Using Lean to Build Government's Capacity to Do More Good With Ken Miller


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Podcast: Just-In-Time Cafe, Episode 21 – Using Lean to Build Government's Capacity to Do More Good With Ken Miller -

If you’re in Thanksgiving turkey-recovery mode, relax and tune in to the Just-in-Time Cafe for the latest news and tips.

Our guest this week is Ken Miller – a man credited with sparking phenomenal government transformation across the United States. This month’s app is all abut your browser tabs. In Lean Six Sigma news we’ll discuss how the Rock Island Arsenal is using Lean to improve Army readiness and then over to Oklahoma to find out what “Sooner Stat” is all about. On the Printed Page, we’ll cover one of Ken Miller’s books that maintains government actually does make widgets and we’ll answer a user’s question about how to tell a good project story. Take a little holiday breather with us here at the cafe!

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Podcast Transcript

Welcome to Just-In-Time Café,’s official podcast where we help you build your problem-solving muscles. We share best practices from over 20 years of success helping organizations from the Fortune 500 to small and medium-size business to government achieve their goals using Lean Six Sigma.


Tracy O’Rourke: Hey, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Hello, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: What is that smell? Is that pumpkin spice? Everyone has a pumpkin spice coffee I think. I’m going to get one too. Do you want one?

Elisabeth Swan: No. I’m going straight black just to counteract all the smell of pumpkin.

Tracy O’Rourke: All right. Let’s go to the private dining room.

Elisabeth Swan: Meet you there.

What’s on the Menu (Podcast Agenda)

Tracy O’Rourke: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Just-In-Time Café. I’m Tracy O’Rourke and Elisabeth Swan is with me today and we are your hosts. So Elisabeth, tell me, what is on the menu today while I sip my pumpkin spice latte?

Elisabeth Swan: I would call this a turkey recovery podcast episode. So if you celebrated Thanksgiving, you can sit back and enjoy this episode. We have tons of great stuff for you.

Number one, we’re going to cover a personal productivity app for your browser tabs. This is new, new to me, new to you.

This month In the News, we’re going to cover good things happening to help with Army readiness at Rock Island Arsenal and then we’re going to go to the great state of Oklahoma and find out about their new SoonerStart Program. That’s very intriguing.

Then for the Printed Page, we’re going to cover a book that convinced me that government workers make widgets.

We’re going to answer a learner question on how to tell a good story about your project.

And Today’s Special, Tracy, is your interview with Ken Miller who has probably sparked more government transformation than any other human being.

It’s a great lineup.

Tracy O’Rourke: Remember to stay tune for this month’s coupon code in order to get a discount on’s online training as well. If you’re not already subscribed, subscribe to our podcast on iTunes too and leave us a review because we’d love to hear from you.

Elisabeth Swan: Let’s get to that appetizer, Tracy.

Appetizer of the Day: Save Pinned Tabs

Tracy O’Rourke: OK, Elisabeth. So let’s discuss this new productivity app for tabs. Can’t wait to hear how you enjoyed it.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. This one is a simple Chrome extension called Save Pinned Tabs. It’s free. First, I want to clarify the idea of pinned tabs. This was new to me. Confession. Millennials are on top of this. And whether you’re using Safari, Chrome, Firefox, whatever your browser, you can pin tabs.

And so for most of you, you just right click on the Open Browser window and select Pin Tab. So in Safari, this creates an icon in the browser bar and you just click that to go to that favorite Pin Tab.

In Chrome, which is officially the most popular browser and certainly it is for you and I, it’s the one that we recommend, and not that we’re getting any money for that. You right click to pin a tab as well but then you can pin a series of tabs and save them in a set with a name like podcast. So you can load them when you need them, when you’re doing a podcast and you hit that particular set. And Save Pinned Tabs, I thought it was great. What do you think?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, I really like it too. And I have to also admit that I am – millennials are on top of this and this is definitely something I definitely needed and didn’t know I needed it and didn’t know there was something there for it.

