What Gov't Can Learn From Private Industry

05/25/2011 03:10 pm ET

What are real lessons that Washington can learn from private industry? Here are a few observations, based on 19 years of corporate life, followed by 14 with a successful Internet company I founded. Most of those years were doing customer service, which is how I make a living now.

First, getting to the point, here's the gist, followed by brief explanation.

-- Put your customers first, for real, not just advertising and lip service.

-- Your rank-and-file employees already know how to run things much better; give them the technology to do so, then follow through, with serious commitment from the highest levels.

-- Track customer service issues using a problem "ticketing" system.

-- innovation rarely comes from big organizations; consider small skunkworks.

-- Mistakes will be made, and some efforts will failure. Accept that as normal.

Hey, that's the gist of everything here; you can stop reading unless you want backup info.

Overall, this is "business process re-engineering," or BPR. Talking about it was big in the late '80s, but management follow through, not so much.

Prior to joining IBM, I read what its founder, Tom Watson, had to say. That included something to the effect that if you put customers first, and honestly followed through with good customer service, you'd succeed. In the '80s, I was with IBM when the company lost its way and lost lots of business. However, under good leadership, IBM found its way again and is now successful.

Late '80s, I was trained in process re-engineering, but far as I could tell, little or none was done. However, I remembered, and in the first years of my own venture, I had to practice it. Whenever some process started taking too much of my time, I simplified it, wrote some software to help me with it, and that really worked.

The gist of this is to figure out how you're really doing things, and find ways to do it better. In many cases, you find that you're doing things which used to make sense, but no longer do. Often you find shortcuts for situations that are very common.

However, in any large organization, the simple reality is that the people doing the real work know what's going on, and how to do better. In most situations, workers feel no one is listening, and/or no one in management will do anything.

The culture and attitude of the Internet changes all that. The deal is that people see that the Net is about working together for mutual benefit. We see that simple software can be used as a platform where we can work together in a very visible way.

The deal is that once an idea is proposed, other people see it and can improve upon it. This creates a surge of expectation that management will take a look and do something about it, if only because the discussion is so visible. The management alternative, to ignore all that feedback, is to progressively lose all moral legitimacy, and to fail. You need support from management to make this work, the boss needs to champion this approach and make it so.

Remember also that management needs to visit rank-and-file people, talk to them directly, without local showboating or other filtering.

Turns out government workers have been quietly taking this approach for a few years, with little attention from the press; it's not dramatic enough to make the news.

For the most mundane of needs, local government has built 311 programs, which help get a pothole fixed or the garbage picked up. They're an emerging success in cities including New York and San Francisco.

This reflects what effective companies do, using problem ticketing systems, where customers or employees can describe problems. That way, they can get problems fixed, tracking progress. In a sense, 311 systems are pretty much ticketing systems, simple, effective, if taken seriously.

City governments are going beyond that, advancing the DC city "apps for democracy" model, a kind of private/public partnership where city workers work with citizens to get you the kind of data you need to get through the day. For example, in San Francisco I use a phone app to see when the next bus or subway is coming.

On the state level, a lot of exemplary customer service is being provided by, Virtual Alabama, and Georgia. The state of Georgia is doing remarkable work, changing their culture of customer service. The deal is that you can get what you need to get done, in the way that works for you, in person, on the phone or via the Net.

This way of doing things has gotten a lot of dederal workers excited, in large part via the Federal Web Managers Council. I'm most impressed by the Department of Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative, which basically unleashes customer service people throughout the VA. People were asked for suggestions to better serve their customers, veterans. VA workers came through, and now management's working on making suggestions into reality.

(If you've noticed I'm heavily committed to this and related efforts, here's the deal.  If a guy is willing to take a bullet for me, I need to stand up. Far as I'm concerned, supporting the troops should be more than mere words.)

Finally, from Silicon Valley, two observations:

  • There's something about large organizations that make it really hard for them to innovate. Try using small "skunkworks" of committed workers, and given them all the creative freedom possible.
  • It's okay to make mistakes, and okay to fail, even expected. You learn from your mistake and try again. (I hear in government it's the opposite.)

You might reflect that a lot of this is everyday common sense, and you'd be right. Problem is that not much of it happens, since it involves management taking their rank-and-file seriously, and supporting them.

This requires a big culture change in government at all levels. It requires lots more flexibility from their lawyers and from Congress. It also requires that the press give people a break, and focus on the successful rebuilding of government, from the bottom up and from the inside.

It's inevitable now; Internet tools bring people together, and it's working.