselves as in need of reviewing: Street Licensing and Home Improvement Agency (HIA) in our residential section.

We introduced the teams to lean principles and methodologies, conducted the reviews and identified improvement steps.The teams developed their future or ‘to be’ maps and then rolled them out. One very positive outcome we measured was a reduction in the turnaround time for licensing applications.

During the research and trial phase we worked to build a case for the implementation of lean in Premises Management.


One important bit of preparation we did was to look at lessons from those local authorities that had already implemented a service improvement programme using lean. We studied their failures and successes and how they adapted lean to a service organisation. This was quite essential as a lot of the standard examples for lean are from the manufacturing and private sectors, and it is sometimes hard to see their applicability.

We found that there were several styles for the adoption of lean in Councils. We looked at case studies and identified what worked and what didn’t, comparing their organisations to ours in all levels.


As we had no one in-house who had any lean experience, we met with experts and did an initial assessment as to what we could do in house, compared to what consultants could do for us at a minimal or zero cost. We looked at opportunities where we could resource free materials or training courses. However we found that even training providers funded by the government grants were struggling, and were not as forthcoming as they had been in the past, and realised we would have to do the majority ourselves.


Westminster City Council is one of the biggest councils in London and we knew that it would be difficult to implement the changes from the top down. We decided to start the change in our department only and then work sideways, engaging other colleagues across the council when we needed to.

After the research and development phase, and the successful implementation of the pilot projects we started with a large-scale roll out by sending a selected group of managers and senior practitioners on a lean practitioner course. We chose them identifying who the key players were going to be in the improvement programmes, focussing on who were the decision makers, the doers and the influencers.

With the members of this group we organised workshops, mini briefings and training sessions and offered them to a wider group across the department. These were organised without external consultants or trainers, to reduce costs.

Improvement projects for the lean programme were identified by the group of trained lean practitioners with the participation of their team members. These were then sent to senior management where projects were prioritised and signed off. Prioritisation was based on how aligned each proposal was to the service strategy and to the outcomes promised by the delivery.

At the end of the project identification stage, the service came up with a combination of small easy-to-deliver projects (with very quick wins), medium-sized projects which involved services across the department and a couple of much larger cross-council projects, which unsurprisingly we found to be the most challenging to deliver.


Any project, small or big, will always have a group of sceptics, often with good reason. This is particularly true for improvement projects where changes in the past have led to negative outcomes for people on the ground, or had little to no effect, other than perhaps raising false hopes. Lean programmes also suffer from the bad connotation the word “lean” often has, after in the past cost cutting exercises had been deemed “lean” initiatives.

In retrospect, the high degree of opposition from our union should not have come as a surprise when we launched our programme. They felt so passionately about it that they immediately wrote an email asking people not to participate in the programme, including an excerpt stating that lean was “evil” and that it meant we were going to be cutting jobs.

The way lean was portrayed in the email couldn’t be more different from our vision: we realised we had a big task in our hands getting the buy-in and engaging people. Our lean implementation was planned to be bottom up involving staff and giving them a say in defining and shaping how they worked, but with such a response this approach seemed in danger of failing right away.

After this initial shock, we had to work very hard as a team to prove that the fears were unfounded. We asked ourselves some questions – what was the reason for such resistance? What is the best way to communicate the programme?

We knew that we had to get the balance right: while we wanted to approach it as sensitively as possible, we also had to be assertive about it.

As one of the central misconceptions was around the equation of lean with job cuts we knew we had to start there, by demonstrating with our two pilot projects that outcomes did not involve cutting jobs but instead gave us more streamlined processes which were a win-win situation for both staff and customers. To underline the positive side to our programme we also pointed out that front line staff felt empowered by being involved in both identifying the changes and implementing them.

Secondly, we communicated the hard truth about the need to get staff on board and participating in the improvement programme by presenting the alternative, which would have been having external consultants or outside staff reviewing services, something which would have probably ended with job losses.

We made the argument by letting the results of the pilots speak for themselves, and showing that by opposing our lean programme the union was more likely to cause job cuts than to stop them.


As well as winning over the staff and unions, we found the following measures being key to the successful implementation of our projects:

  1. Demonstrate leadership – in a previous article, I wrote about the important role of managers in ensuring the success of a lean project. Where managers are enthused and really demonstrate to their staff that they can make a difference and embed the improvements in their service delivery, projects are bound to deliver the outcomes desired.
  2. Provide the right environment – embedding the programme in the service plan for the department and making it part of the performance review process is also important. Staff need to be given the time to deliver their improvement projects without having to juggle it with the rest of the workload.
  3. Provide capability – ensure that the managers and staff driving the improvement have the skills and knowledge of the lean principles and methodologies.
  4. Provide support and recognition (before, during and post implementation) – do not only provide training or workshops at the start of the initiative, but also provide forums and briefings for those who are participating in the projects. This will provide opportunities to learn from others as well as opportunities to recognise success.

Councils do not really have a choice as to their future direction. They have to cut costs by finding efficiency savings, improving productivity and identifying more income generating activities. The only alternative is reducing head count. The unions as well as management prefer the first three of those options. Unions are there to look out for the best interest of their members. If lean principles are properly understood and the methodologies correctly used, there shouldn’t be any reason why unions should oppose lean.

By tackling misconceptions and showing both the benefits of lean and the consequences of not becoming involved in necessary change, we have managed to get the union members on our side. Some now lead the improvement projects and many others have contributed to the workshops and in identifying improved ways of working.


This is a fascinating case study in change management – especially in the face of such hostile opposition from the unions. The experience of Westminster City Council shows the need for careful assessment of the stakeholders and the need to address their concerns fully. It also shows the need for a tailored approach to introducing lean thinking to the organisation. In this case, proving the benefits through small pilots and then “spreading” to other parts of the organisation culminating in end-to-end value stream design has proved to be an appropriate approach.

The importance of seeing lean as an “enabler” rather than the “objective” is very evident here. Lean should not be seen as “something extra” but “the way we do things around here”. As such, creating a cultural shift in attitudes and behaviours is far more challenging than the adoption of lean tools but it can transform an organisation.

Emphasis on delivering improved customer service whilst reducing costs is at the heart of lean thinking. Although there has recently been a marked shift away from the idea of lean being about waste elimination, the importance of starting with the first principle of “Identify value through the eyes of the customer” cannot be over-stressed.