So, if you are a power user and you are on the web and you have lots of tabs open at the same time then you suffer from what they call tab creep. And this app basically allows you to minimize the tabs by pinning them and then organize them in a set as you said, Elisabeth. So it makes it a lot easier to – I like to say it reduces mental setup time.

So they always talk about interruptions in your day. It takes you roughly 15 minutes to get back into the zone. And I feel like if you’ve got these pinned tabs in a set and you know you got to use all of these things to get whatever work you need done and you just open them together, that reduces setup time I think mentally as well as your desktop, getting stuff set up so you can work efficiently.

So I really like that. I didn’t know that there was a problem-solver for this in terms of tab creep because I do suffer from it. And so, I really like it too. And it took me a little while to figure out how to create the set although then I realized I was just being obtuse. And it’s great because especially there are examples of people setting up a whole set just for their workday like these are the things they use and check every day. They can have a set of pins that you open and keep them open all day and they are anchored on the far less side while the Pinned Tabs are anchored on the far left side. So it makes it really easy and it gives you more space. And so, I really like it too.

Elisabeth Swan: And again, a little shout-out to Calvin on our team for turning us on to Save Pinned Tabs. Next up, it’s In the News.

In the News

Tracy O’Rourke: So Elisabeth, tell us what is SoonerStart?

Elisabeth Swan: SoonerStart is great news for the citizens of Oklahoma. SoonerStart is reminiscent in terms of what I’ve learned of both LouieStart, that’s from the city of Louisville, as well as CompStat that comes from the New York City Police Force, originally under William Bratton.

Stat refers to statistics, measuring things like cycle time and overtime, time to fill a pothole, error rates, et cetera. And it leads to making decisions based on facts. So this article is by Zach Sumner and it appeared recently NewsOK, an online news magazine for Oklahoma.

Zach and an organization called the E Foundation for Oklahoma are working with state government and they’re going to help them meet their critical public mission for less. I love that. Using Lean Sigma, and that’s good news for all taxpayers. It’s a great focus and as you know, we are a huge champions of seeing this throughout all city, state, federal governments. But I have an ulterior motive for highlighting Mr. Sumner’s Lean Six Sigma efforts, which sounds great.

My nephew, Mark Daigneault, is the head coach of the Development League for the Oklahoma Thunder. He is running basically a farm team which has been providing the Thunder with great players. And Mark just bought a house in Oklahoma. So I want to give him a shout-out because there are good things happening in your state government, Mark.

So Tracy, why don’t you tell us a little bit about – I don’t think you have a team in this but what’s happening with the Army readiness?

Tracy O’Rourke: Army Readiness, yes, I will. It’s also another story about highlighting Lean Six Sigma in government. This is about the Rock Island Arsenal Organization implementing Lean Six Sigma. So if you don’t know who the Rock Island or what the Rock Island Arsenal, it’s on 946 acres in Illinois and it was the first home to the Army, established in 1860. It is now the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the United States, and they are using Lean Six Sigma to help reduce and eliminate waste and improve performance.

So, the Rock Island Arsenal provides manufacturing, logistics and base support services basically for the Armed Forces. And they actually build things like artillery, gun mounts, recoil mechanisms, small arms, aircraft weapons, grenade launchers, and a host of other associated components.

So what they’re doing, this concerted effort or collaboration is between Rock Island Arsenal and the Joint Manufacturing & Technology Center. There are lots of acronyms in those things by the ways but I will not mention.

Elisabeth Swan: Good girl.

Tracy O’Rourke: But this is – the most recent effort that they’re developing a value stream analysis on their acquisition process. And again, like the goal we mentioned before is to reduce waste, waiting, and inventory.

So ultimately, their mission every day is to work on waste to reduce time to get product to the field. And they’re using these value streams especially for acquisition to help analyze the workflow for leaders and subject matter experts. And they’re really looking to identify where they could do rapid improvement events and they want to really reduce building material purchasing.

