Alan Robinson on Continuous Improvement for All and Practical Innovation in Government


Scroll down for how to subscribe, transcript, and more

My guest for Episode #451 of the Lean Blog Interviews Podcast is Dr. Alan G. Robinson. He specializes in managing ideas, building high-performance organizations, creativity, innovation, quality, and lean production. He is the co-author of 13 books, many of which have been translated into more than twenty-five languages.

Dr. Robinson is on the faculty of the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, and a B.A. and M.A. in mathematics from the University of Cambridge.

He has served on the Board of Examiners of the United States' Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and on the Board of Examiners for the Shingo Prizes for Excellence in Manufacturing.

He's a returning guest (Episode 217) – talked about one of his previous books (co-authored with Dean Schroeder) — The Idea-Driven Organization.

His bestselling book, Ideas Are Free, co-authored with Schroeder, was based on a global study of more than 150 organizations in 17 countries. It describes how the best companies go about getting large numbers of ideas from their front-line employees, and the competitive advantages they gain from this.

His new book, available now, also co-authored with Schroeder is Practical Innovation in Government: How Front-Line Leaders Are Transforming Public-Sector Organizations.

Today, we discuss topics and questions including:

  • As we've learned from you previously… “Roughly 80 percent of any organization's improvement potential lies in front-line ideas.” — Potential?
  • Continuous Improvement vs Innovation? Used to draw a distinction
  • The Tesla factory doesn't have the continuous improvement culture of NUMMI?
  • How much progress have you seen in terms of executives understanding the power of engaging everybody in bring forward and implementing ideas?
  • Alan's first book was with Shingo — “mass creativity”
  • UMass Memorial Health — 100,000 ideas and your role helping them?
  • Tell us about the new book — what prompted you and Dean to write this for this audience? What prompted the research?
  • Educating / influencing elected leaders vs. career government employees
  • The role of front-line leaders vs. senior leaders vs. elected officials?
  • Non-partisan – almost 50/50 from their research party wise
  • The phrase “practical innovation”?
  • Does adopting these practices mean we are “running government like a business”?? 
  • Adoption at local (including schools), state, or federal levels?
  • Does “practical innovation” get past pointing simply to budgets as a barrier?
  • Demanding cost savings or ROI is a kiss of death for improvement?
  • 1841 — Original article that invented cost/benefit analysis… “only useful for the simplest…”
  • Why cost/benefit analysis is stupid
  • Would we expect government in Japan to be a leader in Kaizen?

The podcast is sponsored by Stiles Associates, now in their 30th year of business. They are the go-to Lean recruiting firm serving the manufacturing, private equity, and healthcare industries. Learn more.

This podcast is part of the #LeanCommunicators network

Video of the Episode:

Thanks for listening or watching!

This podcast is part of the Lean Communicators network — check it out!

Automated Transcript (Not Guaranteed to be Defect Free)

Announcer (2s):
Welcome to the Lean Blog Podcast. Visit our website Now here's your host Mark Graban.

Mark Graban (13s):
Hi, it's Mark Graban here. Welcome to episode 451 of the podcast, it's July 27th, 2022. My guest today or returning guest is Dr. Alan G. Robinson. His most recent book is called Practical Innovation in Government: How Front-Line Leaders Are Transforming Public-Sector Organizations. But I hope if, if you don't work in government, please keep listening. We have a conversation that touches on continuous improvement in organizations of all types, manufacturing, healthcare, and of course different levels of government. So if you do work in government, here's an episode for you. But I think as you'll hear continuous improvement is continuous improvement and engaging people is engaging people.

Mark Graban (54s):
Leadership is leadership. So there are common themes here. Alan has a lot of great stories and insights here. I think you'll enjoy. So for links to his book and his website and more, you can go to . Thanks for listening Again. Our guest today, Dr. Alan G Robinson, he specializes in managing ideas, building high performance organizations, creativity, innovation, quality, and lean production. He, if you don't know him, I hope you do. But if otherwise, a good introduction to him today, he's a co author of 10 books, or is that now 11 with the new one, Alan, to interrupt the intro.

Mark Graban (1m 34s):
But 13 is the number I would use right now. Elaborate if you need it. 13 books, that's the number. It's hard to keep updated and bios and the website. Many of those books have been translated into more than 25 languages. Alan's on the faculty of the Isenberg school of management at the University of Massachusetts. He received his PhD in applied mathematics from the Whiting school at Johns Hopkins University. He has a BA and an MA in mathematics from the University of Cambridge. He served on the board of examiners for the US Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

Mark Graban (2m 14s):
And he's been on the board of examiners for the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing. So I'm going to tell you a little bit more about Alan, but first off, welcome. I should say, welcome back to the podcast. How are you? Thank you. Thank you. So, like I said, Alan's a returning guest episode 217. If you want to go back and listen to that back then, we talked about one of his previous books, a great book, coauthored. As many of his are with Dean Schroeder, a book called The Idea-Driven Organization. I recommend that really highly before that, how his best-selling book Ideas Are Free. Also coauthored with Dean Schroeder was based on a global study of more than 150 organizations in 17 countries talking about how the best companies get large numbers of ideas from their frontline employees and the competitive advantages from that.

Mark Graban (3m 8s):
So his new book, and we're going to spend a lot of our conversation on this available. Now coauthored again with Dean Schroeder is called Practical Innovation in Government: How Front-Line Leaders Are Transforming Public-Sector Organizations. Alan was kind enough to send me a manuscript and was able to read and endorse the book. So a lot of great ideas there, and you can learn more So again, congratulations on the new book. And, you know, before we kind of dive into that a little bit, you know, I was hoping you could recap first off, like if people don't want to listen to a whole episode about, you know, innovation and government, there's something for everyone to learn, you know, from your research, you know, as, as you've said previously, about 80% of any organization's improvement, potential lies in frontline ideas can tell, tell us how that came to be discovered and how that applies in so many different settings.

Alan Robinson (4m 6s):
Yeah, no, that's a, that's a great question. We, we don't measure these things ourselves, but whenever we find companies or organizations, I say, cause some government Oregon, like the US Navy and its research facilities measured it. We always jump on this measurement, which is that they will take some often it's cost savings or revenue generation or some measure of outcome. And they sometimes luckily for the world, but bad for them because it's really non-value adding activity. They taught up where the ideas come from. Usually it's because top leadership doesn't really believe that there's worth listening to the frontline.

Alan Robinson (4m 48s):
So it's some middle managers making the case, but it, we have data from lots and lots of companies and it always falls around 80, 80. There's a large chemical company. I'm not allowed to name, but you're wearing it's products right now. It's 85, 15 is their figure. And the funny thing is that number also holds for innovation as well. The number, if you actually measure where innovative ideas come from, it's usually between 70 or 80% start on the front lines and the very bottom of the organization, obviously with innovation, they need management involvement and so forth. But if you just look at where they start, you get those similar numbers.

Alan Robinson (5m 30s):
So it's just data. And I do advise my consulting clients when they say, oh, you know, should we measure it? You know, you don't need to, I know what it's going to tell you and why, why don't you just do it rather than spend hours adding up numbers that just tell you how much idea saved or generator. You don't really need that information. So, but there are enough people who've measured it to give us the data we need. Yeah. And I know from previous books that that data is very consistent in different countries, different industries. It really turns out to be true. Yeah, it's absolutely. Again, we don't control where it comes from, but we have, you know, government manufacturing service, wherever people want to measure it.

