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I see two key challenges for 21st century governments: lean operations and resilient design. While based on fundamentally distinct mindsets, mastering the two practices would drive similar benefits, primarily cost-reduction.

Lean operations refers to the general efficiency of governments and includes such activities as reducing process overlaps, looking for opportunities to share services within and accros government agencies. Lean operations have attained best practice status in the private sector, but governments have yet to fully catch up.

Designing for resilience addresses the growing complexity by-product of the increasingly large scale systems government is developing and managing. These support the systemically critical infrastructures that keep our society going: air traffic management, healthcare, etc. If you will, the government will need to become intimate with resilient design principles, the only likely antidote to complexity.

While consulting and technology players are quite intimate with lean operations, not the same can be said about resilient design. The latter involves a mindset shift that isn’t mainstream in engineering and business schools or subject matter expert circles. Resilience skills and thinking are indeed scarce even in the private sector.

More interestingly, the bottom up adaptive mechanisms of resilience may run into significant organizational push-back from governments used to top-down, centralized planning and control. In that sense, resilience is disruptive to brittle bureaucracies, but it may be the bitter pill governments have to swallow as pressure to reduce costs is mounting. And so, does the future of government spell the beginning of the end of the Big Government era? And are we now on the cusp of that fundamental shift?

In the U.S. it is the government itself that is interested in furthering the understanding of the design for resilience practice, or if you will looking at disrupting itself; however the disruption is mostly limited to the research side, and so it is mostly a theoretical exercise at this time. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA, the central research and development organization for the United States Department of Defense, is actively involved in finding ways to apply the principles of resilience and complexity to the problem of reducing development life-cycles (and therefore cost!) of large defense development programs. If DARPA will succeed in proving wrong the underlying assumptions behind Norman Augustine’s famous 16th law (defense budgets grow linearly but the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially), the know-how will likely quickly propagate across the entire U.S. government. Until then, those government contractors looking to stay ahead of the market curve would do well to read up on resilience. They should also roll their sleeves: reviewing case studies will likely not help them as shifting mindsets requires hands-on experience.

Photo source here.

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