So they’re really trying to get a head start so that ordering materials can happen sooner and they can improve the process. So they basically identified that they can remove up to 45 to 60 days off the delivery time for certain projects. And that makes a positive impact on Army readiness so they can get readier quicker.

Elisabeth Swan: And keep us safer.

Tracy O’Rourke: And keep us safer. That story was by Debralee Best. Thank you, Debralee for sharing that.

Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely. Up next, it’s the Printed Page.

Printed Page: We Don’t Make Widgets by Ken Miller

Tracy O’Rourke: So, Elisabeth, why is it that you think government makes widgets now?

Elisabeth Swan: Tracy, I know you’re interviewing Ken Miller separately, but it got me reading his book, “We Don’t Make Widgets.” And Ken Miller convinced me that government actually does make widgets. So this book is a great myth buster and we deal with service sector feedback that Lean Six Sigma is for manufacturing forever, which is crazy because 80% of jobs in this country are service sector. But Ken Miller’s experience was with the government, the assumptions were even more stark.

So the responses he got were, “We don’t make widgets. We don’t have customers and we don’t make a profit.” So we’re really different, very familiar resistance. So he deals with resistance by pointing out that we’re all part of some kind of a factory. We just have to clarify what we produce.

So now, Tracy, you and I are producing a podcast. It’s a process and the outcome is a shareable link, and that’s our widget. So the concept of customer is also a tough one and it’s not taxpayers. I love that he sees us as investors, which we are, right? And we want to see our dollars use wisely.

So the customer of the process, say like an example of a fishing license, that would be a fisherman. So it really depends on the process you’re looking at. That would help you understand who is the customer.

And my favorite of this busted myth is that government is different because they don’t make a profit. And here, he switches the focus to outcomes driven by purpose. And that is near and dear to my heart. I really feel like it all comes back to, what is the purpose? Why does your organization exist? Why does this process exist? What are you doing? What are you – for the sake of what?

Why does your organization exist? Why does this process exist? What are you doing?

So if you think about us,, we’re a business. But the outcome we’re interested in is successful problem-solvers. So profit might let us know whether we are doing a good job. It’s one indicator. But the number of our learners improving processes, that’s what’s key. We want to see that. That’s our outcomes.

So this is helpful for all businesses and I feel like the focus often switches to profit. It’s this that we’re the complete and utter purpose of organizations but that gives us the Enron debacle and more recently, it gave us the Wells Fargo and the Volkswagen debacle.

So, really helpful stuff. I was so turned on by this book. It really altered a lot of my thinking and I am so looking forward to your interview with Ken.

Tracy O’Rourke: Me too. So I really enjoyed this book as well. I love Ken Miller. I had the pleasure of seeing him in a speaking engagement in Washington at the University of Washington. About 300 government workers were there. And he was in the panel and he did great.

I’m of the position that government workers get a bad rap in general. I think we love – it’s a favorite American pastime to bash on government workers. Let’s face it. And I think they get a bad rap. And so, what I really like about this book is he worked in government. He gets it. And he is very gentle on the people and hard on the systems and the process. And he even pokes fun a little bit about the crazy stuff that happens in government but he does it in such a way that you just have to laugh with him and you don’t – it’s not about anger and finding somebody to blame. It really is focusing on the process. So I really enjoyed his style of writing.

…it’s not about anger and finding somebody to blame. It really is focusing on the process.

And it’s also very inspirational. I think he did a great job in inspiring government. Busting these myths as you have mentioned, “We don’t make widgets. We don’t have customers. We have hostages.”

Elisabeth Swan: I love that.

Tracy O’Rourke: And hopefully, with some of the improvements, we don’t feel like a hostage anymore. So it’s very inspirational. He pokes fun at it but at the same time, he motivates people. It’s hard work but we can do it. And he really points out that government is different but not because of the myths. They’ve got their own internal battle that they got to face. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of oversight, and that can be challenging.

