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  • Writer's pictureStratPlanTeam

Lean Government re-visited

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Is it time to revisit the promises Lean Government offered over a decade ago?

Janssen and Estevez (2013) summarised Lean-government as 'a set of tools, an approach, to reduce costs and improve services, a system, and a philosophy based on a smaller government that makes use of existing capabilities in the society to reach public values. The underlying premise is that societal problems can only be solved in collaboration with society. Lean-Government is about having a smaller government and making use of the capabilities, intelligence and resources of the public'.

In the post COVID-19 economic downturn, supply chain disruption, global conflicts, and ongoing inflationary pressures, many governments are on the difficult journey back to fiscal stability. Spiraling public debt levels are forcing governments to revisit old methodologies to reduce costs without losing the capability to innovate and improve public services.

Can governments do more with less by digitizing services as Lean government promised a decade ago? And can the new methods, practices, technology and governance models we have developed since then enable the Lean approach to work better this time?

Re-visiting the concept of Lean government

The original idea of Lean government aimed to reduce the complexity of the public sector by simplifying and streamlining organizational structures and processes. It coincidentally sought to foster innovation with other public entities, business and citizens and play a 'brokering' or orchestration role.

In an era where budgets were constrained, digital innovation is seen as an obvious means to reduce the administrative burden for businesses and governments and increase customer-centricity. Standardized processes and technology, open data, participative innovation and the effort to reduce the size and complexity of the public sector were all seen as necessary. The idea of 'smaller government' was seen as desirable - but not at the expense of the services that they use or any relinquishment of the expectation that government will address societal problems.

The key principles and concepts of Lean government include:

  1. Strong customer focus: Identifying and understanding the needs and expectations of citizens, residents, and other stakeholders as the central driver for decision-making and process improvement.

  2. The elimination of waste: Identifying and eliminating activities, processes, and resources that do not add value to service offerings. The seven types of waste in Lean thinking are noted as: overproduction, waiting, unnecessary transportation, over-processing, excess inventory, unnecessary motion, and defects.

  3. Continuous improvement: Encouraging a culture of continuous improvement, where all employees are empowered to suggest and implement changes that enhance efficiency and service quality. Techniques like Kaizen (small, incremental improvements) are commonly used.

  4. Process mapping and streamlining: Analyzing and visualizing existing processes to understand them, identify bottlenecks, and streamline procedures for improved efficiency.

  5. Standardization: Developing and implementing standardized work processes and procedures to reduce variability and improve consistency in service delivery.

  6. Lean tools and techniques: Adopting various Lean tools and techniques, such as Value Stream Mapping, the 5S system - Sort (Seiri), Set in Order (Seiton), Shine (Seiso), Standardize (Seiketsu), and Sustain (Shitsuke), that all provide methodology for sustaining a productive work environment. This can be supplemented with process improvement approaches such as Kanban and others.

  7. Data-driven decision making: Using data and performance metrics to make informed decisions and monitor progress towards goals.

  8. Employee Engagement: Involving employees at all levels in the transformation process, valuing their input, and encouraging a culture of collaboration and accountability.

  9. Cross-functional teams: Encouraging cross-functional teams to work together on process improvement projects and problem-solving.

  10. Transparency and accountability: Promoting transparency in government operations and holding leaders and organizations accountable for their performance.

Lean government was applied to a wide variety of public administration, including service delivery, regulatory processes, procurement, budgeting, and more. The ultimate aim was to deliver better services, reduce inefficiencies, and ensure that government resources are used effectively to meet the needs of the public.

In a lean government, responsibilities may still assigned to a single government agency, however it is recognised that the objectives can only be achieved with collaboration among multiple stakeholders (including citizens, businesses, and NGOs). This necessitates building an eco-system where all the actors play their roles in solving societal problems. Digital supports collaboration beyond the boundaries of government.

The focus on solutions being developed through a collaborative eco-system requires governments to step more into an orchestration role. This means focusing on the coordination of information flows, activating actors, stimulating collaboration and innovation, and ongoing monitoring. This results in less traditional control beyond the command-and-control chain. Platforms play a key role in connecting developers, service providers, government agencies and users with data, APIs, and applications.

Institutional settings also therefore need to shift toward open government where citizens are provided access to information and datasets and empowered to support policy-making. As well as allowing citizens to feel ownership, this provides another monitor for wastage.

Why did Lean Government often stall where it was tried ?

