Detroit Elects a Lean Thinking Mayor? Will it Make a Difference?



I grew up just outside of Detroit, so I'm always pulling for the city to turn things around.

The newly-elected mayor, Mike Duggan, is the former CEO of Detroit Medical Center. Back in 2009, I blogged about a radio commercial for DMC that featured Duggan talking about healthcare quality improvement.

A hat tip goes to my dad for noticing a mention of Lean in a local news article about Duggan taking office:

Q: What are the first five things that a Mike Duggan administration has to do?

A:  We're going after police response times. The same way I went after emergency room wait times (at the Detroit Medical Center. Police response times) will be my first effort in the door, and I am a huge believer in lean processing. If you are not excellent at making systems work, you cannot survive at the hospital; it's the heart of the culture. So I want to take a look at why the police don't come, aside from the staffing issue.

The streetlights have got to get fixed. … We've got to get that moving a lot faster. Getting the abandoned houses dealt with so they're taken, not just demolished. I'm going to tear apart this business permitting process system that's driving business investment away so we can get some jobs in here. And then I'm going after the bus system so the buses are fixed and they run on time.

So those are the five things I'm looking at in my first year. And if we're sitting here in 12 months and the buses are starting to run on time and the businesses are starting to open in some of these vacant storefronts, and the streetlights are starting to come on and the police are showing up, and the abandoned houses are starting to get occupied, I think you'll start to see a change in the population loss trends, and that's where we're really trying to get to.

Detroit has had a lot of problems with really slow police and EMS response times. You can see more on the city's metrics dashboard website, started by outgoing mayor, Dave Bing.

I don't have any first-hand knowledge of Lean improvement work that took place at DMC. They do have a current job posting for a Lean role, at least.

I am encouraged that Duggan is looking at systemic issues and processes that lead to slow response times. Lean is a great way to improve process flow, by reducing delays and other barriers (rather than just asking people to work faster).

I hope being “excellent at making systems work” really is a part of the culture at Detroit Medical Center… and I hope it becomes part of the culture of the city.

Detroit, like General Motors, has a huge systemic challenge of declining market share. GM's market share fell from 50% to under 20%… meaning that the number of retirees (and their pension and healthcare costs) couldn't be supported by the amount of current sales.

The city has seen their population has fallen from almost 2 million to about 700,000, meaning they can't afford the services required to support the same square mileage with 1/3 the population.

GM made some great progress in the factories… but Lean thinking (and Lean methods) in the factories wasn't enough to save the company from bankruptcy, due to the financial problems that were created by that huge decline in market share.

Lean thinking and excellent Lean improvement at the factories wasn't enough to save GM from its shrinking market share. Will fixing some core processes in Detroit really attract people back into the city? Or will this just be window dressing that makes life a bit better for those who remain?

Can Lean thinking save Detroit?

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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. My hometown is is Windsor, Ontario – right across the river from Detroit so it is a city that is near and dear to my heart. I spent every weekend of my childhood crossing the border to go shopping in Eastern Market with my parents. I have hope and belief that with the right leadership and creative thinking, Detroit can be turned around and the city can be revived. And using Lean!! This is very exciting news and I can’t wait to see how the next year unfolds.

    All the best Mr. Duggan!

  2. Well, I, too, hope he is successful. If he only gets half of his targets he will be doing well.

    GM shed its pensions and health care onto the taxpayers through its bankruptcy, if I understand it right. So, they got to start over. Same with Chrysler. Alan Mulally did it right, mortgaged the whole ranch to turn Ford around and he has done that, for sure. Leadership. Without leadership, nothing else matters. Detroit has not had leadership for decades. Just crony corruption.

    I’m betting that Detroit has, or will, shed much of its obligations onto the taxpayers of the USA, too. I’m not following it closely but… and see.

    Tip ‘O The Hat to Mr. Duggan.

  3. I think Lean Thinking, in the true sense of the word, is what’s needed. They don’t need just “drive-by Kaizen”, but a true alignment of the “organization” that is the city (residences, businesses, and organizations). They need a way to not only decrease the number of move-outs (dissatisfied customers), but also to improve the number of move-ins (new customers), and that takes innovation to increase the perceived value of living in the city.

    I’m sure they’re looking into this, because it’s basic marketing, but I wonder what are the top 3 factors for move outs, and the top 3 factors for new residents. If these new lean initiatives can impact what matters to city residents, then yes, Lean can save the city.

    Also, they need a Robocop statue. That would get the job done.

  4. A lean mindset should be the default, especially in government operations. It can be done…I’ve been there and done that. The people I worked with were receptive and over time, more engaged in processes. A collective mind-set that worked. For some reason, few government employees ask why too often. But when they start, operations improve….

  5. Mike, I agree. BUT, my experience has been that while processes improved, staff did not go down. In fact, it increased. So, what I came to realize was that we had faux Lean going on. It never translated to true reduced costs.

    In one case, they got more streets repaired. In another case, it did translate into building permits available in one month rather than six, but still the dept. costs didn’t go down. Their service did get great kudo’s from contractors, however.

    In a true Lean effort, the leaders have to figure out what they are going to do with the 30% excess person hours that will become available. If they don’t, they’ll kill the golden goose. They’ll get one shot and that will be the end. Nobody is willingly the architect of the bullet that slays them.

    So, since government doesn’t have to make a profit, perhaps only keep costs from rising, there is some hope but imho, not a lot. Too many compensation systems built on the number of people reporting to you.


  6. From this article:

    “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a mayor get out and ride with a city worker and listen to a city worker,” Johnson said. “This mayor is starting with the workers who do the work (and) who are at the bottom of the ladder, but (have) the ideas to make things work better.”


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