Alan Robinson (6m 17s):
And luckily, I, I say luckily, cause there's just, there's there's data. American Airlines used to track this data. It takes an average of four hours of a managers or professional staffers time to put a number on how much an idea is saved for generated. So if, when they're doing this, it's really chewing up a lot of their accounting capacity, but they always end up with 80%. So I say, please don't do it. And then at least don't say, I told you to do it. And usually the remedies just taught management education. Cause that's usually, that's where the demand for that comes from. So it's just, we're lucky that number exists because nobody should be tracking it except maybe some researchers.

Alan Robinson (6m 57s):
Yeah. And then I wonder if there's a temptation. I mean, you know, people like to say, well, my organization is different. I wonder how much this, so, okay. That might be true other places, but I don't know. I don't know if I believe it here. So that probably leads them, want to add it, wanting them to add it up. Yeah. So we say the 80 20 principles is carefully worded. It says that 80% of your improvement potential lies in front of the ideas. So probably the biggest current problem in this area is that people put up a suggestion box or online suggestion box is much more popular, but, and they say, oh, I've opened the channel to frontline ideas and I'm not seeing 80%.

Alan Robinson (7m 42s):
Well, you need leadership. You need, you don't just put a suggestion box on the wall. You need to train your people. Doing tapping frontline ideas is, is a, is a long-term pact with your employees for constant training and, and, you know, increasing their capacity to solve problems and to notice things. And then you have to, you know, set up the systems to handle these ideas. And, and unfortunately, very few managers know how to do that. So they end up with a very weak channel and they think that's what they're tapping, but they're really not. Yeah. So I'm glad you emphasized that potential. I mean, you know, thinking back to one of your previous books, ideas are free, but they're often not valued.

Mark Graban (8m 24s):
Or like I said, there's not structures in place. And you know, I think sadly somebody might make, you know, kind of a token attempt to gather ideas and then quickly, it's almost like they're trying to prove a point. Like, well, see, I told you so people aren't speaking up about their ideas and like, well, how hard did you try? Did you create psychological safety that made it okay for people to speak up? Like, there's that kind of that self fulfilling prophecy? It seems, unfortunately I've even been hired by unions to try to break down management so that they would listen to ideas from the union so that they wouldn't close the factories, thinking that it would keep her to go to a foreign country.

Mark Graban (9m 11s):
And it's not actually, if you know, you, you can take very highly paid American workers. And if you use their brains, you know, instead of just the wrong, and then you're more than competitive with people who are just basing their, their competitiveness on low wages. Yeah.

Alan Robinson (9m 29s):
I don't draw a distinction between the two anymore.

Alan Robinson (10m 23s):
I used to because I remember Dean, I was, I wish I'd been there, but he interviewed the inventor of the post-it note who said that was one big idea and 237 small ideas, art fry, because the truth is that an innovation, you know, sending a star ship to Mars involves some big ideas, some small ideas, the big ideas enable the small ideas, the small ideas feed the big ideas. And the overall thing is the innovation. So I don't think you can be very, if you just try to separate out. And I remember an early thinking, like Masaaiki IMai had his graph with continuous improvement versus innovation.

Alan Robinson (11m 7s):
I remember the University of Chicago study tried to compare the two, but the fact is I think that any innovation has that's big has hundreds of small ideas in it as well as big ideas. So it's, so you kind of need all of that. So I guess what I'm now telling people is if you want to be innovative, you need an ecosystem. You've gotta be able to, as we wrote in the book, this recent book, you've gotta be able to do it all together because if you leave out any part, the whole doesn't work very well. I don't know if I answered your question. No, no, that, that I, that makes a lot of sense. The way, the way you say that could even go with Toyota, which is known for, at both ends of this.

Alan Robinson (11m 52s):
And, and you, you could say, well, the Prius or the new mom mere I, the new Honda, the new hydrogen fuel car, you know, that wasn't just, oh, let's make a hydrogen fuel car. It's, it's, you know, it's a lot of things together. And if they didn't get all the small ideas, that thing wouldn't work right. And you could be a company that has very innovative products, but then if they're not tapping into their employees for continuous improvement, it seems like back to that word potential, there would be a lot of lost potential, like even looking at a certain factory in Fremont, California, that used to be run by Toyota and General Motors.

Mark Graban (12m 31s):
It was very much aimed to be, you know, that, that, that culture of continuous improvement and the new owners of that building, namely Tesla is not dancing around that are, are set to not have that same sort of culture that it's very engineered, driven, expert driven. And it seems like again, like potential loss potential. Yeah.

Alan Robinson (12m 56s):
I went there and I took my daughter there on a tour. We'll just a little Tutu train tour. And I think my undergraduates at Isenberg school would have picked up a lot wrong with that place on a speeding trolley. That cause even my daughter, who's a medical doctor. Who's going, what's going on here? This place. Meaning once it was a Tesla factory Tesla area, I don't mean to slander anybody, man. It's probably changed since then. But there was a most, you know, like most assembly lines in car factories. They, they, they snake around. They said we don't do that. We go up one side and then it stops.

Alan Robinson (13m 37s):
And then a robot that's named after a Marvel character, picks it up and puts it on the line that goes down the other way. And then it stops and it's picked up and put on the line going back. Why don't you just put a, and by the way, the robots break all the time and why don't you just sort of carry the conveyor belt around? And the thing can just, well, because Elon likes robots and, and you know that, but the place is shutting down because the robots don't work, but it's cool. So it was a fascinating to see that. And I'll, I'll just so I'll, I'll leave it at a positive, like you said, things maybe have changed, you know, Elan even made his own comments publicly when he tried to basically over automate the Tesla model three line, his famous comment of humans are underrated.

Alan Robinson (14m 23s):
That's right. And, and there is, oh, go ahead. Sorry. No, I was just going to say, you know, his background wasn't manufacturing, but it was sufficiently different than eccentric that I, I actually asked my tour guide. I said, have you had anybody in here with any sort of manufacturing, lean expertise? And the answer was there was one guy a while ago or something. So it just wasn't of interest. And that's a perfect, that's a perfect example because Tesla is incredibly trying to be incredibly innovative, but if their cars don't work and they break down all the time and they can't produce them, then they are less innovative than they could be. Yeah. Yeah. So hopefully they're starting to tap into that potential that I know what exists there and their workforce.

Alan Robinson (15m 6s):
I, I know that one guy and he's no, he's no longer there and we'll save that for another time. But so let's get back to, you know, continuous improvement and, you know, so anyway, I brought up this idea that, you know, not every company is on board with embracing frontline employee ideas.

Mark Graban (15m 27s):
I mean, I'm going to ask a generalized question, which is probably difficult to answer, but you've been at this a long time. So let's say looking from like 25 or 30 years ago to now, do you see more executives who are receptive, if not enthusiastic about engaging their frontline staff or, and I'll say this with an MBA degree, have MBA programs still just drummed into people's heads that they're the experts they're going to have all the answers when their executives are. We seeing change, not as much as I'd like to see in that space. It's extraordinary. And I just think it's because the older paradigms are extremely strongly held.

Alan Robinson (16m 9s):
I think, I think I'm certainly starting to understand more why it hasn't changed. And I think a lot of people are seeing that, you know, I, in idea-driven organization, we wrote a lot about this group at Stanford, that studies power and how it affects people. And of course that's what managers have is power. And if you go down that punch list of things that they discovered about people with power, not studying, particularly improvement or innovation, you know, they don't listen to people. They think they know better. I mean, it's just like a litany of things that mitigate against, you know, cognitively against being able to take in any information from others. So, yes, I think we're still very much stuck in the top-down sort of a mindset.

