By Rhian Hamer and Owen Jones

Introducing new ways of working into public and private organisations can be tricky. Some organisations have persistent cultures resistant to change, undermine innovative approaches and have a tendency to return to what they know best. It is hardly surprising two thirds of change initiatives fail to sustain long-term benefits and truly transform roles and responsibilities, processes and procedures.

The government believes many current systems are too complex. More and more focus has been placed on improving the way public services are delivered to the public. Transformation and reform are key topics, and many government departments are turning to continuous improvement (CI) as an enabler of change.

However, transformational change within government requires an understanding of public value and more importantly, an appetite to deliver key business outcomes that enhance value. This need can often conflict with the inertia of established patterns and routines of work. Understanding public value requires public consultation – something government often struggles with. When was the last time we, as citizens were actively engaged in the public services we receive? Mechanisms for gathering the voice of the citizen are often non-existent. We believe there are three key elements for sustainable CI transformation within public sector organisations. These are set out in the model below:

The Capability, Practice and Outcome Model

For CI to transform the public sector a balanced contribution of capability, meaningful practice and evidence of positive outcomes is required. Capability refers to the organisation’s understanding, readiness and commitment to transformation using its existing resources. Meaningful practice entails acting on the system and practice represents the heart of continuous improvement. To be meaningful, it must be intended and allowed to make material changes to the way that organisations operate. We would add that for continuous improvement practice to be meaningful it should also aim to be non-trivial and embrace cross-functional and inter-organisational improvement.

Outcomes can be defined as the change that is brought about by the practice of continuous improvement. As well as representing an end in itself it is also a measure of how effective a continuous improvement programme has been. Some important questions that we, as CI experts and practitioners, should be asking are “have we made a difference?” If so what exactly is that difference, and how can we be sure that it is real?

Note the relationships between these three elements. There is a reciprocal relationship between capability and meaningful practice – the more we practice CI, the more we learn by doing so. Learning is not just the acquisition of knowledge but the application of it, doing something different. Similarly the more we establish CI leads to positive outcomes such as improved customer experience, cost reductions or staff satisfaction the greater the appetite for continuous improvement will be. In this way, practice and evidence of positive outcomes of CI application should be mutually reinforcing. Capability alone will not deliver the results we need.

What evidence is there of the three model elements being delivered in public organisations?

The story on capability could hardly be more positive. Over the last decade lean academies have been established, resulting in tens of thousands of practitioners being developed with CI and Leadership skills. In 2012 the Cabinet Office commissioned every government department to develop CI strategies and implementation plans. More recently, there has been a drive to conduct cross-departmental assessments, evaluating lean programmes and sharing best practice. There is evidence that the public sector has the CI capability to transform its departments and services. 

On the other hand, observations of CI work, carried out within public sector departments, it often focuses on the “low-hanging fruit”. The re-engineering of trivial processes such as “post-opening” is frequently the starting point. There remains little evidence of CI work that spans across public sector departments or that takes a holistic view of the services being delivered. Many public sector CI case studies detail work that is still confined within the walls of the immediate organisation, whether that be a hospital, office or court house. In our respectful opinion there is not enough CI practice that is non-trivial, participative and includes inter-organisational activity. Public sector CI leaders face the danger that CI practitioners are becoming disillusioned by a lack of meaningful practice, and CI is being replaced by policy and technology-led change. We are forced to conclude there is not enough evidence of meaningful CI practice leading to systemic-change.

Understanding the intended business outcomes from any change or CI activity should be paramount from the start. Many CI strategies and CI projects describe success as “improved capability”, the “sharing of best practice” or the general “reduction of wasteful work”. There is a real need to quantify intended results in terms of business outcomes, whether that be customer satisfaction, staff engagement or potential savings. As CI leaders, we should be asking ourselves – are we evaluating the effectiveness of CI programmes? Are business outcomes being ignored? Again we are forced to conclude that there is little rigorous evidence for the positive business outcomes of CI work.

In summary, we believe the public sector has the capability required to transform public services. Many government departments are organisationally ready for change, they have developed strategies and detailed implementation plans. They have skilled resources, developed and mentored through Lean Academies. The challenge for CI Leaders in the public sector is to use CI more systematically across the public sector, so organisational boundaries and constraints can be demolished.

There is a need to re-design public services with the public consumer in mind, better understand demand and empower staff so change and improvement is participative and enacted at the point of delivery. The positive news is there is a real appetite for CI among public sector workers, especially those on the frontline.

We passionately believe that the greatest opportunity to transform public service is for the organisations that deliver those services to build a culture around the practice of continuous improvement.

Transformation of public services depends on the public sector moving from a capability phase to a practice phase, focussing on enterprise-wide CI and justifying its worth by collecting evidence for positive outcomes on public value.