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Best Books to Buy: "We Don't Make Widgets" by Ken Miller - GoLeanSixSigma.com

This month’s book is We Don’t Make Widgets: Overcoming the Myths That Keep Government From Radically Improving by Ken Miller.

About the Book:
"We Don't Make Widgets" by Ken Miller - GoLeanSixSigma.com

“What we believe about government – that we don’t make widgets, that we don’t have customers, and they we’re not here to make a profit – all feed the bigger myth: That we’re different. That somehow the improvement everybody else is making can’t possibly work here. That what we do is unique. And that the modern industrial movement of the past quarter century has no relevance to our day-to-day operations.”

Ken Miller debunks myths, exposes panaceas and rewrites the rules of process improvement for government and beyond. This book has you alternately laughing and heading to town hall to see how you can help. His refreshing approach to radically improving government comes from years spent in bureaucratic foxholes. He’s been inside government. He’s consulted to government. He’s even helped corporations design better widgets. This all places him in a unique position – and he makes great use of it.

In the process of challenging limiting myths, Mr. Miller turns some long-established conceits on their head. He’s got a novel response to the endless refrain of, “Lean Six Sigma was invented for manufacturing – and we’re not a factory.” He turns around and challenges government personnel to figure out what their “widget” is since…they really are part of a factory. This is just a glimpse of his new process vocabulary that gets to the point faster and more effectively.

He turns around and challenges government personnel to figure out what their “widget” is since…they really are part of a factory.

3 Myths That Get in the Way of Process Improvement

Mr. Miller makes a compelling case for why changing the words we use will better help us to solve problems and tackle these constraining myths. This book is focused squarely at government but his points are easily applied to corporations. He refers to the myths as excuses for not even attempting to improve processes.

The excuses fall into three categories:

  1. “We don’t make widgets. What we do is hard to describe, squishy, intangible service stuff. Therefore we can’t really measure it, manage it, or improve it.”
  2. “We don’t have customers. We have hostages – they didn’t choose us, they don’t want to come back, and it doesn’t really matter if they are happy or not.”
  3. “We’re not here to make a profit. There is no incentive to improve, and any improvements we do make just get taken away from us anyway.”

We Don’t Make Widgets

For the first myth, he asks the reader to reconsider the word “widget,” or what is more traditionally known as an “output,” and figure out what it means for them and their process.

“The easiest way [to identify your widget] is to imagine a truck backing up to your cubicle. What would you load onto that truck? Those are your widgets.”

Process improvement practitioners in the transactional world may chafe at the use of the word “widget” as a replacement for “output” but his reasoning rings true. He tells a story of a team of OBGYNs who identified their “outputs” as babies. The problem with that? “OBGYNS can’t improve babies.” If you switch to identifying the OBGYN’s “widgets,” those are things like, “deliveries, prenatal examinations, instructions to the mother which they can improve in hopes of helping the mother to have a healthy baby.”

His goal is to “separate three concepts that consistently get muddled by our language – process, widget, outcome.” The word “output” just creates “confusion for managers. Which is the output? The baby or the delivery?”

What’s key here are the answers to two questions. One is, “What do you produce?” In the example above, mothers, not OBGYNS, are the ones producing the baby. And the second question is, “Can you improve it?” If the answer is “yes” then you’ve probably got your widget, or widgets. What a simple method to cut through the confusion first-time problem-solvers experience when embarking on a process improvement project.

We Don’t Have Customers

Similar to the “we don’t make widgets” myth, this second myth is bound up with some valid confusion. It’s not always clear who the customer of government processes should be, and it changes based on the “widget.” He points to a long list of words employees use instead of saying “customer” such as, “applicant, attendee, candidate, case, citizen, claimant, client, complier, etc.” Even the exchange of money doesn’t clear up who the customer is.

A great example is the process car owners go through to obtain a licence plate for their car. The licence plate is pretty clearly a “widget” and, begrudgingly, car owners pay for it, so they’re the customers, right? Wrong. “The end users of a license plate are law enforcement…you drive it around for law enforcement to look at. If you think about it, a licence plate is just a big receipt you have bolted to your car…to prove you paid your road taxes.” Might give one pause when considering a vanity plate.

One of his more enlightening distinctions regards the role of taxpayers. “Calling taxpayers customers demeans their role. Taxpayers own the company. They are the investors and should be treated accordingly.” I have to say, reading that made me puff my chest up a little. It also made me feel my responsibility toward my local town government, and, as a professional problem-solver, how I might help them do better.

Calling taxpayers customers demeans their role. Taxpayers own the company. They are the investors and should be treated accordingly.