Alan Robinson (16m 49s):
And I think that we also are not educating our managers as well as we used to. I'm I, as you do, you know, I, I deal with a lot of management education and most of the places that most of the large companies have completely hobbled. There's a few exceptions, some hollowed out their management education. They send them to one day seminars or, but they're not developing unlike the U S military does whether they go to, you know, they make the next turn in the pipeline and they go to some school for kernels and then they go to a school for, you know, generals and there's more leadership development. And they're thinking about these things, the world has become so transactional. Then I think it's just a cost that often gets caught.

Alan Robinson (17m 29s):
So I'm fine.

Mark Graban (17m 30s):
I think if we had that old world of where managers, where the people put resources into training their managers, I think this is what they will be trained in, but they're not totally, I, I would hope so. I mean, I think of, you know, I wonder how many MBA programs are, you know, they, they may be telling students about lean, but how deep they're getting into that. I don't know. And are they framing it as, you know, cost reduction projects? Are they framing it as a culture? And as a management system, I know there, you know, Steve Spear at MIT has opportunity to teach some of the MBA students there about that. Another Sloan professor Zayep Ton, great book.

Mark Graban (18m 10s):
I've interviewed her called The Good Jobs sSrategy. Are you familiar with that?

Alan Robinson (18m 14s):
Oh, I know her. And she was an early ideas of free sort of fan as well, which informs a lot of her work in several of her sections are a lot about how you can get frontline people involved. And that's why you pay them more. Yeah. So I'm glad she emphasizes that, but, you know, yeah. So I can get an actual some there's some data here. Oh, Granger is a group of what's it called the lean educators summit that happens every year. And I went to the very first one and it went out on a national mailing lists. They invited all higher education, people who were interested in teaching lean to come. And you know, how many people came from the whole United States, eight people.

Alan Robinson (18m 55s):
I was going to guess 12. Yeah. Well, 12 was, it was filled out some professors from the home institution. I'm not really counting those just wasn't there. And I also remember being at a meeting at Lei with some of the older lean people. I put myself in that and saying, you know, why is there just not an interest in lean? So it's actually not, not just frontline ideas, it's lean in general for sure, because it's difficult. It requires people to think. And it does require you to be open to ideas from others. I mean, that's a big part of it years ago when I, I mean, you know, I was, I worked my wrote my first book with Shingo and I remember asking him on a cigarette of a stupid, canned question.

Alan Robinson (19m 39s):
I was way younger. What's the secret sauce to the Toyota production system. Everybody wants to know, and you always get a different answer, but he said, it's we for the first time in history, which wasn't quite true. But we, we managed to set off mass creativity. That's what it's all about. Pointed me to these ideas systems, you know, 40 years ago he said, he said, that's really where the action is. You'd get the frontline involved in constantly solving problems and making improvements. And so he kinda knew there wasn't the data we have now, but he was battling that 40 years ago. Yeah. Yeah. And that book, I have this book and I forgot that connection between you and Shigeo Shingo.

Mark Graban (20m 22s):
So the book's title up, put a link to it in the show notes, modern approaches to manufacturing improvements. The Shingo System that's from, that was back in the, that was like, that was back in the Norman Bodek productivity press days. Right.

Alan Robinson (20m 33s):
That's right.

Mark Graban (20m 34s):
So let's, let's talk about, and, and that, that conference, by the way, it's the lean educator, academic network, something like that, the acronym, the group spells LEAN. So one of the words is when you have an embedded network yeah.

Alan Robinson (20m 51s):
That makes yeah, I was there. I w I enjoyed it. I enjoyed meeting the other eight people in the United States, but there were only eight. Yeah.

Mark Graban (21m 1s):
So let's, let's talk about one of the CEO's who I, I think is exemplary in terms of wanting employee ideas and, and valuing them and, and working toward that culture. Somebody who I've interviewed a number of times, Dr. Eric Dickson, who's the, then the CEO at UMass Memorial Health, not far from you. I, I still think it's an exception rather than the norm in healthcare for him to have that belief and that passion, they recently reached a milestone that's worth mentioning of a 100,000 employee ideas that were implemented. And I think they would be the first to acknowledge that not collected, but actually implemented.

Mark Graban (21m 46s):
So congratulations to all of them. And, but I don't want to acknowledge or hear you tell Alan A. Little bit of, you know, the story of your interactions with Eric and with UMass.

Alan Robinson (21m 60s):
Well, I've known him a long time.He, he called me, I guess, right after, right before I did have an organization came, no, maybe, maybe it was 10 years ago. So before then, and he asked me, he wanted, he was COO at that point of UMass Memorial. And he wanted to have me talk to his 800 people at the management at their management retreat. So I did that and a lot of enthusiasm from him and people there. And then about a year later, I had an email just random email that said, hi, this is Eric Dickson. And it was titled a new CEO once idea system.

Alan Robinson (22m 41s):
And he had just been made CEO of that day. And he was writing me, he was headed off to Hawaii and he said, I'm headed off the why I want to talk as soon as I get back. But that was the first thing he wanted to do as far as I could tell him, it's on your first day on the job. You're you're, you know, so I am a teach to fish kind of person. And I, I sort of helped them. I trained there, they had a process improvement group. I can't remember the title of it, but there were sort of eight to 10 professionals who were doing mostly process work, you know, laying out mapping processes and helping teams. And Eric said, I want this frontline thing and I want it sort of done. Right. So I trained them and I helped them set up their pilots.

Alan Robinson (23m 24s):
And so we got them started. And of course they, to your original point, really, this is not rocket science. I mean, if you, if you want this to happen in your organization, you can make it happen. It's not at one level. It's not hard at another level. You know, it is hard because you're trying to raise level of thinking that goes on in your organization. And that that's, that's tough. But anyway, Eric, I, because I'm a teach to fish person and it's, if you're a professor like me, I have all, I think I have the ended up, I'm probably close to a hundred thousand students now. And they go out there. I lose track of them after they leave. I, unless they contact me and say, here's how I'm doing.

Alan Robinson (24m 4s):
So you were the person who told me that they had a hundred thousand ideas. I'm thrilled. I'm happy for them. They were up there since I left them.

Mark Graban (24m 12s):
It sounds like it did a good job teaching them to fish. And you know, that, that executive drive too, to not just take a stab at having a program, like, yeah, we did some training and then nothing happened. Like it, it requires that energy and that recognition and, and, and everything that Eric does as a leader. Yes. So he's, he's, yes, he's a wonderful leader. And he's, he's, he models it well himself.

Alan Robinson (24m 40s):
And he understood, he had, he had a few years to think about this as COO. And he understood, you know, and there's, there's other organizations that have done this in the healthcare spaces, you know, but, and they've, they've all had very special leaders and who were patient and thought in systems terms and were aware, they'd meet resistance and it's, it's fast. And I'm watching one of my kids go through, she's just finishing up her residency now. And the, the, this sort of modern, but there's modern side to medicine. And there's an incredibly archaic side. You know, it's basically a medieval apprentice system with hazing.

Mark Graban (25m 22s):
Unfortunately. Now you'd come in and say, now we're going to try an improvement culture. That's, that's a tough shift. Yeah. And you know, Eric's also, you know, mentored by a former Toyota person from Georgetown. And like you said, they have this internal team, some other great people who've come in from industry. Some people who come from healthcare. So Eric would be the first say he doesn't do it alone, but my gosh, he sets the tone. Yes. Direction and the expectation. Yes, absolutely. And you know, on, on his blog, which, when she maintains as a CEO, he will publicly recognize people and celebrate the improvements.