And I just love the way he uses analogies to help us understand process and he does a lot of things in this book to really explain what a process is and how everything really is a process. And that you don’t necessarily have to have a widget in order to have it be a process. So I really like the book a lot. I’m really looking forward to the interview.

Elisabeth Swan: Me too, Tracy. He has done great work. I’m looking forward to it.

You’re listening to the Just-In-Time Podcast. I’m Elisabeth Swan. Up next, it’s Q&A.


Tracy O’Rourke: OK, Elisabeth, here is a question for you from one of our subscribers. How can I communicate success effectively with a storyboard?

Elisabeth Swan: This is a great question. And first, I will say, if anyone is interested in more tips on their storyboard, we just did a webinar on how to build a powerful storyboard. So please, look on our website for that link.

In particular, I would say there are two directions on this. One, is you have got to show that you move the needle. What people want to see is that you have put your data into a grass. One of the most effective is to show a run chart, some kind of a time plot where you can see over time what was the baseline, where was this process before we touched it, and then where have we moved the needle, what’s the after where you should see a shift in the median or a shift in the mean.

So if you want to improve yield, you want to see the line go up. If you’re trying to reduce cycle time, if you’re trying to reduce defects, you want to see the line go down. So we should see a stark difference between before and after. That’s one.

The other aspect you have to pay attention to is the story. And stories involve obstacles, overcoming obstacles. You’re the hero of your story. What happen to you? When you created a solution or when you and your team came up with the solution, maybe the people that you were asking to do things differently weren’t interested. They resisted. How did you deal with that?

Maybe you took their feedback. Maybe you altered the solution a little bit based on their suggestions. Well, that’s interesting. So tell us, how did you do that? How did you overcome that? How did you change that solution just enough that now it worked better and the acceptance of that solution was even more?

So your story involved really both the data and your journey. So those are two key elements to how to effectively produce a good storyboard.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice, Elisabeth. Thank you. Very helpful.

Elisabeth Swan: OK.

Today’s Special: Interview With Ken Miller

Elisabeth Swan: Up next, it’s Today’s Special which is Tracy’s interview with Ken Miller. Tracy, he wrote Extreme Government Makeover. Does he do makeup for government employees?

Tracy O’Rourke: I don’t know. I’ll ask him when we do the interview. I don’t think that’s what’s about though. I actually think it’s really more about re-overhauling everything. It’s more like plastic surgery for government and really untweaking pipes, plumbing pipes if you will.

So Ken Miller, just briefly, is the founder of the Change and Innovation Agency. It’s a consulting firm dedicated to helping government organizations increase their capacity to do more good. And he has got lots to share. He is very popular in the government sector. I can’t wait to talk to him.

Elisabeth Swan: Awesome.

Tracy O’Rourke: You’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café. I’m Tracy O’Rourke. And joining me today is Ken Miller, author of three books, We Don’t Make Widgets, Extreme Government Makeover, and The Change Agent’s Guide to Radical Improvement. I’m very excited to have him on our show at the Café today.

So before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about Ken. Besides authoring these three books, Ken is the founder of the Change and Innovation Agency, a firm dedicated to helping government increased their capacity to do good. He is a contributing columnist for governing and co-founder of the Public Great blog.

Ken, how are you today?

Ken Miller: I’m fantastic. Thanks for having me on.

Tracy O’Rourke: Thank you for joining us. So, I’d love to talk a little bit about your books and the overarching theme of today’s podcast, which is Lean transformation in government. And so, you have been actively involved in government. He has worked in government. Is that right?

Ken Miller: That is correct.

Tracy O’Rourke: And now, you’re really just helping people in your consulting world especially government agencies.

Ken Miller: Yes, that’s where we spend all of our time. And right now especially working in areas of human service, so how do we increase the capacity of social workers to do more good and help the poor people who are abused, some of the most difficult parts of government.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. That is near and dear to my heart as well. So it must be a very rewarding type of work that you’re doing.

