Within Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council we have used lean as our improvement methodology since 2006 and it’s now the foundation for our transformational change programme. Our drive for transformational change focuses on the need to meet customer expectations and future financial challenge.

Solihull Metropolitan Borough is located on the southern edge of the West Midlands and is the fastest growing part of the West Midlands economy. It is a town of 200,000 people located between Birmingham and Coventry. The Borough is renowned for its key economic assets, strategic transport infrastructure, high quality environment, aspirational housing and excellent schools, which are integral to its economic success and have ensured that Solihull is a desirable place in which to live, work and invest. This is reflected in its relatively high house prices.

Solihull Borough

The nature of Solihull is best described by its “urbs in rure” motto, meaning “town in the country” and is characterised by its popular mature suburbs, rural villages and attractive countryside. However, it’s right in the middle of what is known as the M42 corridor and is home to several major economic assets including Birmingham International Airport, the National Exhibition Centre, Jaguar Land Rover and a number universities and business parks.

This is an attractive place for people to move to. Solihull has good schools and services, great connections to the region and the rest of the UK and high disposable incomes. Solihull is an extremely attractive location for both businesses and people. A uSwitch survey published in November 2013 claimed Solihull is the place with the highest quality of life in the UK.

Why Lean?

As one of the lowest funded metropolitan borough councils in the country, our Council has always looked for ways to boost efficiency and effectiveness in our operations.

The first use of lean was in 2006 within social care services, where the council completed a pilot with the fostering and adoption teams. The aim was to use lean methodology to reduce delays and therefore increase the capacity for the approval process. We wanted to pilot the lean approach in an area of the council where there would be skepticism about the appropriateness of using lean. The outcome was a reduction in the length of time it took to process an inquiry through to approval, which resulted in the number of foster carers increasing significantly.

Following the appointment of Mark Rogers as chief executive of the council a central business change team was developed, creating lean expertise capacity dedicated to work with services throughout the organisation. We selected the team carefully, they came with a can-do attitude and an ability to think differently.

In that time, from early 2009 to the end of 2010 Solihull focused on using the lean approach to drive savings. At the beginning of the economic downturn, the council was very financially target-driven and each review was given a financial saving to be achieved. This eventually turned out to be counterproductive to embedding lean within the council. We were delivering Kaizen events and small financially driven reviews which resulted in limited long term continuous improvement in service delivery or a sustainable customer focus culture.

The targets were driving the wrong behaviour, for example the Business Change Team were working with a manager, who had a specific saving target associated with the review. We went through the whole process of going to see, looking at what they were doing, understanding the data and seeing how work could be improved.

Towards the end of the review the manager said he believed once the financial result had been achieved he didn’t need to adopt the proposed lean improvements or address the culture of his team. A significant number of improvements identified by the team were lost because they were linked to financial results and made people think that so long as they gave up the money there would be no pressure to change.

It became clear the harder we chased the money, the further away it got. We knew we had to do something different to achieve long-term change, so we adopted an approach which focused on culture and sustainable intervention based on people, process and purpose.

Through the adoption of Policy Deployment the Council developed its strategic objectives to which our actions and lean interventions are directed. http://www.solihull.gov.uk/About-the-Council/ourvision-priorities/councilplan

Our lean methodology has now become “The Solihull Way: it’s the way we do things around here”. The Solihull Way is our internal organisational development program, which is deeply rooted in lean and represents the way we meet our objectives.

Our transformation program is delivered through policy deployment, which has the distinct advantage of helping the organisation to understand the next steps to be taken to achieve strategic goals. The policy deployment model stimulates thinking and encourages open conversations about goals and tactics.

Using policy deployment we have been very specific as to what we want to achieve over three years. Policy deployment helps us to know what our objectives are and drives us to be specific about what we need to achieve each year to reach our three year objectives.

An example of how policy deployment has helped us is where we needed to focus on cultural change in a different way to how we’ve worked in the past. In the policy deployment matrix we were developing for the Solihull Way, I proposed we train all of our 3,000 staff in lean tools and techniques and we’d get everybody believing in lean in the first year. I genuinely believed we could do that, until my colleagues asked me how I’d get around training everybody in a year, let alone making them all believe. It helped me realise it was just impossible and forced me to think what I could realistically do in a year, and how many people I could actually get involved in a program. Policy deployment has really helped us to deliver against tough targets, by giving us more realistic and precise goals to focus on.

Developing our People

In Solihull we use several ways to develop our staff in lean. We offer formal training and qualifications which are complemented with on the job training.  We provide online case studies, factsheet and information about using lean tools and techniques to support staff in their development.

In addition, the organisation has recently launched a new induction program for all new starters. This is the result of feedback from several previous iterations. Past inductions had focused on presentations to the audience who sat in a in a room for several hours and didn’t result in the desired impact.  Staff who attended said they didn’t understand what was expected of a Solihull employee, for example how they needed to behave, or that they needed to fully understand the business.

