The lean arm of the law
04 December 2011
Certain barriers must be overcome if the police service is to benefit from lean thinking, argue the University of Glamorgan's Dr Colin Rogers and W James P Gravelle
In times of austerity, public bodies are facing the problem of maintaining service delivery whilst facing large budgetary cutbacks. How organisations are to maintain this expected level of service to the public at the same time as adjusting their finances and restructuring themselves is highly problematic. One method, utilised previously throughout the private sector but recently adopted by public sector bodies such as the police service, is to utilise the 'lean' approach to business management.
There are several definitions of what constitutes lean thinking. Most people identify the concept with the Toyota production system of the early 1980s, but ideas on the subject have evolved and been updated since that time. In essence, the current lean approach revolves around five core principles, namely:
• The value of the service from the perspective of the customer;
• Identification of the value of the service, while challenging all of the wasted steps in the process;
• Making the 'product' flow continuously;
• Introducing communication between all steps where continuous flow is impossible;
• Managing the process to reduce the number of steps/time/information needed to serve the customer.
One of the underlying assumptions of this approach, therefore, is that organisations are made up of processes. By analysing the end result to establish what the customer believed was good and beneficial about a service and then working backwards, waste and processes that do not add value can be removed or readjusted. This elimination of unnecessary steps enables costs to be reduced while still providing the customer with a good service.
This approach is an appealing one and has been utilised by the police service across England and Wales in an effort to come to terms with the budgetary reductions they face. Although there are inherent problematic areas within this method, especially for public services such as the police, analysis and discussion can help to develop strategies to negate them.
The police service for example, has become obsessed with structure and process, which supports a hierarchical and rank-oriented view of how an organisation should function.
Consequently, the concept of 'customer' is an obscure one within police culture, despite much official rhetoric in the past decade or so exhorting the police to engage more closely with their customers – the community. Maybe this should not be surprising, as the police constantly deal with many people who are considered, perhaps, to reside at the lower end of our society for a number of reasons, and for whom the police can do very little other than enforce the law. In this matter, customers do not really have a choice, as ordinarily understood, because there is no alternative to the 'service' being provided.
Despite this, there are many occasions when the police interact with their customers that do not call for an 'enforcement' provision of service, and these areas can
offer a better avenue for the lean approach. Yet differing influences affect perceived definitions of what customer relations should encompass, and this – coupled with
a strong working culture that may not recognise customer relations work as being 'real' police work – creates difficulties for the application of the lean approach in policing.
Understanding service from the customers' perspective is a strong element of the lean process, and without this the approach is reduced to something resembling a mere job cutting exercise, which in the short term reduces costs and expenditure but does not guarantee the maintenance of a quality service to the customer.
Furthermore, the lean process by its very definition encourages a large amount of organisational change quite quickly. Given that most organisations and individuals within organisations are naturally resistant to change, this poses a threat to the police as they attempt to adjust to the new social and economic environment.
Hand-in-hand with the fact that the police can focus too much on process, the issue of silo working is an inherent part of the police set up. Developing specialism within the workforce inevitably creates elitism, with each specialist department believing that their work is more important than other departments, fuelling the subsequent possibility of non-cooperation and limited information sharing. Consequently, this also poses problems when implementing the lean process.
For the lean approach to be a truly effective mechanism that the police can use to reduce expenditure and maintain service to the community, it has to ensure that the following three major areas are scrutinised and understood completely:
• Understanding customer's needs and the service
• Overcoming resistance to change;
• Ensuring that departments work together in the lean process.
Once these issues have been addressed, the police service can apply the lean process to business restructuring with confidence that they will continue to provide a high quality service to their customer – the community – in an economical, efficient and effective manner.