Ken Miller: It is because again, this is to me the most important part of government, the social contract that government has with its citizens. And it’s the area where if we can increase their capacity, the difference that it makes. So, I mean these are – again, folks come in. They’re looking for service or assistance from government. It was one of the most humbling moments of people’s lives in a way. And if we can do an exceptional job at that, the impact that it has throughout government is fantastic.

But really helping these employees unleash their creative capacity. And as we talk about Lean, they do it. They use the Lean ideas. We don’t maybe use the language but they use the ideas and find ways to make the systems work.

And that’s the thing. Some of these people are trapped in such broken systems and it’s out of their control. It’s not their fault that they inherent these really complex, broken systems. And when you can turn them loose to fix those systems and now they can serve the people that they – it’s their life’s mission.

You don’t go into social work for the paycheck. It’s a mission field. And then they inherent these horrible systems that they have to try to navigate and again, when you can turn them loose and have them fix those things, it’s amazing what happens.

Tracy O’Rourke: So I am absolutely in agreement. I believe that government workers do get a bad rap. They are victims of horrible processes and systems. And you mentioned that in your book. You say, “The work of government is noble. The people are amazing. And the systems of government are a mess.” And I’m sure that they’re fighting so hard to defend themselves, they don’t have time to work on the systems.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of that struggle that you’ve seen?

Ken Miller: Absolutely. It’s a cycle. So what happens is something goes wrong in government just like it does with business but a process goes bad. And in government a lot of times, when something goes wrong, there are headlines, right? But something goes wrong and then somebody gets blamed for it. So there’s a lot of blamestorming in government. We got to pin it on somebody.

But then once they found the villain, there’s usually a special commission form or some outside groups who are going to come in and work with you what happened. And then they write a report of 20 recommendations. And all those things end up being CYA recommendations, right? So we’re going to put this CYA step in and that CYA step in and we had 12, 15 more steps, right?

So now, the process that was really horrible before now has 12 or 15 more steps in it and 4 more sign offs and 3 more forms and you put those workers back in that system again and now it takes even longer and it’s more complex so they can’t keep up and they self-select what steps they’re actually going to do and then more mistakes get made. And we get on this crazy cycle where we just keep adding CYA which keeps robbing us of capacity which takes longer, which robs – and we just go around and around the cycle.

And we get on this crazy cycle where we just keep adding CYA which keeps robbing us of capacity which takes longer, which robs – and we just go around and around the cycle.

And so part of the challenge in government is – I mean the biggest challenge is seeing work as a system and that’s what the whole We Don’t Make Widgets book is just geared towards. It’s getting people in government to even see their systems because most people look at government and just see people. They could see employees and they’d say, “That’s the problem and go fix them.” And they don’t even see the processes and the work that’s actually going on.

So the first challenge is to see the systems. And then the second is to really focus on how do we make the systems work and how do we make them flow? How do we improve their capacity?

Rather than – I use an analogy in Extreme Makeover book of kind of a pipe, a view in the work of a processes’ pipe and water flowing through that pipe. And what tends to happen in government is we just keep kinking that pipe. We need to add more, more and more CYA steps, more and more kinks. And to make it tangible, one of the areas that I do a lot of work, my company does a lot of work in is child welfare and child abuse.

And so, when a call comes in to investigate a possible child incident, the amount of work time now just sheer work time labor is 40 hours’ worth of work that a social worker will go through filling out forms, CYA steps, just all the stuff. That’s 40 hours’ worth of labor.

So you could kind of do the math. They can do one a week. But the average social worker gets five of those a week. So if you get five calls a week and each one takes 40 hours because of all those extra work that has been heaped on them to prevent a possible mistake. We can see where the system breaks down. And that just goes on and on in every part of government.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. I feel the same. I have a big heart for people in government because the work is noble. They’re not in it for their paycheck per se. They’re in it for the purpose. And in your book, We Don’t Make Widgets, you talk about the three myths that keep government from radically improving. You say, “We don’t make widgets. We don’t have customers.” And my favorite line is, I actually laughed out loud when I read it, “We don’t have customers. We have hostages.”