Mark Graban (26m 3s):
And I think that's one of the executive habits that, you know, a lot of people might say like, well, I, I I'm, I'm too busy. I'm going to delegate. I have an improvement person, but boy, when it comes from the CEO, even if someone, I think a lot of times I can't speak for Eric's organization, executive might have a process improvement person kind of feeding them. Like, here's what we'd like you to highlight. But then the fact that they, you know, send it out themselves, carries a lot of weight. Yeah, no, he was clear believer. I just go back to first day on the job. That's what he said his biggest priority was. And, you know, we ran with that. So yeah. So yeah, that's what you need. You need to be very dedicated and visionary to do this, but that being said, the steps you need to take are, I think, quite linear once you're past and become a leader of Eric's mold, like you said, it's, it's not rocket science, or we can say it's not brain surgery or it doesn't require degrees in applied mathematics.

Alan Robinson (26m 60s):
Yeah, that's right. Yeah. It's the same, same that lean as a whole, I would say it's not terribly complicated. It is systems thinking, which is very hard to, you know, thinking fast and slow, just made that point wonderfully. It's something we do not like to do as humans, but, you know, it's, it's, it's good that, you know, some people are leading that charge and that they're, they're asking you or, or others for help. So, you know, I'd love to shift the conversation now to, you know, different levels of government, you know, maybe, you know, a part of society or part of societies that might not have a reputation for innovation or, you know, kind of being on the forward edge of different management practices.

Mark Graban (27m 47s):
But now that I've bad mouth government, and I didn't really need to do that. But the new book again is practical innovation and government, how frontline leaders are transforming public sector organizations. So from, you know, things that Alan has shared with us so far, you know, I think, you know, the, the words in the title and the subtitle there, aren't surprising. So I'm curious first off, like origin story for this book of all the things you could research or look at, or write about why this book, why now, why, you know, highlighting government, as you know, it's been a while since I've actually looked at it. But I think the first line in the book is actually, we did not intend to write this book and I'm, I'm actually, don't consider myself a writer.

Alan Robinson (28m 33s):
I do the writer writing to support my habit, which is going out and investigating stuff. I really enjoy that. But what happened was after I did driven organization came out, we started to get a marked increase. Both Dean showed her and I, and a interest in how to do this and government. And we had a discussion by an earlier version of zoom and said, you know, we've done a lot of work in government. I've, I've done a lot of work in government and not just in the United States. And I we've always left these organizations feeling it, it never stopped. You know, they we'd get some enthusiastic leadership team and training.

Alan Robinson (29m 16s):
They do things for a few months and then it would die off and somebody would get transferred. And so we sort of realized there was a moment when we said, you know, we need to really take this for what it stopped coming in as private sector experts saying, all you gotta do is be like business and you'll be fine. We have to study government as it is, go in, look at what's actually going on. John Kotter says this beautifully, you know, his method of research, the same as mine, which is that you take a phenomenon and you look at some high performers, you look at some medium performers and you look at some low performers and you see what the differences are and you write about what's actionable and all that, you know, and that's all we did.

Alan Robinson (29m 57s):
We, we started looking out for examples of government organizations that were good at continuous improvement. You know, sometimes people think of, you know, Navy seals, you know, you would never say they're, they're used with reverence. You know, they step into the private sector and everybody wants to pay them all kinds of money for motivational speeches. And we're looking up to government there, you know, so there are some organizations this coincided with a sort of emerging movement that we, we didn't trigger, but we were there from the inception. And that was that there were a number of government organizations that had kind of figured out how to do continuous improvement in their context.

Alan Robinson (30m 40s):
So we had our high performers, we had plenty of medium and low performers. And we sort of, as we were writing the book, we realized that many of the lowest performers that we were looking at, they only lasted for, you know, the, their continuous improvement groups would last for nine months. A year often we weren't tracked, tracking down people after they been sort of laid off or sent back to their main, so to their main job, so to speak. But we just decided we were going to study this phenomenon from scratch. And we were really surprised by what we discovered. It was, you know, the government, what works in government is not what the private sector is telling them to do.

Alan Robinson (31m 22s):
We have had too many people coming in from, I won't name the companies, but saying, you know, I know how to do this. And they have no idea how government works. Government managers face a whole different world. It's like, I think this is, we were talking about healthcare earlier. This is very akin to what happened in healthcare early on. We have a lot of people coming in from the auto industry saying, here's how you should run your hospitals. We did a national survey of 900 doctors a few years ago, and they hated lean with a passion. And the comments in the comment section, all sort of said, you know, we, we deal with people. They have complex things. We, you can't, you can't crunch them into 10 minute slots and get cycle times and stuff like that, that doesn't takt time.

Alan Robinson (32m 7s):
It makes no sense in our context. And, and I think there was a lot of that going on in government too. And so once you actually look at well, what separated the top performers from the bottom performers, it came back to what I'd been studying all along. It wasn't that we went in, what you, you, you, you, you pointed out right. Rightly that the title of our book mentions frontline ideas in frontline leaders. And I've been doing that for 40 years. Yeah. Oddly enough, when we took a completely blank slate, look at government said, what's the difference between high performance and low performance and continuous improvement. It turned out to be involvement of frontline people. And when you do it properly in a government context, it really works.

Mark Graban (32m 49s):
It's very powerful. Yeah. Yeah. Now I remember, and gosh, I'd have to think, let me look real quick. What year it was. Do you know the name, Mike, George he's real well known for Lean Six Sigma.

Alan Robinson (33m 1s):

Mark Graban (33m 2s):
Combining Six Sigma

Alan Robinson (33m 3s):
One of. his books is behind me over my shoulder. Yeah.

Mark Graban (33m 6s):
And I interviewed him back in 2011 because he, he was sort of pushing and like, you know, to me, any of this should be nonpartisan. Like we're talking about government, we're not talking about politics, but he was really pushing lean six Sigma. Now he was trying to get candidates running for office at, let's say for Congress to sign this pledge that they were going to support lean six Sigma. And, you know, w what made me think of that was the difference between asking political leaders versus career government employees to be focusing on improvement, you know, do you, do, do you think trying to influence or educate elected leaders is maybe the wrong place to focus?

Mark Graban (33m 56s):
It's a leading question. Yeah, no, that's a great question. You know, there is one place where I've seen politicians write it into their charter, and that was new Brunswick where into campaign platforms, we're going to use six Sigma, but you're right. It doesn't.

Alan Robinson (34m 13s):
So, yeah. So this is a fundamentally non-partisan thing we had in our study. We had almost 50, 50 Republican administrations in cities, towns, states, and Democrats, you know, you pick the size of government, you pick what you want government to do. And that's where our book takes over. We'll tell you how to do it, you know, more efficiently and how to put them out and put them mechanisms on, on, on top of that. But the key thing, one of the key things we found was in this, in the high performers that had to sustain for a few years, you don't, you can't really get anything started unless it lasts for a few years, it had to survive changes in political leadership.

Alan Robinson (34m 56s):
So we first learned this in a tiny little town in Sweden called burrow loss. And this town manager, it's probably, you know, 50,000 people. And this town manager said to us, you know, the key thing is you got to not have identified with the political party. You've got to get it into the way we do our work. And then he gave us this lecture. We quoted in our book. He said, you know, in government, one of the issues is that the nature of leadership is very different. The people on the top that is the political class are usually less well-informed about how their organizations run. Then the people who work in them and in business, that's exactly the opposite.

Alan Robinson (35m 37s):
So the key, one of our early sort of ah-has was to start looking for how these leaders, and we have some examples in the book of some who didn't embed like Tony Blair, for example, did deliver-ology. He had it in his own office and it was Blair's deliver-ology. And guess what happened when he left office? The first thing they did was swept it out. But if you sort of put it into, you know, the office of management and budget or some, some other place where it becomes part of the machinery of government, and we didn't write this in the book, but that more or less example, what they did was they embedded the continuous improvement in the machinery of government.

