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We Don't Make Widgets

We Don't Make Widgets: Overcoming the Myths That Keep Government From Radically Improving

we dont make widgets

Author: Ken Miller
ISBN number: 0872894800
Posted: June 13, 2013
Summary by: Marcus Ritosa, Process Improvement Intern

Executive Summary

Government agencies are often viewed as ineffective and inefficient, in part due to their frequent inability to embrace the process improvement strategies that have proliferated over the past half-century.  Most of these improvement strategies have their roots in private manufacturing, which often gives the impression that such strategies will not work in government agencies.  This can lead to a situation where government agencies view their work as “too special” to benefit from these improvement strategies, and may encourage these agencies to make broad-stroke, arbitrary changes.

To avoid this, government agencies must reconstruct their paradigm, their internal mindset, to recognize that their organizations actually contain many different “factories” which produce “widgets”, and that these widgets satisfy “customers” to produce desirable “outcomes.”

There are three major “myths” that often prevent government agencies from effectively improving their operations:

  1. claiming that there is an absence of tangible “widgets” in government service
  2. the absence of paying customers
  3. the absence of a profit motive within government

The myth of the absence of tangible “widgets”

Widgets” are real, tangible products supplied to achieve a specific outcome for citizens.  Widgets are specific, measurable, finite things.  Each widget produced has a specific process of production, referred to in this book as a “factory.”  The first step in improvement is to realize that government is made up of factories that produce widgets, and such factories can be improved using the same techniques applied in private industry.  Often in government, widgets are things like “answers” or “approvals” or “experiences”, all of which could benefit significantly from increasing delivery speed by removing delays in complex, multi-interface processes.

The myth of the absence of paying customers

After we realize that government agencies produce widgets, we need to understand that each widget has a specific customer that it serves.  Although all customers’ needs are important, those of the actual “end user” customer are more important than those of “brokers” (people who aid only in delivering a widget to an end user).

Confusion regarding the priority of needs (end user needs vs. the needs of brokers) is common and is partly attributable to sources of funding or political considerations.  One major confusion stems from the labeling of “taxpayers” as “customers.”  In some ways, this is accurate.  For example, taxpayers drive on the roads paved by a government agency.  However, in other ways, it is not accurate. A strict analogy would place taxpayers akin to investors in a corporation, not customers.

Customer input is necessary for optimal widget design. However, despite their proliferation, surveys are often not the best way to discern customer needs.  Instead of trying to inspect (survey) quality into the widgets of government, focus groups are a better mechanism to allow real end users to provide open-ended input to the definition of customer value. 

Customer value generally falls along five different axes:

Cost Timeliness Accuracy Choice Ease-of-use

The myth of the absence of a profit motive within government 

Taxpayers demand that the government “produce a profit,” that is, government should offer a good return for their investment of tax dollars.  Since private-sector concepts such as dividends and stock valuation are not applicable for government agencies, the “return” received by taxpayers are the “results” achieved in society by government services.  The end desires and needs of citizens who use these services are the same thing that taxpayers want.  For instance, decreased recidivism of prison inmates is what both inmates (customers) and taxpayers (investors) want.  In this case, recidivism is a much better societal indicator of results than arrests, since the ideal society has no need to make any arrests.  To determine the optimal measurement of results and value, it is important to look past the immediate purpose of the current widget and to ask “Why?” a handful of times to discover the broader, underlying purposes.

There are many ways to approach implementing this different mindset to a government agency.  It is important to emphasize that this should be a core strategic effort of the agency, not a side initiative to be applied to irrelevant processes.  In any implementation, employees must be engaged and empowered by executives who must understand and desire to promote these efforts.  Success is determined by how well the original purpose of government is achieved: the efficient delivery of results toward the promotion of a well-functioning society.