Ken Miller: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: We are not here to make a profit. Do you still feel that these myths are just as prevalent as they were a few years back when your book came out or do you see the myth getting busted?

Ken Miller: They are getting a little better. And again, it’s important to stress those are myths. Those aren’t what I believe. In fact, the book was written by – I used to work in the Revenue Department. So in the state of Missouri, it was the department that did the DMVs and the tax agency all wrapped up into one agency.

So we were trying to improve customer service and efficiency and all these things in that agency and the employees were – it cause tremendous innovations. So the governor asked if we would then take that same ideology over to the Human Service Department and like, “Would you go share with them what you did with speeding up tax refunds and cutting the lines out of the DMVs? Could you go share that with the folks doing social work?”

And I was just naïve enough to think that they were going to buy into that just based on the results and the story that they were going to love it. And I just got clobbered. There was one guy in particular who just laid into me and his basic argument was, “Look, we don’t make widgets. You guys in the Revenue Department, you’re like little widget makers. You have little factories where people send in forms and go through all these little steps and you send out checks.” He was like, “That stuff works when you’re little widget makers. But we’re here to help people. We’re not widget makers.”

And so that whole book was written with that guy’s face just right on my keyboard. And I was just like, “OK, how do I help this guy see that even though you’re unique, you’re not different.” And that was – that’s the whole pushback first from government and anybody that’s trying to do Lean in government, you probably run into this. There’s just that whole “We’re different” defense, “It doesn’t apply to us. We’re different.”

So that belief is always going to be there. But what we were trying to cut through with that book and the belief we’re trying to cut through is the idea that while you are different, you are unique and you still have systems. You still produce things. You still have process. You still have customers. You’re still here to achieve a result. It’s not measured in dollars but it’s measured in much more important things. So your profit is more like higher quality of life, clean air, clean water, safe children, that’s your profit.

So your profit is more like higher quality of life, clean air, clean water, safe children, that’s your profit.

So that whole book was to try to counter those myths so that people would recognize, “OK, we’re not so different from other industries where they’re having success improving their organization and maybe we can import those ideas.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Ken Miller: In terms of which of those beliefs are still hard, the hostage one is still interesting because – and it goes to this that people look at government and they say, “The reason why government struggles is because of the people.” That somehow all the slow, inefficient customer hating people in the world have all gravitated to one industry. It’s like the government has intentionally – they tried to intentionally go out and hire the slowest, worst, most rural-oriented, just difficult people.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Ken Miller: And that’s that belief. And so, when people come to government from the outside and they want to change it, the first thing they do is they look at these employees and say, “We’ve got to change them because they are the problem.”

But the reality is government acts just like any other industry that has hostage customers, right? Any industry that has customers that have very little choice, that has like a monopoly-based, they all act exactly the same. And I used to tell that to our DMV folks. It’s like, “Our DMV store is not that much different than an AT&T store in my experience.”

Any industry that has customers that have very little choice, that has like a monopoly-based, they all act exactly the same.

People that would go to the AT&T store especially a few years ago, I mean it was a total hostage situation. They knew they had you for two or three years. They could care less what you wanted. You had to wait in line. You had to show five forms of ID. You couldn’t make a change to your wife’s plan unless she was present. I mean it was like the exact same experience.

And so, anybody that has Comcast, we have the same experience. Hopefully, I’m not offending any sponsors of your program. But anybody that has a monopoly that has hostage customers, what you lose is that built-in incentive to get better. So anybody in the private sector, again, they’re in a highly competitive environment and when you have a lot of competition, it forces you to become efficient. It forces you to become innovative. It forces you to focus on the customer.