Alan Robinson (36m 18s):
So there was like a door with finance on it and accounting, and then continuous improvement, you know, just along the corridor. And when the new political leadership came in, they had three days of orientation as to how government works. So they got orients and how here's, how the finances work. Okay. So they kind of, here's how this continuous improvement work and they just went oh, cool. And then on it went. Yeah. But you have to sort of untag it from the partisan side, if you like, because the next person is going to change it. Yeah. Yeah. I think one example of that, because healthcare in Canada is public sector. The province of Saskatchewan, maybe about 10 years ago had, you know, the party in power had this really high profile, lean healthcare initiative that became controversial in many ways.

Mark Graban (37m 3s):
You know, there's maybe, you know, employee, if not public resentment and bringing in their sensitivity to bring in Americans. I know that from working in Canada, there was sensitivity to the, the large expense of flying in people from Japan. And it became a highly partisan issue. It became a campaign issue where the party out of power, you know, looks for a wedge issue. And this, this really became you, you think this would all be very obscure within the inner machinery of, of healthcare, but I thought it was sad that it became partisan and, and the, and then, you know, people digging their heels.

Mark Graban (37m 44s):
And even if they were to say, well, you could see some good results. They, they won't accept it. There's just going to criticize it no matter what, and the other party, it's probably not healthier to paper over any problems and say everything here is great. Don't look behind the lean curtain if you will. But, but yeah, I mean, I, I appreciate your point about you see leaders from both parties. New Gincgrich was heavily aligned with Mike George in that 20 11, 20 12. Let's push lean six Sigma campaign, new Gingrich for all of his faults when there's a long list, but he was still in love with W Edwards Deming and his philosophy and, and, and all.

Mark Graban (38m 28s):
And then you have like, the state of Washington lean has survived. I forget if they're highlighted in book, but that survived from one democratic governor to the replacement, which is also a Democrat. I think that's not Jane oh, better, better yet. And then there are undoubtedly, well, I, I, you know, I think w w the city of Frisco, Texas, a lot of these city positions are probably nonpartisan, but, you know, it's a suburb, you know, that may be quote unquote conservative leadership. They've really been embracing lean in different parts of city government. There they partner with Toyota, sorry, I'm getting sidetracked here from asking you questions, but, you know, one of the positive examples was Frisco partnering up with Toyota to put together an amazing mass vaccination clinic collaborating and working together with them.

Mark Graban (39m 22s):
That would be maybe for your next research. You can go look at that, but, you know, I'm sure there are states or other areas where it's Republican or conservative government leaders, because that's typically where the quote unquote run government like a business seems to come from is from the Republican party.

Alan Robinson (39m 42s):
But that question of like, run it, run it like a business, which business. Yeah. I, well, I, I just think, you know, from what I've seen now, and I'm still, you know, you're actually my first podcast on this. I haven't really talked to anybody about the book other than just our, our brutal editor, but, you know, I'm just sort of realizing that we looked to the, we never said this isn't, that was just this longstanding assumption that the private sector knows best. We just need to hire all these people from all these exotic companies and they'll come in and tell us how to do it. And actually it's quite a different context. I mean, you know, even people from Toyota are not used to dealing with diverse and complex missions and diverse sets of stakeholders and transparency on all their expenditure, you know, and changes in leadership and all this stuff.

Alan Robinson (40m 33s):
And it's the reality. And if you want to change things, you got to deal with the reality. So it's, you know, I'm, I was, I'm thinking out loud here, but, you know, there's countless examples of famous business leaders who go into government and get killed because they don't understand how to build coalitions. And, you know, the politics of situations they're used to just issuing orders, which is a much simpler world. So I remember good. I remember in the good to great and the social sector as Jim Collins wrote that actually some of the best leaders we have are in government. They're just dealing with an order of magnitude, more complex problems, you know? So when you say, you know, or not, you, I'm not saying you, but when people say, oh, just hire these efficiency experts from private industry, it's probably a bad move.

Alan Robinson (41m 18s):
We need to develop a discipline. And that's why we wrote this book. We, we need to develop a discipline of how you do this in the government setting. How do you think about it? Yeah. So where do you find the most adoption of practical innovation or ideas systems are lean like at the local or school board level county, state, federal agency? We found it at all levels. And actually, and you know, one of our early examples, we have sort of 10 or 15 pages in the book about this was, it was the city of Denver and we kind of watched, you know, Michael Hancock, the mayor there, you know, he campaigned, he w he had been in city council for, I think he told us nine years, 10 years, 11 years before he became mayor.

Alan Robinson (42m 10s):
So he'd seen a lot of the problems. He'd seen a lot of people come in and try to force change in with private sector methods. And, you know, he's, he campaigned on continuous improvement. That was one of his platforms. And he said in a sort of Frank moment with us, he said, I, I think this is going to be, you know, my biggest legacy item to the city is creating a culture across the whole city. And of course, as you get, as you get further away from the front lines, you now are dealing with different set of issues. Because as we wrote in the book, you have to kind of puncture down layers of management and get things to happen on the front lines for this type of continuous improvement that you can't yourself, sort of see, see directly.

Alan Robinson (42m 51s):
So it, it was small units just with isolated managers. Those were the, some of the first ones we met that made these incredible transformative, innovative things happen and all the way up to entire cities and states just different styles. So the book sort of divides into two parts, you know, what do you do if you're a running on entire large city or a state, and what do you do if you're a local frontline leader or a middle manager, they're just different orders of problems.

Mark Graban (43m 18s):
They're still pulling the same leavers, but just in different ways. Yeah. I mean, you know, my understanding in Frisco, Texas, you know, I got invited in to visit, like it started in the library with the director. They, they have business challenges like Frisco is an incredibly high growth suburb population and demand for the library grows much faster than the tax space. There's kind of a lag there. And they, they, they, they, they have this challenge of like, well, we have too many books are out of stock or, you know, not available for people to come in. We can't buy more books.

Mark Graban (43m 59s):
We can't build a bigger building yet. They had to improve the flow of BA like their big challenge mainly was like, from when that book gets dropped off, get it on the shelf for somebody else to check out as soon as possible. Instead of assuming it's gotta be days, it could happen almost immediately, like literally smaller carts, you know, instead of accumulating a huge batch of books to go reshelve, they use smaller carts, which were also safer ergonomically people to push on the carpeted library. So, you know, what made me think of that is that that library director was certainly empowered.

Mark Graban (44m 38s):
Like they brought in a consultant who was a library improvement expert, or somebody who had used lean in particular. And then that caught the attention of others within government up to like, at least the city manager to then start spreading this to other directions. And the people from the library started becoming kind of internal change, spread champion. That's, that's how it happened in a number of states. We saw just one department sort of got it. It's, you know, it comes back, I guess, Toyota uses this as strategy, the model line approach, you know, you kind of create one thing and then everybody can go and get inspired by that. And that's one approach to doing it.

Alan Robinson (45m 18s):
And it's not the approach that, for example, Michael Hancock took, he, he tried to bring everybody along. You know, he talked about it's a little bit of a loaded term, but he talked about the coalition of the willing, which means he sort of started with people who he could say would really want to do this. And then he went to the early adopters to the early majority, all that kind of stuff. But the, you know, there are different approaches you can take, but that model, that organic model line one is this one you certainly see a lot. Yeah, yeah, yeah. There's, there's different ways of introducing and, and spreading this, you know, I think maybe at the federal level and correct me or add to this, the, the EPA has had a lean program.

Mark Graban (46m 2s):
You can find lean pages about lean on the EPA website. And my understanding is that they're using those ideas internally. Think of the military. I mean, I've seen speakers at conferences from different branches of the military, thinking about that.

