Lean processing 'proven to offer considerable productivity gains'

Lean processing may be one of the methods being used by public sector organisations that are trying to reduce their costs and improve their productivity at the present time.

Cuts from the coalition government, which is trying to reduce the UK's budget deficit, mean many public sector organisations are under a lot of pressure at the moment.

They are being forced to find ways to scale back the amount of money they are spending each year and if front line services are going to be protected, there will have to be a thorough examination of how productivity can be increased behind the scenes.

According to Nick Downham, a programme lead at the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, a wide range of organisations could see benefits as a result of the implementation of lean processing in the workplace, with food production, support services, manufacturing, healthcare, government departments, defence repair and overhaul among those mentioned.

"Lean offers a great deal of opportunity to the public sector. Lean thinking concentrates on the relentless pursuit of value through the organisation. With this single-minded conviction, waste and inefficient processes are exposed and removed from the organisation," he said.

In order for lean processing to be successful for public sector organisations, there is a need for every tier of the organisation to get behind the need for productivity to be increased.

It was noted those on the shop floor of a firm often have the best view of the way things are done in a body, so it is important to get them on board with the process.

However, management teams may need to take a leap of faith if they are to embrace the principles behind lean processing, due to the fact they are going to have to take a more collaborative approach to the running of the organisation, rather than the traditional style.

Mr Downham pointed out that a lot of the time, public sector organisations can be extremely complicated, with a vast number of people employed at them. Some NHS trusts, for example, may employ over ten thousand members of staff, so although it may be rare for them to have this many, those implementing lean processing should bear this in mind.

There may also be a lack of a tangible product at the end of a process in a public sector body, with government departments coming to decisions rather than a completed product - which can be a vastly different method of production than that which takes place at a car manufacturing plant, for example.

"They often don't have the luxury of a physical finished product and thus a process on which to visualise and hang efficient business processes around," said Mr Downham, who said the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement has been able to implement lean processing in areas such as wards, operating theatres and community-based teams.

Healthcare organisations in the NHS have been able to achieve significant success through using the institute's lean-based programmes in order to improve both manual processes - including elements of ward based care - and more decision-based processes, such as in general practice, it was added.

Lean processing also has to be explained to members of staff contextually, so they are able to grasp why changes are being made in an organisation and the positive impact it is going to have. They therefore need the techniques to be translated and adapted to their own work, as it would not work to just send people on courses or to give them textbooks on the idea.

Public sector bodies are already reaping the benefits of lean processing, Mr Downham said, citing the example of University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, which saved £2 million using The Productive Operating Theatre, while tens of thousands of pounds has been saved through better planning in general practices, as well as community teams being able to increase capacity by 25 per cent.

The trust employs 7,900 staff offer over 100 different clinical services across nine different sites and is one of the UK's largest acute NHS Trusts with a 2008-2009 income of £454 million.

However, it was pointed out there are more advantages to taking lean processing on board in a workplace than economic benefits, with the expectations of the general public able to be better met as a result of the implementation of the practices.

Mr Downham said: "Staff are happier and the public don't need to constantly hunt for a work around to get what they need from a service; for example going to Accident and Emergency because they cannot get an appointment with their doctor."

He concluded by noting there is more to the successful implementation of lean processing in the workplace than simply equipping members of staff with the tools to do so. The specialist noted some organisations believe they are succeeding, although progress is more due to lean being seen as a way of thinking, while lean has to cross organisational boundaries in order to be at its most effective, which can lead to further challenges being posed.

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