When you get into government, we don’t have competition. And so, it’s not that the people in government are defective. It’s just that there’s not that grinding wheel. There’s not that force of competition that causes innovation and causes efficiency to happen.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Ken Miller: And so, one of the main things leaders in government need to do is to act as if. And it’s a great thing to do in a planning retreat or any kind of executive meeting is to pull them aside and say, “OK, let’s pretend for a minute that our department of environmental quality, let’s pretend we had competitors. If we had competition to permit and inspect these businesses in terms of their environmental quality, what would they do differently when asked? If they were running an advertisement against us, what would they advertise that would say that they’re better at it than we are? Why would they take us apart?”

And it’s a fun exercise to do because it gets people to start thinking about, “Wow! If we had competitors, well, I mean they would be doing this quicker, they’d be faster to respond. They would find more innovative ways to doing this thing.” So, we’re not going to get competition in government so we’re going to have to act as if we have competition and just start thinking about it that way.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, it’s interesting because I work in – I have clients that are in the public as well as private sector and it is very frustrating for me when they blame – it happens all the time. It’s like a favorite pastime is to blame government workers. It’s a national pastime.

And you mentioned in one of your books that the problem is that people are trying to improve government from the outside. They are lobbying grenades at it. And I really do agree that they’re getting a bad rap.

But what would you say to address those outsiders? What might be some of the things that you say or have you been able to influence outsiders to a degree with your view and the way you’re thinking about government?

Ken Miller: It’s funny and you’ve probably seen this in your work with government, when they bring the outsiders to lead the departments and they come in with that mentality that, “I’m going to change these people. I’m going to fix these people.” And then usually about a year and a half later, they leave. But they leave and they always say the same thing. They’re always like, “I’m amaze at how hard these people work.”

You hear it one percent of the time. They say the exact same thing, which is, “I came in here thinking that these people were the problem. And I leave knowing that what they are able to pull off with one hand tied behind their back is unbelievable.”

I came in here thinking that these people were the problem. And I leave knowing that what they are able to pull off with one hand tied behind their back is unbelievable.

And my advice to leaders that come into government from the outside is first, hold your tongue. Respect what you are about to see because you’re going to feel really foolish when you leave because you’re going to see it’s very different than you thought. And that’s not to say that you’re not going to try to make change but try to make change in the systems that these people are stuck inside of. That’s the place where you can have the biggest impact is help them make the systems visible, help them fix the systems, unleash their creativity to fix the systems, and you’ll be amazed what you can accomplish.

The second thing I would encourage outsiders as they come in and this is more of a leadership philosophy of are you going to step into the mess with these people and roll up your sleeves and help them fix it or are you going to stand outside of it and just point at it and criticize it?

And we have too much of the latter going on where people just are trying to hold government accountable all the time. We’re just going to point at it. We’re going to put a performance measure on it and a target and we’re going to say, “Do it” as if that’s going to fix it. As opposed to the other style which says, “You know what? It is what it is. There’s nobody to blame for it. It’s a mess. And as a leader, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and I’m going to get in the mess with you and we’re going to work together to make this mess as beautiful as we can.”

And when you come to it with that kind of heart, people respond unbelievably. I mean they sign up to be a part of the change effort. But when you stand outside of it and criticize it and hold it accountable and stand away from it like, “It’s not my mess. You people fix it.” You’re going to get nothing but resistance.

Elisabeth Swan: Right. They’re used to that, right? They’re used to getting blamed, finger-pointed out, it’s your fault. And once they see someone coming in as a leader saying, “No, I’m with you. I get it. It’s not you. It’s the process. It’s the system. Let’s see what we can do to resolve.” I mean that probably is less frequent and so effective at motivating people.

Ken Miller: Yup. Yup. It’s not what you say. It’s what you do. And when they see you actually down on the floor with them fixing it, that’s all they need. That spreads like wildfire.

It’s so funny like in today’s performance culture, we’ve even got – there’s the big push for engagement, right? They want some employee engagement. And so, they are even trying to keep score on how well the employee engagement is happening.