There are a number of reasons why Lean Government struggled to take root where it was attempted. These included:

  • The perception that it takes too much time or resources to apply. Because Lean is a new way to think and operate, it has been seen as requiring a heavy time and resource commitment. While there is no doubt that establishing a Lean approach does require focused effort and accompanying resource - the dividend of increased productivity and 'doing more with less' still holds. Arguably, Lean doesn’t require new investment as such, and is more a case of re-purposing existing resources. This re-purposing does require an initial injection of expertise but then the ongoing aim of 'doing more with less' with existing resources

  • The idea that lean is only applicable to manufacturing contexts and not government. In some circles the perception grew that Lean was somehow unsuitable for the work done by government. This notion may have stopped the conversation despite the reality that Lean can be pragmatically undertaken in diverse contexts. The focus should be on results rather than compliance.

  • That multi-year planning uncertainty will inhibit a Lean program. Government priorities generally span multiple years and seek long term outcomes and the dynamic real time emphasis of Lean can be seen as a mis-match. This perception is incorrect as the Lean culture should permeate all levels of organisations and support a better line of sight from strategic outcomes to the micro actions.

  • Lean won’t work because there is not clarity around who the ‘customer' is. Improving the value proposition of the end users is the priority of Lean and it is the job of any business (including government) to have a clear understanding of who its customer is. Revisiting exactly who the end customer is can be a powerful exercise for government agencies. The reality is there may be multiple customers and at different levels of separation. Better planning and workflows can help deliver quality products and service to government customers as with any other sector .

  • Lean doesn’t support the achievement of (government) policy objectives. The idea that the 'product' of government is not always definable and able to be put in actionable steps. While government outcomes are complex, this should not preclude the measurement of deliverables and performance. These metrics, even when imperfect, can still show a baseline level of performance and provide an impetus to improve.

  • Lean doesn't suit 'government employees'. For whatever reason, the perception grew that Lean was some how ill-suited for the work of government officials. This may have also been due to the association with the idea that Lean would result in a reduction of personnel/jobs. This is not the case despite the mantra of 'doing more with less' with the emphasis more around improved productivity than necessarily less personnel . Lean offers the opportunity to accentuate the 'mission driven culture' frequently found within government agencies and boost staff engagement and empowerment.

Indicators that a Lean approach could suit a particular government context

These are some indicators for government contexts that would benefit from Lean principles:

  • There is a high volume of work and it is hard to keep up. Lean can help manage a high workload and increase delivery capacity.

  • There are in-consistencies with how work is produced. There are variances in output related to volume or quality reflecting inherent challenges with processes.

  • Systems and processes have not kept up with changes in the operating environment, business, technology or other context.

  • There is low staff engagement and personnel are being burn-out

  • There seems to be limited capacity and capability to plan or innovate. Business as Usual (BAU) is the overwhelming focus and there is no time/space for anything that could take the organisation forward.

  • There is wastage akin to the Lean description: overproduction, waiting, unnecessary transportation, over-processing, excess inventory, unnecessary motion, and defects.

Who actually delivers government services anyway?

The line between public/private, government/non-government and other traditional views of societal institutions and how they interact is less relevant than they were in the past. Technology is now frequently outsourced and delivered by third parties. Private consultants have a revolving door/co-dependency arrangement with government agencies. The non-government sector also often delivers services at the local level in a manner that is frequently more efficient and more aligned with customer needs than government services.

Lean Government offers the opportunity to accelerate through digital innovation. Governments can discipline themselves to be closer to the end user by working with delivery capabilities wherever they reside - be that within government, the private sector, or non-government. If the service can be delivered efficiently and in a manner that best serves the needs of the customer - then where they sit is less relevant. Orchestration becomes obligatory. This does however also require Government to own the mission and everything that cascades from this including the Lean methodologies. 'Small government' is possible but requires sharp focus and a pragmatic and collaborative eco-system that acts with transparency and genuine good will towards the customer.


Lean and other approaches that advocate continuous improvement still hold value for Governments seeking to do 'more for less' and improve service delivery to its citizens. While Lean started in manufacturing, it offers a way of thinking that remains useful to government organisations. This includes the customer focus, the elimination of waste, continuous improvement, streamlining processes, standardisation, stream mapping, data driven, engagement, cross functional teams, and clear transparency and accountability.

Changes over the last decade give cause to re-think the lessons of Lean Government. This includes technological opportunities, societal expectations of government, and recognition of the systemic complexity of the challenges faced. The separation between public/private, citizen/state, human/machine are becoming increasingly blurred and the clarity of the Lean Government may be helpful. Re-visiting how we think about how government could allow a more pragmatic, collaborative, and outcome based approach to evolve.


Janssen, Marijn, Elsa Estevez, Elsa (2013) Lean government and platform-based governance—Doing more with less. Government Information Quarterly - Volume 30, supplement 1.


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