In true lean style we embarked on an improvement process. We identified the purpose of induction and made a significant change to the programme because we wanted people to behave in the Solihull Way and look for improvements from the moment they started working with us. Induction is the perfect time to engage with all new staff and our new program has been designed to do just that. It now lasts three days, during which each new employee goes through an introduction to the Solihull Way and then goes out into the business to “go see”, we want them to see the business in action. Each new member of staff now has a mentor and is expected to work on one improvement project.

The new approach takes time but because the programme is customised to each employee’s needs we are ensuring the enthusiasm is sustained. We’ve had positive feedback telling us what people value most about the new programme is they know from the very beginning where the organisation is going and what’s expected of them.

Our approach to people development is flexible. The council is currently creating a matrix to make sure each team across the organisation is getting access to at least one of the development opportunities on offer.

Development opportunities are like a menu, which is delivered by the Organisational Development and Business Change Team.

To embed lean we recognised the need to establish a team to support managers to use the lean tools and techniques. The Business Change Team is made up of 11 lean experts, working in the business to support managers to review their purpose and explore possible new business models.

Our lean thinking methodology has evolved over time and the key to our approach was learnt from a number of external lean experts. Some experts came in and delivered a couple of reviews whilst the Business change Team worked alongside learning the methodology and putting it into practice. Following this, the team were evaluated by Cardiff University, who then designed a programme to help us refocus our thinking and develop our use of lean methodology around the service sector.

Continuous Improvement

Working with teams to analyse processes and come up with a more efficient way to deliver value to customers has brought great improvements to the way the council delivers services. We strive towards continuous improvement, and reviewing and improving processes has brought financial savings and better customer outcomes. The approach has developed organically. Around five years ago the programme of improvement was mapped out in a plan with financial savings attached to every review.

Over time, the organisation acknowledged that the targets were driving the wrong behavior. We now offer the Business change Team’s lean expertise to the business and are invited into services to help identify customer and process improvements, the savings fall out as a result of the improvement.  Changing the approach has meant the demand for the support of lean expertise has never been greater. The team is working significantly in Children’s services.

Some of the services redesigned using our lean methodology include:-

  • Adult Social Care
  • Children’s Services
  • Post room
  • Schools Improvement Service
  • Licensing
  • Public Protection
  • Income and Awards
  • Procurement
  • Finance
  • Bereavement services
  • Solihull Active
  • Arts Complex
  • ICT
  • Joint Equipment and wheelchair service
  • Adaptations
  • Antisocial Behavior
  • Highways
  • Looked After Children
  • Planning
  • Pest Control
  • Music Service

Where appropriate we work closely with partners, such as the Police, Health and voluntary organisations

We are ourselves continually improving and developing our methodology. We are now looking at cross functional value streams. One current value stream being reviewed is early help, the connected processes are based on the assumption the right intervention in an individual’s life at the earliest possible stage can prevent problems resulting in higher service demand later.

Work was undertaken redesigning the Adult Social Care pathway. The team worked closely with Adult Social Care and Health service managers to review the out of hospital pathway, which was causing frustration on both sides. In 2003 the government introduced a new target along with fines to encourage the reduction in the stay of patients who no longer need acute care. These groups of patients are often referred to as bed blockers. The assumption was that this group of patients were well enough to leave hospital but their care packages were not in place due to a social work delay. To monitor the target and impose fines, the NHS introduced a warning system where three days notice was given that a patient would be ready to leave hospital (Section Two) followed by a Section Five, which was a notice to the local authority that fines would be incurred after 24hours of the patient remaining in the bed.

Our response to this problem was to look for a solution together with the health service. We went to the wards together to walk through the patient pathway, trying to understand what was getting in the way. When we unpicked the problem it was clear the delays were caused by lack of flow. We agreed that communication and trust was the key to resolving this problem. Visual boards were introduced where the patient’s progress was up to date, clear and an estimated date of discharge always visible.

A two tier discharge process was created to enable those who wouldn’t need long term social care support at home to get immediate access to the right support at home without having to wait for a full social work assessment in the hospital. The social workers would accept the decision of the nurses to allow more speedy decisions to discharge tier one patients.

The new process we put in place created a completely different experience for customers and staff. The health authority also agreed Section Twos and Fives, which had contributed to the behavior issues, would no longer be issued, fining would be ceased and focus would be on patient flow.


The key to embedding lean in our organisation has been strong and visible leadership. The commitment and drive of the corporate leadership team to use lean to transform their business had lead the way to embedding the methodology within the wider council.

Solihull has devised a way for the leadership team to take an active role in the implementation of lean thinking and continuous improvements, through each director having a teachable point of view.  Leaders are encouraged to go into the organisation and talk about the Solihull Way using their own experiences.

Leaders are also expected to go into the business and see where the work is done. Leaders now understand the term “go to gemba” and this is a practice encouraged as part of their leadership role.

Embedding lean as the council’s transformation methodology has been successful because of the leadership commitment, together with an effective use of policy deployment. The commitment to continuous improvement and drive to change our culture helps lean to underpin everything we do.

Further reading