Alan Robinson (46m 18s):
And the VA was another, they had it in their charter. They had a very proactive leader, you know? And so I guess it depends on your entry point, you know, you know, who are you and what are you trying to hold sway over here as to sort of how you proceed to do it. And those are the things we had to kind of figure out. And we had to opportunistically go to the, you know, high performance we could find cause there, because of you mentioned results, Washington, and the lien conference out there, that's a national conference. Now there's now a Canadian lean government summit. So, you know, these ideas are, are, are spreading and there's stuff going on in other countries too.

Alan Robinson (47m 3s):
That's just, mind-blowingly good. And it will gel, it's sort of in our academic language, it's pretty paradigmatic. You know, if people, if it's like the early days of quality or, you know, should you use inspectors or should you process better? You know, now we're kind of figuring it out. Now we say inspections, bad process. Good. You know, we have to get there with w with government too. There's a lot that still has to be figured out for sure. Yeah. And I'll apologize to the audience. Cause about 30% of my listeners are from outside the United States. And so I apologize for having my, my local bias here, but whether it's the U S or other countries, can you share Orlando?

Mark Graban (47m 41s):
There's, there's a lot of data. There's a lot of results that you've shared in the book. Is there a key kind of quantitative example of the impact of practical innovation or idea systems that, that, that first comes to mind for you? Well, that's interesting usually, and that's a great question. It depends on, and this is the way you embed yourself into a government setting. So you don't get fired with the next change of administration is you have to be trying to fulfill the strategic goals of the leadership. And if that's your function, they will keep you around.

Alan Robinson (48m 24s):
As long as you have a track record of doing that. So those strategic goals have changed for, you know, a lot of organizations we wrote in, in the book about how, you know, in the state of Washington, they oyster industry. We have actually a series of articles about this too, but the, in the Puget sound, the oyster industry was failing due to pollution. And they had no, they had tried and tried and tried to solve this problem. And then results Washington was called in and it applied some lean. And now the oyster industry is safe again. And it's a huge, you know, economy. And they had to literally track down individual septic tanks that were leaking and the, because everything in Washington, the difficulty in Washington, it rains all the time.

Alan Robinson (49m 11s):
So everything's constantly questions in the bay. So you, you know, if I'm sitting on top of a hill right now, but if I was in Washington, my septic stuff would go into the bay and they have dog poop and geese poop and, you know, dairy farms and all kinds of, they had to track it all down and figure it out. And a very, very 27 state agencies and like five federal agencies and four native American tribes. And that's, that's typical government problem. And they figured it out. So yes, we've had a mind lab and Denmark has become a model for that's a policy setting Institute. When we often, when we put laws into effect, we have no idea of their consequences and they decided to have it have an Institute that would study the impact of laws before they were made.

Alan Robinson (49m 58s):
And so they could save a lot of money on laws that were, could be implemented for much more, much less, less expensively than people sitting in Washington would know without what the information they have. You know, so there's highways, England, which is they have, we don't even have them here. They have smart highways over there. They have they're they're they're I forget the exact numbers, but they're high. The national highway system was rated for, I will invent the number 10 million vehicles day. And they're now at like 40 million vehicles a day infrastructure. And they what's called smart highways. They've eliminated the shoulders to the roads. And if you break down, you pull over and a system of cameras will immediately shut down the road behind you and traffic.

Alan Robinson (50m 43s):
And so they can use the shoulders dynamically. And the time there is no shoulder until somebody stops and within 30 seconds, everything's flowing again, stuff like that. They can reduce speed limits if there's bottlenecks. So you, they are pushing way more traffic through. And that was a classic, I would say, implement the implementation of lean, but it had a twist in it. One of the other sort of high-level findings of our book is the private sector has a lot to learn from the public sector. There's stuff going on in the public sector and continuous improvement that the private sector is way behind on. And one of them is highways. England said we have all these suppliers and wouldn't it be cool if they all exchanged ideas and improvements between each other.

Alan Robinson (51m 28s):
And so we became one giant learning organization and they figured out how to incentivize one contractor to tell another contractor of an improvement that that contractor could use, because they had a system of cross payments and sharing profits and cost savings. And so all the contractors are phoning each other saying, you know, if you had painted this way, it saves 12 hours. And they were calling their direct competitors to stuff, you know, and giving them improvement ideas, which would, you know, that's not antitrust, that's something, but it's not antitrust helping your competitive. So there's, there was just a lot of, but it always depended on the context of, and this is why, you know, businesses kind of could be cynically said, it's all about money, you know, but in government they have so many different things they have to, you know, sometimes people want better library books.

Alan Robinson (52m 16s):
Sometimes people want more park areas. And sometimes people worried about the state of the roads and, you know, they have to just deliver and set those continuous improvement systems for what the needs are. So, yeah.

Mark Graban (52m 28s):
Well, I mean, I, I love how there are examples. And even just looking to the book description there about things like better service to the public, to citizens constituents, the one example cited here, Denver department of excise and licenses reduced wait times from 100 minutes to seven minutes. Like that's the kind of flow improvement that you would expect from Lee. It was yeah, 100 minutes maximum wait times of eight hours, because these were for commercial licenses for liquor stores and security guards and stuff.

Alan Robinson (53m 1s):
So it was not driver's license, but they reduced it from average of a hundred minutes, maximum of, of eight hours down to literally nothing seven minutes first, and then six months later, literally nothing. And that was despite a doubling in the volume of licenses because the economy's booming and they never asked for any additional personnel. So when you look at that from the outside back to one of your points in the beginning, is that innovation or, or what, you know, it was, it was all done through step-by-step ideas, but the outcome is totally different than what it was before. And, and then for licensing actually went on to head then, because it was deemed the showcase department, the most innovative department to head Denver's marijuana.

Alan Robinson (53m 44s):
It was the first city to legalize recreational marijuana, and they had to figure all that out and license it. And they did that in addition to having no lines and the same personnel. I mean, it's, that's Navy seals of excellence. And there's just a lot of pockets of that around. We could all learn from, I mean, it comes back to your, your point of, you know, people might, so businesses are only focused on money. I think we could say the best businesses focus on more, this just the bottom line. Again, there's a difference between the cost cutters and the improvers, right, where we'd say, well, you know, better financial performance would be a result of providing better customer service and better quality, a better safety, things like that.

Mark Graban (54m 30s):
So I could see if a cost cutter was running the library, they would, they would probably be tempted to say, well, let's, let's save money by slashing the budget for books. And then maybe the public gets fed up and says, I wish I could use the library, but they never have books. So I'll just go buy a used book somewhere. And then they get out of the library habit and then they might say, well, why, why someone coming to the library anymore? And then they'd have to cut costs again. Yeah.

Alan Robinson (54m 54s):
And then running it like a business, a mistake we came across a lot was just subcontracting it out and then giving your sub-contractors incentives just to cut, cut, cut without perhaps intending to. So that's why we said very often we, and we didn't really spell this out too much in the book that when you treat government too much like a business, you just create a different set of problems and they're often much worse.

Mark Graban (55m 16s):
Yeah. Yeah. So I wanted to ask two other questions about, well, one question about the title of the book, the phrase, practical innovation. Did you, like, how did you center in on, on, on that phrase, did you get better response from people that you were working with? Or there are,

Alan Robinson (55m 35s):
our publisher has a process that it uses for titles and it's a, it's a Qualtrics survey that they send out and we did like four or five rounds of them. We had to send them out to like 3000 of our contacts. And I believe you were one of them. I don't know if you would respond to that. Probably did. Yeah. If they used your name, I probably did. Yeah. I appreciate that. And they'd say, we know we have the following sort of 10 titles, which do you prefer? And then they had subtitles as well. And they would mix and match and note trends. We noticed we had a, I forget the name of the actual title we had, but that you can slice and dice this data in beautiful ways.

