Have you ever started telling a story that seemed to have no end?

I have.

I did it with our first daughter who would insist every night I tell her the next bedtime adventure of the Pink Mummy Car (PMC)  – a rather limp-wristed Citroen 2CV I had unwisely invented in a rare moment of literary creativity (©, just in case there’s any commercial mileage in the idea in a future career as children’s author).

Many years later I find I’ve done the same thing with my tales of redemption through improvement at work.

Bringing five real but suitably disguised people plus a composite facilitator figure to life has reminded me of the power and richness of story telling.

As I said in my introduction to the stories, I knew the series would end with my reflections in a final post.  But I’d forgotten how many lessons these wonderful people have taught me.

So I’ve modified my original intention to only add some reflections.

In a self-denying ordinance I’ve decided to use this post to briefly highlight eight themes emerging from these tales of redemption.

In future posts I’ll go into some of the themes in more detail.  If any especially interest you let me know.

What did I learn from these clients, put-upon hosts for my various visits, colleagues, and team members?

Let’s start with the most important.

Leadership is critical

Without leadership, thorough-going transformation through lean/systems thinking is just not possible and that leadership has to come right from the top – as in my tale of Dave, the chief executive.

The customer is king (and queen)

Often challenging in the public sector, but a focus that both Jasminder (the registrar’s tale) and Jeannie (the mail room supervisor) had: by focusing on their customers’ needs they also made their operations more efficient and moved closer towards the ideal of doing no work that did not add value for their customers.

Get the basic principles right

There’s no single blueprint for lean/systems thinking (some zealots claim there is) and you must do what works for your organisation but there are some fundamental principles you must get right:  you’ll find them in all six tales and in the other themes here.

Get the culture right

Leaders – CE Dave with his belief in empowerment, the NHS trust with their culture change workshops – understand that the right behaviour throughout their organisations is essential to achieving the improvements they knew were needed.

Involve everyone

Part of the culture that’s needed but important enough to warrant emphasising separately – the people who do the work are the best to improve it (with help and support), not only CEOs and directors but the middle-ramking people like NHS property manager Mike and front line workers like housing depot storeman George who was, to be blunt, illiterate: oh, and watch out for the professionals who try to opt out (like the NHS trust medics).

How to do it – processes, tools and techniques

Understand that all work flows step by step in processes and use the right tools and techniques to improve how it’s done, from Jasminder’s brainstorming with her team to generate ideas, through Xyz Ltd’s use of A3 reports that NHS manager Mike saw, to  George’s 5S depot tidy ups.

Get some early wins under your belt

The tales don’t spell it out but both Jasminder’s registration service and Jeannie’s mail room were early wins for lean thinking in their organisations – this is not about glib low hanging fruit but proving early on that this approach to work both increases efficiency and improves customer service.

Support, support, support

Make sure your experts are supporters, the heroic facilitators of my last tale – not a tribe apart.

Finally, like my desperate attempts to dream up more and more bedtime PMC stories (see above) remember, as CE Dave said, the good stuff is never easy and it’s a never-ending journey – which is what the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle in my introduction to these six tales is all about.

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It’s sometimes difficult to get people working in the public sector to relate to the philosophy of business improvement variously known as systems or lean thinking.  The answer to the question “Where did this come from then?” involves, amongst many other things, reference back to the Second World War, the occupation of Japan, American teachers like W Edwards Deming, and the Toyota Corporation.

It can seem like a million miles away from, say, being a social worker in rural Scotland or a police officer in Bristol.

Throw in one of my lesser known heroes of improvement – the US Piggly Wiggly Corporation – and the disbelief can be complete.

Piggly Wiggly (let’s call them PWC) was founded in 1916 and has been through a number of ownerships and transformations.  Today it is a US grocery chain with 600+ franchise stores across 17 states.  But tucked away in its history are a number of innovations, for example (although disputed by some) the concept of the self-service grocery store.

The “improvement” link comes from the fact that by the 1950s they had developed an inventory system in their stores where stock was only reordered once it had been bought by customers.

The story goes that a Toyota delegation led by Taiichi Ohno, largely responsible for developing the Toyota Production System, was visiting the States in the 1950s to learn from the Ford Motor Company.  Alas, the waste they saw there did not impress.  But they also visited PWC and realised their inventory system could make their own car manufacture more efficient.  From that evolved the just-in-time manufacturing system, with components arriving on the production line as they were needed, no or minimal stock held, and the whole pace driven by customer orders.

I’d love to know how they came across PWC and the translations of Piggly Wiggly provided for them.  The possibilities remind me of a Spanish friend keen to improve his English who said to me “You say pussy cat? Can you also say pussy dog in English?”

PS – just-in-time applies to public services as well as retailing and manufacturing…

My thanks to Alan V for enlightening me about PWC and to Wikipedia whose article on Piggly Wiggly filled in some of the details


Efficiency = the ratio of the output to the input of any system.

In the public sector:

Inputs = money + staff + buildings + IT equipment + materials

Outputs = services (usually).

So improving efficiency means reducing the inputs to achieve the same output.

Mr Gradgrind would have loved the utilitarian equation implied by these relationships. If you can only reduce the inputs – get the staff to work harder, occupy less office space, eke out the IT kit for another year or two, ration the pencils.

The great and counter-intuitive truth is that the way to reduce the inputs is to devote the organisation entirely to serving the customer (Tomas Bata, whose quote I included in my last post, understood this instinctively: Serve! – he said – If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money).

It works like this.

All work should add value for the customer. Any work that does not is waste and should be eliminated (NVA or non-value added)

Think of your own work (if you don’t do paid work think of your own house). What, no waste that cannot be eliminated? Hmmm…

How you eliminate that waste by focussing on the customers’ needs is another matter but I have typically seen 20% – 25% NVA identified by a lean or systems thinking approach to work.

[Readers in the public sector bridling against the notions of “profit” and “customer” in their context– there are still some – are invited to contact me for a quick corrective lesson]