If you walk into a room and start yelling at people and slapping them and criticizing them and then wondering why they’re not engaged, I mean it just makes no sense whatsoever. As I said in the book, “Nobody is …” Anyway, if somebody slaps you, you’re not going to go up and hug them. And there’s just so much of the people just standing outside of government slapping it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yup. And it reminds me of that saying, “The beatings will continue. The morale improves.”

Ken Miller: Exactly. Exactly. And that beating is – obviously, it’s not a physical beating. But it’s a beating in words. It’s a beating in the tone and tenor. But it’s this whole performance management mindset, this whole accountability mindset is the exact same thing. It’s just standing above saying, “You will get better. I’m setting this target for you and in six months, we’re going to see where you’re at.” That’s the exact same thing as the beating because it’s not physical fear but it’s psychological fear.

And the thing that I think corrodes any culture whether we’re talking government or any other business, fear. Fear is what kills innovation. Fear is what kills engagement. Fear is what causes CYA. Fear is what comes up all the works. And if we go all the way back to Dr. Deming in his 14 points, one of the big ones was drive out fear. The role of leadership is to drive out fear so people can come to work fearless and they could be engaged. They can contribute ideas. They can take risks. They can try things.

The role of leadership is to drive out fear so people can come to work fearless and they could be engaged. They can contribute ideas. They can take risks. They can try things.

But this whole performance culture, we just keep adding more and more fear to the workplace and then we step back and wonder why are people not engaged, why are they not contributing ideas, why don’t they want to be a part of the transformation?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah.

Ken Miller: So that’s the big question.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, speaking of fearless, we’re almost out of time and I just wanted to know that you just added a new member to your fearless team, Brian Elms, from the city of County Denver. So you snatched one of the good ones.

Ken Miller: There are so many good ones but he is really one of the good ones. Yes, he is fantastic.

Tracy O’Rourke: So what are you guys working on these days? What’s keeping your interest?

Ken Miller: Yeah. So a lot of it is this debate right now about performance in government. What’s keeping – again, if you’re into Lean and you understand systems thinking, systems thinking is about finding the system problems and working together to improve the flow, to improve the capacity. It’s focused on systems.

But so much of government reform is not focused on systems. It’s focused on performance and accountability and the idea that you can just define and measure and set a target, hold people accountable with consequences and somehow everything is going to get better. And it kind of then sold us this miracle cure that that’s all you have to do to fix things. It’s just hold it accountable for achievement of target, which runs completely counter to what Deming talked, what Ohno talked about. It’s the exact opposite of the systems culture.

And so, we’re seeing the canary in the minds for how bad the stuff is going to get is what we saw with Wells Fargo, what we saw with the Veterans Administration in terms of the appointment scandals, what we saw with the teachers on standardized test-cheating and standardized test score scandals.

We just keep seeing more and more examples of when you hold people accountable for a broken system and you don’t give them the ability to fix that system, all they can do is gaining the system. And that is happening in every industry everywhere. And it is a symptom of this performance cultures that are being created.

And so what I’m interested in and what I’m working on and what Brian and I are having some live debates about is, OK, what do you do instead? Because there is a rule for measurement, there is a rule for goal-setting, there is a rule for these things. But how do you do it in a way where it’s a fire that you can use to cook food as opposed to a fire that you use to burn down the village. And so that’s what we are engaged in right now.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, I cannot wait to see what the outcomes of that will be. So, I want to thank you, Ken, for joining me today at the Just-In-Time Café. I really enjoyed talking with you. If you want to get a hold of Ken Miller, the best way to do that is on his website at because he killed himself on LinkedIn, right Ken? You can’t find him on LinkedIn.

Ken Miller: I did. I did. It has been so peaceful since then.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, thank you so much for joining today, Ken. I really, really enjoyed speaking with you.

Ken Miller: Oh, it has been an honor. Thank you.

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