What is Lean?
Lean is a term that describes a management philosophy and set of practices used to develop the highest quality products or services, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead time. The concept was refined and popularized by Toyota in the post-World War II era and has since been used successfully by hospitals, service providers, and federal, state and local government.
In July of 2019, DEC revised a 3 Year Lean Implementation Plan to help solidify our efforts. The plan lays out the organizational structure supporting our Lean Initiative, training opportunities, the process used for identifying and initiating projects, metrics being tracked and changes to implement within the program moving forward. For a concise outline of the program's accomplishments, see the State Fiscal Year 2021 Lean Annual Report.
Lean at DEC
The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began its Lean journey in earnest in 2013 with support from the Vermont legislature. Since that time, DEC has initiated or supported over 49 Lean projects including grant and contract processing, petroleum cleanup fund reimbursements, public noticing, groundwater reclassification, source water permitting, and state revolving loan fund audits. In each case, diverse teams of staff were brought together over the course of several days to analyze the existing process and recommend improvements. Those recommendations serve as the basis for project specific implementation plans that help move ideas to reality. At project completion, key performance indicators (quantifiable measures of success identified during the Lean process) allow us to determine whether or not we're achieving our goals of creating a more effective and efficient government.
Organizations practice Lean for three main reasons:
- To ensure that all business processes meet existing and emerging needs.
- To maximize the use of resources in the delivery of services or the production of goods.
- To create a drive and appetite for improved performance within their employees.
At its core, Lean is about two things: continuous improvement and respect for people. Continuous improvement being the ongoing improvement of processes through the identification and elimination of waste. Respect for people being the belief that staff are an organization's greatest resource when it comes to identifying potential improvements. In a Lean organization, these two principles are a strong component of the culture. At all levels, staff are encouraged, empowered, and given the tools and knowledge necessary to identify problems and solve them.
Lean can play out many ways within an organization depending on its size, structure, and purpose. It can include:
- Structured, in-depth looks at workplace processes with large teams ("kaizen" events).
- Focused problem solving time with small teams ("mini-kaizen" events).
- Incremental improvements to individual tasks.
- Goal setting with associated performance targets.
To be successful, any Lean effort must follow the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. This cycle is similar to the scientific method, in which you pose a question, gather background data, construct a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, analyze the results, and draw a conclusion. In Lean however, the cycle doesn't end, you simply start again. If improvements were gained, they become the new standard moving forward. If improvements were not realized, then you must adjust your plan.