Business Center

Extreme Government Makeover

Extreme Government Makeover: Increasing our Capacity to Do More Good

extreme government makeover

Author: Ken Miller
ISBN number: 0983373302
Posted: July 24, 2013
Summary by: Marcus Ritosa, Process Improvement Intern

Executive Summary

Ken Miller describes the main problem with government agencies today to be a lack of capacity.  Essentially, there is more demand than capacity to handle the demand.  Thus, his 2010 book, Extreme Government Makeover, focuses on applying process improvement techniques to increase capacity, and thereby increase customer satisfaction.

Miller identifies two main problems: “Kinked pipes” and “mold.”  Kinked pipes are an analogy to the broken and strung-out systems that are often employed to try to do the good work of government.  Mold is an analogy to the pervasive funk and toxic attitudes that surround the kinked pipes.  While attacking the mold is necessary, Miller asserts that straightening the systems and processes of government are what will systematically keep the mold from coming back.

The major failure, affectionately called “mold,” comes from a misplaced emphasis on trying to “fix” people instead of improving processes and systems.  Conventional wisdom says we just need to hire the right people, motivate them, and hold them accountable.  This results in an ingrained mindset that “unproductive” people are misplaced, unmotivated, and/or irresponsible.  Employing these flawed tactics has been tried and left wanting.  “Motivation techniques” are typically employed, trying to force movement of individuals instead of allowing them to do the excellent work they already want to do.  “Accountability efforts” are often used to judge the work of persons for things they have little control over.  What arises, therefore, are process that have many extra steps – steps added to the process just to avoid the possibility of future blame.  Alternatively, privatization of government services is sometimes suggested and often tried, but the same issues arise under the new management.  This gums up and kinks the pipes, the agency’s systems and processes.

To combat this poor view of the human person and government employee, we must realize that the science of motivation is fairly conclusive, and it doesn’t come in hardcover for $24.95. 

There are three primary drivers of employee engagement and motivation:

Master Autonomy Purpose

Government shines when it comes to purpose, which is the service of the public.  Mastery and autonomy often are most noticeable when the challenge of the job is just a bit ahead of an employee’s current capability, but still, within the employees reach.  Miller recommends we focus on purpose, mastery, and autonomy in government service, and eradicate the typical and misguided motivation efforts. This will allow us to treat each other as teammates rather than as parents and children.  He also notes that the “bad apples” also need to be removed from the workplace without hampering the effectiveness of the entire workforce.

By eliminating these outdated motivational techniques, managers can then focus on improving the systems and processes of government. A government should instead focus on helping employees with mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

However, we often are starting with some difficulties. Continual application of “this can never happen again” and Adam Smith’s division and simplification of labor have produced processes that are often only 5% “time-efficient” when comparing actual work time to total elapsed time – due to all of the steps often added to the process just to avoid the possibility of future blame.  Miller suggests, therefore, that by removing all of the toxic blame avoidance processes and by giving employees the opportunity to gain mastery and to see the purpose, the customers of government will receive much better products and will receive them much faster.

Five tactics are suggested to combat slow cumbersome processes (in addition to eliminating the “blame avoidance syndrome”):

1. Triage

Triage seeks to avoid making low-maintenance customers go through extra processing.

2. Parallel processing

Parallel processing allows employees to work independently and in parallel, instead of being forced to work sequentially.

3. Constraint-focus

Constraint-focus is about getting overall more “widgets” (deliverables) out to customers.

4. Batch-cutting

Batch-cutting allows faster flow through the process so that widgets don’t wait for each other.

5. Backlog-elimination

Backlogs are the result of batching, constraints, and special delays that have not been reduced / eliminated.  They simply need a succinct plan to be eliminated once and for all.

A common concern is that if the process goes faster, then quality will be sacrificed.  However, Miller shows examples where the opposite is true.  At its core, if a person is given a greater view of the overall product, and is given more time away from blame avoidance activities, then they can spend more time to verify the quality of their portion of work.  Additionally, if there are more inspectors, each only feels a fraction of the responsibility for the results. 


The techniques (such as checklists) that seek to error-proof processes are proposed as helpful in increasing the quality of process outputs. Moving faster and producing higher-quality products will lead to cost-savings.  Miller next introduces how the bottom line can be impacted through more specific principles.  Time, transactions, mistakes, specialist touches, and management intervention are all cost drivers.  Miller’s recommendation here is to reduce all of these, citing numerous examples.  For instance, reducing the “legalese” on mailers and forms will prevent the need for customers to call and ask for clarification, not to mention increased first-time success in responding to the mailer or form.  All of these aspects formerly cost time and money on the part of the customer and the agency.

Miller next makes a few distinctions regarding the overall structure of pipes and technology use.  There are only a few main “mission” pipes within any government agency.  These pipes are the most important because they actually serve the end role of government.  Thus, improvement efforts should start here.  All other processes should be ordered such that they can best support these mission pipes, often rightfully forsaking priority for other service pipes.  Many examples are given in this regard.  Miller then makes the distinction that technology for its own sake will not lead to a better process.  However, if technology allows for truly faster, better, and cheaper processes, then it can be considered a useful tool.  Also important is for managers to avoid using a perpetually pending new technology system from keeping them from making process improvements.  If a broken process is automated, it simply makes it harder to correct.

Miller finally lays out a grand implementation plan involving identifying and straightening the right pipes while eliminating the toxic practices of blame avoidance.  This section reiterates much that has been described in prior chapters, but it gives some helpful connections and suggestions given inevitable resistance.  The main steps are first to “get it” among the team, to “do it” with the team, and then to “live it” as an ingrained habit within the organization.