Alan Robinson (56m 18s):
And one, one point we found there was a, was it a 70% response rate? Everybody loved this title, but there were 30% who just said no. So then you started slicing it. And it was the people in government who hated it. I said, well, I think our audience, you know, audience probably government people. So let's, let's, you know, take that message.

Mark Graban (56m 38s):
And I think the message of the title said, you know how you can be more like a business or something that was, that that assumption took us years to break. Wow. Before we were able to say, let's just look at government for what it is as it is and see what works and what doesn't there stop coming in from an outside perspective. And I've been in the private sector as you have for, you know, decades. And I've seen some incredibly good stuff. And it was temptation to say, oh, I'll just do that in government. But talons put his finger on that years ago when he said, you know, people in business are used to, are used to much more top down people follow orders. They have much more control over resources and actions. And so you're operating in this kind of haze in government where you've got to make coalitions happen and get stakeholders involved.

Alan Robinson (57m 26s):
And that requires a lot more leadership than we have. Yeah. Real leadership instead of falling back on power and hierarchy and command and control. Yeah. Yes. And if you try to do that in government, it just doesn't work. You last a few years and then you're thrown out and everybody says prison didn't really change much.

Mark Graban (57m 45s):
Yeah. So when it seems like one dynamic with government is, you know, budgets and budgeting cycles and you know, people in private sector and nonprofit healthcare, if you ask them, what do you need to improve? Like, to me, it's always the mores, right? I need more people. I need more space. I need more money. Does practical innovation help governments get past that trap of saying like, well, Hey, wait, there's, there's a lot we could do, but we don't have the budget, like finding ways to actually improve within existing budget.

Alan Robinson (58m 16s):
Yeah. Yeah, it does. I think, I think that's actually the, at the very heart of it, because this, what we found was that this kind of management driven improvement, meaning where managers make most of the improvement falls, which is the most prevalent form in business. When people came in and tried to do that in government, it didn't work. So they went to frontline improvement. And that consists of in the case of say Denver licensing, which you just brought up hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of small ideas, which cost almost nothing to implement. You know? And, and so it's this, I, I think we have, we have an entire chapter on the book about why managers miss these. They're largely invisible.

Alan Robinson (58m 57s):
They're off the radar screen to anybody who's not doing the work. So, you know, to, to give you one example, we, we talked, one of our, one of the ideas we wrote out from Denver licensing was they have people have to do the criminal background checks to get licenses, to be security guards and stuff, and teacher. And they, they, they had a terminal in the lobby where you could do it yourself, but it was so confusing that almost everybody would get up and approach the desk. And a licensing technician would have to come out and help them. And now nobody outside of the waiting lines or the technicians really knew about that problem.

Alan Robinson (59m 40s):
But, and somebody said, why don't we just write a clear set of instructions so that people can, you know, with screenshots, people can do it themselves. And you take that idea. It's saved 35 interruptions per day, five minutes each you do the math. It works out to something like 780 hours year that when you just clean up this manual, take 780 hours is like, you know, 20 weeks full-time for somebody. So, and then you have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of those, but each one is deceptively small. You say, oh, I don't really have, you know, it's not really important. We need to think about the big stuff.

Alan Robinson (1h 0m 20s):
But when you get hundreds of things like that, pretty soon, you're running a totally different department. And, and so there isn't really, there weren't, there weren't any budget items I'm trying to think, going back to Denver licensing, I can't name anything that cost them money of any kind. It was all just process improvements that they did. And so there was just like that. I mean, maybe you could say to paper for printing the clear instructions that it was all at that level. I think th the cumulative impact of all these invisible ideas and that's the 80% 80, 20 principle is just enormous and it's, it requires managers to be educated.

Alan Robinson (1h 1m 3s):
So they know that like Eric Dickson knows that's where the real action is in his organization for moving it forward. Yeah. Yeah. That's a very, I, I recognize that dynamic of people, frontline staff or leaders kind of discounting like, well, that idea is not worth anything. And then, but when you see hundreds or thousands of ideas and suddenly like, okay, wow, now that's making a cumulative difference. And that's the difference between, like, I think maybe the habit of certain types of businesses that would demand ROI analysis before any idea was improved. That seems like a kiss of death for any sort of idea program or innovation, or one of my, I don't know if you can see over my shoulder, but I used the shoe box method of research.

Alan Robinson (1h 1m 47s):
I sort of pick a topic and I, that I'm interested in and I write little notes and tear stuff out and put it in. And I also do it on the computer, but one of my shoe boxes for a long time was, and I have, I have yet to write this article was about cost benefit analysis, which is astonishingly poor tool for what it's set up to do. And people, March of sin, probably the most famous living economist wrote an article why cost benefit analysis is stupid. That's I'm gonna look that up. And, you know, and, and I remember I worked a lot in England and it was this kind of a joke, but I remember the head of a large insurance company that I was working for.

Alan Robinson (1h 2m 30s):
He was asking for ROI on all the ideas and people were saying, we're just, it's just creating a lot of work for us. And so I had to go into this man. And he actually said, I have a first in physics from Cambridge. And I always been told he was, I went to one business school, always been told that, you know, you manage businesses by the numbers. You gotta help me out with this. And I was feeling frivolous. I have a tendency to be inappropriate when I handled it with pompous people. I said, I can give you the half-hour explanation or the 32nd explanation. And he said, well, okay, I'll try the 32nd explanation. And I said, cost benefit analysis was invented by the French.

Alan Robinson (1h 3m 11s):
He had the boosted suit on and everything. And he said, I think I'm gonna need more than that, but it's actually, you go back to the original. Have you ever had a chance to read the original article proposing cost benefit analysis? It's an actual point in time where the day before it didn't exist and it was written by a French industrial engineer. And when you get it, he said, it says, here's what you should do, but watch out for the following things. This technique is only useful for the simplest of decisions where you only have one or two variables, don't try and do it after that. It's all, hand-waving my worry. Is that because it's the first quantitative technique.

Alan Robinson (1h 3m 51s):
This was in 1841 before. Wow. It, my worry is because it reduces it to one number. Managers will take this too seriously and I've have some studies somewhere in here. I'm dying to write this article and I get time, but I have another one I'm even more excited about that. But there was another one that got another article on cost benefit analysis that came up that said, it's wrong? What does it, how does it work? 80%? No, the average cost benefit analysis is off by 80%. And it's frequently asked by more than a hundred percent meaning that that was the, they did some studies of how, because it's, it's meant to predict something is what it's meant to tell you is you change something.

Alan Robinson (1h 4m 33s):
This is how your bottom line is going to change. So you can actually test it if you have enough time and energy. So it's off plus or minus 80%. And who, if I propose that to you now, you'd say I don't have time for a tool like that. That's ridiculous, but we use it. And then it's frequently off by more than a hundred percent, meaning that it's telling you to do something you shouldn't or telling you not to do something you should. That's just crazy. Yeah. And there's so many cases where, I mean, at some point in my career, I think I came up with this notion that, well, if, if an executive wants to do something and there's not a good cost benefit analysis, they'll call it a strategic initiative. Yes. Or know how many, how many times where people just saying, give me the cost benefit analysis that proves this is a good idea.

