Published: 9 Jul 2016

Jiju Antony and Bryan Rodgers explore the relationship between public sector organisations and Lean Six Sigma, arguing that as an excellence methodology it can create more efficient and effective processes.

Given the wide range of services provided in the UK public sector and the different ways in which those services touch individuals and communities, the breadth and scale of the public sector can be easily missed.

To help put things in context in terms of the size of the public sector in the UK, 17 per cent of all people in employment work in the public sector.

In considering the financial cost of the public sector, central government received £53.6bn in income in February 2016 and spent £57.1bn, with just about two-thirds of this being in central government departments such as health, education and defence.

At the same time, Lean and Six Sigma are two most popular and dominant process excellence methodologies widely adopted by a number of manufacturing and service organisations for achieving process efficiency and effectiveness, which results in superior customer service experience, superior product and service quality, enhanced business profitability and sustainable competitive advantage.

Six Sigma has evolved over the last three decades and continues to expand since its inception at Motorola in the mid-1980s.

Lean Six Sigma and the public sector perspective

The public sector in the UK remains both a significant employer over a range of areas, notably health and education and is maintained at significant cost to the taxpayer, albeit within the financial challenges that have been growing since 2007 and which will continue over the next decade.

The need to direct public services where the public in general and service users specifically most need and most value has never been more important. Nor has the need to do this in the most effective and efficient manner.

What are the options then public services to achieve more for less and is Lean Six Sigma a myth or a reality?

While Lean and Six Sigma have been argued as being complementary (Souraj and Carretero, 2010, The integration of Six Sigma and Lean management, International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, Volume 1) we have what each are in turn and how they can be applied. It can be argued that there is more evidence (to date) of the application of Lean in the UK public sector than Six Sigma. However, examples of both do exist.

Within local government there has been recognition that Lean and Six Sigma have been increasingly applied together but few case studies have been identified (Furterer and Elshennawy, 2005, Implementation of TQM and Lean Six Sigma tools in local government: a framework and a case study, Total Quality Management and Business Excellence, Volume 16, Issue 10).

There have also been examples of case studies on the transfer of Lean from manufacturing to UK government departments (Radnor and Johnston, 2013, Lean in UK Government: internal efficiency or customer service. Production Planning and Control).

The UK National Health Service has been using Lean principles prior to 2001 and possibly as early as 1995 (Luciano Brandao de Souza, 2009, Trends and approaches in lean healthcare, Leadership in Health Services, Volume 22).

Body of evidence

Lean is becoming more acceptable as there is a growing body of evidence of sustainable results, case studies of the successful application of Lean include areas such as the physical flow of materials around hospitals, managerial and support case studies around areas such as: finance and IT, patient flow case studies, which include challenges such as waiting times and movement around facilities, and organisational case studies which include strategic and cultural plans for healthcare.

It should be stated that the relevance of Six Sigma to the NHS has also been presented (J Antony, Downey-Ennis, K Antony, Seow, 2007, Can Six Sigma be the 'cure' for our 'ailing' NHS?, Leadership in Health Services, Volume 20).

In education, the challenges, barriers and success factors have been explored (J Antony, Krishan, Cullen, Kumar, 2012 Lean Six Sigma for higher education institutions: Challenges, barriers, success factors, tools/techniques, International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Volume 61) as they relate to higher education institutions.

However, we would suggest that there is a gap in the publication of relevant case studies for the UK and we would seek to partially rectify this further on in this article.

Beyond health and education, public sector case studies have been published for policing (Barton, 2011, Initial findings from a study of five UK police forces, EuroMA Conference), and the Customs and Revenue Service and Courts Service (Radnor and Johnston, 2013, Lean in UK Government: internal efficiency or customer service. Production Planning and Control)

Although Lean Six Sigma has been around for nearly 15 years, a number of professionals in public sector organisations still view it as confined to manufacturing and having very little to do with business processes in higher education, councils, fire and rescue, ambulance and police services and healthcare environments.

Lean in the age of austerity

The Local Government Association (LGA) has predicted that councils around the country will face a shortfall of almost £10bn by 2020 due to a variety of factors and before any further cuts are even made.

The same is the case for all other public sector organisations across the country including the NHS, higher education institutions, police force, fire and ambulance services, etc.

The question which arises is how exactly local government and other public sector organisations can survive or even flourish in the forthcoming years?

We argue that Lean Six Sigma can be embraced by all public sector organisations to create efficient and effective processes which provide enhanced customer experience and value at reduced operational costs.

We would also argue that the application is more widely spread than many people realise, but there has not yet been an evidential base showing exactly how beneficial the use of Lean Six Sigma in the public services has been to date.

Additionally, activity has been delivered on a piecemeal basis, which can lead to some feeling that it is a fad or feeling that it is something that is done to them by consultants or specialists rather than sustainable and good practice in delivering public services across the entire gamut of the sector.

The key question now is how the public sector works together in a way that maximises benefits, reduces duplication and delivers a customer focused and integrated service.

Heriot-Watt University in Scotland is currently pursuing a number of research led projects on Lean Six Sigma in the context of public sector organisations, including maturity models, readiness factors for adopting Lean Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma toolkit and Leadership for Lean Six Sigma in a public services context.

We are also developing an international network on this topic so that we can share and learn from other public sector organisations around the world and develop the best-in-class practice for creating efficient and effective processes.

Jiju Antony is professor of quality management at the School of Management and Languages, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and Bryan Rodgers is superintendent at Police Scotland.