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Value Confusion: The Problem of Lean in Public Services

For well over a decade continuous improvement approaches have been formally applied in the public sector in the UK and elsewhere, in an attempt to improve service quality and streamline processes, often in response to cuts in public expenditure budgets imposed by governments. Many public services in the UK – including defence, healthcare, police, higher education, central and local government – have now, to a greater or lesser extent, implemented continuous improvement (CI) programmes of various shapes and sizes.  However, while there are numerous examples of successful initiatives at a process level, questions remain about whether real systemic changes are being made that will produce the long term sustainable CI culture desired. This article examines the nature of the lean thinking that has been embraced and calls for a debate on the development of a new definition of lean for public services. It contends that the adoption of an unadapted lean approach that is primarily geared for the private competitive market has meant that public service organisations have misunderstood the nature of value in the public sector, which has created counter-productive distractions and raises issues on lean’s ability to help engineer long term, systemic change.

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