We Don’t Make a Profit

This last myth has the added difficulty of being true. But Ken Miller does a good job of refocusing what’s at stake. “Profit is just the private sector’s way of measuring outcomes.” He challenges the reader, “How would you manage differently if you were as focused on results as the private sector is on profit?” Just as earlier he defined “widget,” here he clarifies the use of the word “outcome.”

To get at the outcome of a process he puts a new spin on the 5 Whys. Instead of using it to drill down and solve problems, he uses it to uncover the true purpose of a process. I’ve seen others pose the question, “For the sake of what?” but the end result is the same. An example from the world of corrections:

  • Why do we produce training programs (widgets) for convicted prisoners (customers)?
  • Why? So they have job skills.
  • Why? So they’ll be able to get jobs once they’re released.
  • Why? To reduce recidivism.
  • Why? To keep our people safe!

Clarifying the purpose of a process helps determine what to measure (# training programs, # ex-cons gainfully employed, % prisoners re-incarcerated and crime rate) and it also changes the attitudes of everyone involved in the process. What would energize you more, being told you had to produce training programs faster or working to keep people safe? Purpose gets at the heart of why we do what we do and people generally get on board with that.

Clarifying purpose is just as key in the private sector. Instead of using profit as a way of measuring their effectiveness at producing outcomes, money often becomes the purpose in and of itself.

In the case of the mortgage process, the ultimate outcome is to help homeowners enjoy the security of owning their own home, but when profit becomes the all encompassing goal, the focus on the customer disappears. Look at what happened at Wells Fargo. Look at Enron. When profit completely replaces purpose, things go astray. Government suffers from lack of focus on results but business does too.

When profit completely replaces purpose, things go astray. Government suffers from lack of focus on results but business does too.

Parade of Panaceas

Miller’s experience in the trenches also gives him a keen understanding of what doesn’t work. On the topic of customer surveys? “They’re good for wrapping fish.” His opinion of reorganizations? They “allow us to feel as if we’ve made an improvement when it fact all we’ve made is change.”

Want a good root cause analysis tip? “Behind every process problem is usually a policy problem.” And lastly, he has a sobering assessment of tackling the eternal darling of “low hanging fruit” or easy projects up front. “By tackling small, perhaps easy things, it sets the expectation in the organization that this new initiative is not going to tackle anything important.” All true.

How Does Leadership Fit In?

In his own words, Ken Miller has spent his life improving government. His work gives him insight into the challenges faced by managers and how to address them. The following questions require clarity of purpose, measurement and resulting strategy and they help to lay the course out clearly:

  1. What results are we trying to achieve?
  2. How would we know if we were achieving them?
  3. What strategies are we using to achieve the results?
  4. Are these strategies working?
  5. What do we need to do differently to achieve our results?

He gets the people focus right, too. “Good managers know that the goal is not to get the most out of people but to help people get the most out of work.” And getting the most out of work means employees have the power to improve processes. Process improvement projects are the lowest common denominator in service of cultural transformation. “If you want great change, run great projects.”

Good managers know that the goal is not to get the most out of people but to help people get the most out of work.

It’s a fast, fun read full of relevant, usable insights. He sprinkles mini-questionnaires throughout so readers can figure out their own widgets, outcomes, customers and purpose. He includes references to the many authors who have influenced him. It’s an impressive list of thought leaders covering innovation, employee motivation, customer service and more (prepare to expand your reading list!).

His respect for people working in government is as palpable as his passion for helping them improve the work they do. This book is a stimulating treatise on how to make their (and our) lives radically better.

About the Author:

Ken Miller is the founder of the Change and Innovation Agency (the CIA!), a firm dedicated to helping its clients radically improve. Ken was named one of the country’s top change agents by Fast Company Magazine. Aside from this book, he is the author of The Change Agent’s Guide to Radical Improvement and Extreme Government Makeover. Ken is a featured speaker and has spent his time addressing issues such as fighting poverty, getting inner-city kids to college and reducing the time hotlines respond to child abuse.

He’s the former Deputy Director of Missouri Department of Revenue where his efforts led to the agency winning a State Quality Award. He has helped to radically improve the governments of Kansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and that’s just inside the U.S. Ken and his family are based in Kansas City where, in his words, “he enjoys playing the guitar, tennis, golf and any other hobby designed to frustrate the soul.”

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

Who Should Read We Don’t Make Widgets?

From the Page:

“The argument, ‘We don’t make widgets,’ actually applies to just about everybody now. Only 14 percent of American workers (who don’t work on farms) are actively engaged in manufacturing widgets, and the percentage is dropping daily. Even inside a typical manufacturing organization, fewer than 15 percent of the employees are making the widgets. …The lessons in the book apply not just to government but to about 86 percent of the workforce.”


Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.