Continuous improvement has helped the Ministry of Justice to become more innovative and to look outside the organisation to adopt and adapt best practice, but can we say it is really just common sense? It depends on how meaningful the lean programme is to all staff members, says Faith Geary, Acting Head of Continuous Improvement at the MoJ.

Since the founding of the Ministry of Justice Continuous Improvement Academy in 2008 I have seen a rise in demand to build lean capability across the organisation.

The academy was created to learn more about how lean practice and methods could benefit us. An overriding objective for myself and my team was to build an improvement culture and capability across the organisations we work with, which now include not just the Ministry of Justice, but also its arm’s length bodies and other government departments.

Public sector spending restrictions have caused us all to question how we deliver services and run our businesses. Many organisations have reacted with an increased focus on cost-cutting.

For us at the Ministry, however, cost-cutting programmes are just one part of how we are transforming the organisation: we have also opted for the use of lean thinking, as one of our responses.

Skilling our people and getting them engaged in the use of proven tools and techniques to strip out waste in the processes they work with every day is certainly common sense.

In an early lean engagement for the department, a business manager working on freedom of information requests – where the estimated removal of unnecessary processes through lean activity would result in a 20% gain in efficiency – quickly saw how much lean was helping in processing requests. “It was hard work but it was worth it, because we have reduced unnecessary day to day tasks so that we can focus on what is really important – timeliness,” she told me.

Initially, we focused heavily on this kind of bottom-up approach and saw some fantastic results in terms of efficiency savings and staff engagement. However, we struggled to sustain these improvements in some areas and had to revisit our approach.

We looked outside our organisation to identify best practice and see how we could make it work at the MoJ. We began to prioritise some of the less visible and foundational elements of lean, focusing on the creation and alignment of strategy and the leadership buy-in needed to support a continuous improvement culture.

One of our main learning programmes now aims to equip our leaders with the understanding and skills they need in order to be able to drive lean activities within their teams, by concentrating far less on what lean tools are and more on them working together to develop meaningful focus and actions for continuous improvement, which ties in with the wider business priorities their teams have.

A leader who recently attended this programme told me: “The confidence and understanding gained from discussions about other people’s experience and struggles to push forward are great. It’s a good forum for bouncing ideas around regarding CI rather than being left to do this solo.”

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has provided us with our biggest case study to date. Having worked with lean for the previous five years there has been a strong commitment to build an understanding of what the methodology is, with a high level of awareness from all members of staff. We have worked with them internally to achieve this, through the Continuous Improvement Academy, and have trained practitioners to lead lean activity in their business areas, experts to do the same across internal hierarchical boundaries, and leaders to support this work and engage their teams.

The work has been recognised as a good example of improved delivery across all levels of an organisation. The HMCTS chief executive summed it up pretty well, reflecting on what lean has meant to the court service: “Lean is important for us in ensuring everyone gets the opportunity to contribute to how we improve the service we offer.”

We are seeking to emulate these successes, as well as lessons learned from HMCTS throughout the Ministry and beyond, and are currently working with Office of the Public Guardian, Scottish Tribunal Service and the Department for Energy and Climate Change to do just that.

Learning lessons and adapting approaches accordingly now feels like a normal thing to do, common sense if you will.

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Whilst lean remains at its heart, we have adapted the academy by learning and drawing inspiration from any approach where we see people being engaged to better understand and improve services while focusing on delivering value to customers. It has been a big part of our own continuous improvement efforts, to focus more on positive outcomes and learning from these, and why in turn we moved from being known as the Lean Academy to  the Continuous Improvement Academy.

This is helping us to give our people the confidence to practice continuous improvement.

Going forward, a better understanding of what constitutes customer value must become common practice if lean is to demonstrate its beneficial effect to both individuals and the business and to become more meaningful. For many people who have attended our Academy, a key learning point is that lean is not just about improving the service for your own team, but about better understanding processes from the customer’s perspective and working with others to improve service delivery.

With this in mind, lean is driving opportunities for us to work across boundaries, not only within MoJ, but also with our key stakeholders. This has been particularly true across the Criminal Justice System, where we have worked with partner agencies and other government departments to deliver improvements. In turn this has produced real efficiencies through identifying and tracking non value added work.

A challenge with “common sense” is that it makes you think everyone can see what you see. While principles may appear as common sense, for lean to be sustained the improvement activity must be meaningful for all those involved, both at an organisational and individual level.

For me lean is common sense, but the practice of continuous improvement is harder and requires you to get under the skin of common sense. Common sense dictates that if something is not right you change it and lean provides simple approaches to do this, but for these to become an autonomous way of working requires changing habits.

These are not rooted in common sense but are products of mindsets, which are not always tangible. Practising continuous improvement continually requires us to question the roots of common sense and support people on a much more subtle level.

We cannot just lift and shift a set of tools and products to be successful. Sustainable continuous improvement requires us to adapt approaches, understand wider business objectives and engage our staff and managers to drive lean themselves.

Team information boards are a great example of this. Having a place where teams can meet to identify actions to deliver improvements is just common sense, but five years after we first started working with teams to create team information boards our approach has greatly changed, to enable people to work in a better way.

Rather than setting the standard of what the board should contain, we focus on supporting teams to develop meaningful boards that will be used effectively and meet their business challenges, promoting ongoing problem solving with leaders.

A leader who was struggling to encourage communications and drive improvement across her team using the boards said that her team saw them as meaningless until their name was changed into Improving justice.

Our aim for the future includes developing our continuous improvement community to allow for good “common sense” ideas to be shared with greater ease (as part of our Transforming Justice programme) and taking this forward to be able to do the same across the public sector, as cross-government continuous improvement initiatives grow and develop – our Academy and our CI staff are always ready to help other public sector organisations.

Lean answers important questions for the organisation and for this reason demand for the services of our academy continues to grow. How do we engage our people? How do we improve the service to our customers? How do we deliver better for less? All of these answers seem to be simple common sense, but require a great deal of understanding of what lean means and what the benefits it can bring are.