Alan Robinson (1h 5m 19s):
Oh, that sounds like a waste of time to your point. That is exactly how I break leaders out of the cost money. I say, you know, this isn't really, let's not measure let's, you know, what are your strategic goals here? If you, if you were running a top restaurant in a big city, would you be saying we want cost savings, ideas and ROI on every no, you're you understand that if it is a strategic initiative, you know, if you have great service and great culture and good food, the money will take care of itself. So you look at the drivers and so you're absolutely right. That's, that's the flip. And so I often find myself, I've worked in some very financially driven organizations right now. And I just kind of say, well, what's your strategy, you know? And they say, oh, well, we're going to go buy these, this land in Florida.

Alan Robinson (1h 6m 3s):
And okay, well, let's do that well, and then the money will fall. But if you're questioning people about the dollars all the way along, it's a recipe for actually completely valueless. I, I very much look forward to you writing that article.

Mark Graban (1h 6m 18s):
So please let me know when, when that articles out, as, as we wrap up here, just a couple, maybe final questions. So I think we've known, and we've seen from experience and reports and research, we're having it, that, that people in any country can do continuous improvement. That it's about the leadership and the organization culture. We know the French can do it. We know people in, in, in any country can do it, but we also know not every company in Japan is a Toyota culture.

Alan Robinson (1h 6m 46s):
Oh yeah. There's willingly bad Japanese companies. Yeah. So there's always that danger in generalizing. But now back to when it comes to government, did you find like if people would expect Japanese government to embrace some of these ideas, do you have any evidence of that or any samples of government in Japan? No. In government is notoriously inefficient in Japan, but I did work for the Singaporean government for a number of years. Hey, you know, they, they, they have a lot of stuff, right. I mean, there that, that country, and I hate to say this as an American is probably 15 years ahead of where we are.

Alan Robinson (1h 7m 27s):
You step into the future and it's all little stuff, you know, but it's a driven leadership. And I remember reading, I'm not being, being political at all, but I remember working in Singapore, I read an article and it said, was it the bleak one? You who just died? Their leader said that he was worried because Singapore's growth rate was now 15% GDP, 15% growth per year. And unless we hired more of the best and the brightest from the world and Lord them to Singapore, you know, we weren't going to be able to sustain that growth. We, I get back to the United States and the headline was exactly all. We got to keep these, you know, people out and I work in a university and we, we actually spend us taxpayer money educating the world.

Alan Robinson (1h 8m 12s):
And then we went out right after they, their computer science degree, starting a company here, for example. Yeah. It's just a completely different philosophy. So Singapore is, is a, is a continuously improving, innovative their government. It just values this stuff. And as we said throughout, actually this is not rocket science. They, you know, they've, they've done a good job. Japan. I've spent a lot of time there. My, my, my brother worked there for 12 years and my dad was a professor at Tokyo university. You know, the job that the Japanese government has as far as I'm aware, not embraced these.

Mark Graban (1h 8m 46s):
And this is a fairly recent, maybe I should reiterate, this is a fairly recent movement worldwide. I mean, it's probably six or seven or eight years old, but what the, the what's changed is people have discovered what really works. And so that part, I see expanding rather quickly, it will, you know, from, for improvement oriented leadership. Yeah. Yeah. In Singapore, like for example, the airport, which that's gotta be public sector is world-renowned as being the best airport best managed organization. Yeah. I mean, they, they do all kinds of things that are just stunning. The day recycle all their water.

Mark Graban (1h 9m 26s):
They Malaysia tried to cut them off from water.

Alan Robinson (1h 9m 30s):
There's always been a sort of, you know, Singapore broke away from Malaysia, it's infinite. And they had a contract on their water. And the previous prime minister of Malaysia said, because Singapore has no natural source of water. You know, when it expired in 2015, I think it was, this is the story. They were going to quadruple the price of water, which would have wrecked Singapore because it all came over the Joe Hort straits in a pipe. And so Lee Kuan yew with a continuous improvement, he said, we're going to, Singapore has to be a hundred percent self-sufficient water within five years. And so now they had the world, the initiative was called IPU, literally, meaning that stuff that goes down the drain is all recycled.

Alan Robinson (1h 10m 12s):
They have recycling plants. They had the on 80% of Singapore's a catchment area. So whenever it rains, which it does a lot, they catch it. And now Singapore, I was, when I was at this factory, Arnold Schwartzenegger was coming the next day with a delegation from California to learn how you could have it so that anything flushed down your sink or toilet would appear in water. It's late happens in nature, you know, but afterwards the upside of the story that at the end of it is that Singapore, once they cut off that pipe, they don't use, they have their own water. Now they, Malaysia was trying to set up a big port, right in your column core with container shipping and Singapore bought the two largest shipping companies and that shipped there and diverted all their shipments to other countries as a punishment.

Alan Robinson (1h 11m 4s):
But I, I'm not no political statement there it's five years to self-sufficiency and water and slamming back this country that tried to cut them off. Yeah.

Mark Graban (1h 11m 12s):
It comes back to the strategic goals, your strategic imperatives right now. And they, they, they took that on. So it would be interesting, interesting to see what Japan, I'm sure your book will make its way to Japan in English. If it's not translated and look, you know, going back 10 years ago, people would have pointed people within Japanese healthcare would say back then it was still very rare for a Japanese hospital to be embracing the Toyota production system or lean or whatever we call it. And that, but that's, that's been picking up Toyota in Japan is now working with at least one hospital nearby them. And, you know, they may not be the first mover with certain technologies, if you will, but you know, they'll, they'll catch up and there'll be things to learn from them.

Mark Graban (1h 12m 2s):
Like final, final story I'll tell about that is, you know, American hospitals from Seattle that would go to Japan to learn from factories because they would say, we want to learn from the best organizations. And we don't want people to be just copying what some other hospital did or that's not the best organizations in Japan. And so then they bring these lessons back to Seattle and you know, where Japanese hospitals, we're going to learn about lean Virginia Mason. Yeah. They're flying to Seattle instead of like, you know, cutting out the middle what's.

Alan Robinson (1h 12m 33s):
She was also one of the people endorsed our books, Wendy Coursera Smith used to had founded and used to head results, Washington. So she moved from government across to healthcare at the highest level. So, you know, they, they sort of certainly respected what she'd done in government.

Mark Graban (1h 12m 51s):
Yeah. And you know, they, they've had a CEO, Gary Kaplan, Dr. Kaplan, incredibly supportive of lean and improvements. And as he's retiring, you know, he, he, you know, it sounds like, you know, the, the, the intent is that the new CEO is going to continue this forward. So I hope that continues to be a good place to go and learn from. So, Alan, thank you for being so generous with your time here. I mean, it's, it's, it's great talking with you and the book again, the most recent book, and, and again, I can't recommend enough, you know, again, going back to the book with Mr. Shingo, I lost that the, the, the manufacturing improvement book, but ideas are the manufacturing improvement.

Mark Graban (1h 13m 36s):
Was that yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you for that. Ideas are free. The idea driven organization, the more recent and really impactful books for me. And then again, the new book, Practical Innovation in Government: How Front-Line Leaders Are Transforming Public-Sector Organizations. So as you're listening to the podcast it's available, now, you can go learn more at You can find the book anywhere you would find books online, I suppose. So, Alan, thank you. Thank you again, and congratulations to you and Dean on the launch of the book.

Mark Graban (1h 14m 16s):
And I'll look forward to talking to you again someday.

Alan Robinson (1h 14m 19s):
Thank you. I enjoyed talking with you.

Announcer (1h 14m 19s):
Thanks for listening. This has been the Lean Blog Podcast. For leading news and commentary updated daily, visit If you have any questions or comments about this podcast, email Mark

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleTorbjorn Netland, PhD on Company Production Systems, Lean & Technology, and More
Next articleLean Whiskey #34: Crazy Ideas, From Shipping Flowers to Crab Whiskey
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.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.