Continuous improvement and procurement reform

Since returning to academia I actually have been able to read books again in a serious way. One of the first books I read was a new collection of essays put together by The Brookings Institution titled Innovation in American Government: Challenges Opportunities and Dilemmas. The book contains papers by leading scholars who examine issues involved in creating productive innovation in government agencies.

The collection includes a fascinating paper by Olivia Golden a one-time student former academic colleague and recently confirmed assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services who reports on winners of the Ford Foundation Innovations in American Government Award in order to see what lessons can be learned from these successful new programs and management practices.

One of the most interesting findings in Golden's research is that the programs in the final form that won the Ford Foundation awards were typically quite different from the programs as first started. Instead the successful managers recognized by these awards typically got their innovations going and then in Golden's words made adjustments as they "learned from effective and ineffective approaches." The head of a successful job-training program described his managerial philosophy as: "Get it up and running and then fix it." Golden's conclusion: "Initial implementation is only the beginning of a process of constant change in response to information. Managers should not act thoughtlessly or entirely give up the tools of analysis. But they should not try to plan out too many details [and] they should act before they are sure that they are right."

The lesson learned which Golden draws from successful innovations in government should be familiar to people in the business world where it goes under the name "continuous improvement " a concept originally pioneered in Japanese industry. It's also not very different from the "build a little try a little fix a little" philosophy that many are increasingly trying to apply to software development. And whether it's software development or organizational change the point is the same. We're never going to get it completely right the first time so what you need to do is to get something out there use it and figure out how you need to adapt what you started with to what you've learned from experience with use. We are now at a stage in procurement reform where we really need to keep Golden's lesson centrally in our minds. Lots of innovations have over a short period of time been launched into the system such as past performance governmentwide acquisition contracts the revolutionized General Services Administration schedules oral presentations the Federal Acquisition Regulation l5 rewrite performance-based contracting and so forth.

The quick pace of change is a refreshing alternative to the paralysis by analysis that so often kills the ability to get the government to work better and cost less. But each of these changes is very much a work in progress. It is as good as certain that every one of them will require tweaks and jiggles in response to issues that nobody thought about when the innovations were first launched and to problems that nobody realized the innovations would create. Thus every one of these innovations a few years from now is certain to look different - and with luck to work better - than it did while in Release l.0. (By the way some ideas - though I hope not many - also will turn out in retrospect not to have been good ideas in the first place.)

Those involved in procurement innovation need to realize that the process of making such midcourse corrections is normal and indeed healthy. One of the main challenges for those with responsibility for shepherding procurement innovation during the next few years is to be skilled at and focused on gathering information from the trenches (from government and industry folks on the front lines as well as from news stories congressional hearings or even inspector general reports) about what's working and what isn't so that adjustments in the spirit of continuous improvement can be made. Nobody involved in any activity likes to learn there are problems but we need to overcome that natural reaction and realize that information about problems provides us with an opportunity to think creatively about remedies.

Understanding the implications of the idea of continuous improvement also poses a challenge for Congress IGs and the media. There is a tendency in our political culture to regard the very efforts at continuous improvement that made the Ford Foundation winners successful as a sign not of intelligent management but rather of failure or defeat. Information that some feature of an innovation isn't working right and needs to be adjusted is seen not as valuable intelligence that will allow helpful adjustments but as "revelations" that the change has caused problems. And in the same spirit the adjustments are viewed as admissions of the problems. Meanwhile the naysayers are ever-ready with a chorus of "I told you so."

We need to take on this destructive approach. Those involved in procurement innovation need to express their commitment to continuous improvement publicly including responding to problems that arise. And they need to point out that when they do so they are admitting nothing only affirming their philosophy that it's better to get started with needed change and to learn by doing than to sit on the sidelines on the cynic's bench and grumble about how nothing can ever get better.

-- Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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