“Lean Management” Debated in the Washington Gubernatorial Race


Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with the help of Michael George, tried injecting talk of so-called “Lean Six Sigma” into the 2012 presidential race, but I think it was received as a bit of a novelty topic that illustrated the relative quirkiness of Gingrich.

The state of Washington has been working to apply Lean principles under the leadership of current governor Chris Gregoire (D), who is not running in 2012. The issue of Lean actually came up in the debates and was fact checked by the Seattle Times: “Truth Needle: A look at Inslee's ‘lean management' claim.”

The Democrat candidate, Jay Inslee, said:

“There is no reason on this green Earth that we have not embraced the efficiency measures in state government that have been so successful in private enterprise,” said Inslee, adding “these have not been used under any predecessor, Republican or Democrat.

Wait, but wasn't Washington already using Lean? Why is the Democrat candidate apparently criticizing the current governor of his own party?

“his campaign has since said that Inslee meant to say that previous governors have never fully embraced the practice.”

That's actually a pretty nuanced discussion of Lean in an election cycle. When we talk about private companies or hospitals, to say they “haven't fully embraced” Lean might mean that they are just using an isolated tool or two (like 5S or value stream mapping) or that Lean is just a bunch of projects instead of a new way of thinking.

What has Washington done with Lean?

“Perhaps recognizing these successes, Washington state government has been exploring lean since at least 2007. That year, the Department of Corrections implemented lean in its prisoner work program.

Other state agencies have followed suit in fits and starts.

One of the most talked-about examples is the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). It reduced the average wait time for eligibility interviews for public-assistance applicants from four weeks to 45 minutes or less, and cut processing time for those applications from about two weeks to a week or less.”

Gov. Gregiore issued a mandate that all executive cabinet agencies would, by August 31, 2012, complete a Lean project. At best, that's a way of kickstarting the use of Lean, although I'm not a big fan of blanket mandates like that. If a leader, in any type of organization, is mandated to Lean (and they aren't intrinsically motivated or passionate about Lean), you tend to get trivial projects where the results are likely not sustained.

A state rep “mocked” this approach as “dabbling” with Lean, that the governor has “not embraced it at all” and that it's a “fake program.”

He might be right. But, sometimes you have to start somewhere. Starting with projects can often lead to wholesale cultural transformation, as we've seen at ThedaCare and Virginia Mason Medical Center (in Seattle, and they are now coaching the state on Lean, after learning it from formerly-Seattle based Boeing).

As the Times writer said:

Ultimately, analyzing the strength of Gregoire's embrace of lean is a subjective exercise.

That's true. But, I'm encouraged that Washington is taking action and making progress. It sounds like, no matter which way the election turns, that Lean will continue to be a part of Washington's future. The Democrat clearly wants it and the Republican candidate, Rob McKenna (supported by local Lean advocate Paul Akers, who made Lean a center piece of his U.S. Senate primary run) wants Lean as well (see this video).

I wish Texas would start pursuing similar strategies, at least in a more public way (if Lean is being used in our state government today).

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I’ve written extensively on Lean in government – both the opportunities and the many fundamental problems. This post illustrates some of the criticisms and challenges. Remember, success by one political party is often characterized as (partial or total) failure by the other political party. Ultimately, how can Lean survive in a political, non-fact-based environment?

  2. I’m glad to see that lean thinking has taken hold, at least to some extent in my home state (Iowa). It’s not well publicized, and I’m uncertain as to what degree it’s taken root, but there have been inroads nevertheless. Last month a retired person with the Department of Agriculture now living in my area came to see me to learn more about lean. Here’s the link to the Iowa Office of Lean Enterprise site: http://lean.iowa.gov/index.html

  3. Hi Mark

    I kind of question whether some of the political types that toss the word around and claim they believe in LEAN actually do especially when they try to claim they are the ony ones that embrace it. It sounds a lot like the CEOs that used it as a flavor of the month, but never really did anything.

    We all know true LEAN is about slowly changing an organization’s culture to something better that serves both its customers and staff better. That simply takes time so anyone that even started has already done more than most people do. I hope that whoever they elect truly sticks with it, as it is a long never ending journey which is the true meaning of Continuous Improvement.

  4. Lean has also been introduced to county government in Washington State. Washington’s largest county in population is King County, home of Seattle, and the current County Executive, Dow Constantine, has started a major initiative for this. In both King County and Washington State, consultant registries have been established specifically for lean consultants to assist agencies in lean initiatives.


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