We Don't Make Widgets: Overcoming the Myths That Keep Government from Radically Improving

If you're in a government job charged with implementing change through process improvement, this is the book for you. A short read, yet enlightening on how to think about performance improvement in government and how to lead that change.

Why I read it

In twenty years of government service, I've seen my fair share of improvement initiatives, and I've led many of my own. I wish I would have discovered this book at the beginning of my career. Ken Miller lays out the problems with process improvement in government. His book is concise, fast but a super-dense read into overcoming the thinking that prevents government from implementing lasting improvements to their processes.

Years ago, in my graduate degree, I took a class titled "Business Process Reengineering," which exposed me to lean and business improvement concepts. The course exposed me classic books like Womack and Jones' Lean Thinking, Hammer and Champy's Reengineering the Corporation, Liker's The Toyota Way, and (my favorite) Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It by Wilson. I wish that course and those books would have given me the same insight as Miller's We Don't Make Widgets.

Key insights

The three myths

This is the entrenched thinking of government workers regarding processes, metrics and measurement, and their delivery of products and services.

  1. We don't make widgets—the title of the book. Admittedly, I've used this phrase quite a bit (mainly as a way to connect with my people). This myth believes that government work is squishy, hard to describe, and the outcome is intangible. Because of this, there's no way to measure productivity, and therefore management and improvement are impossible.
  2. We don't have customers. As a government agency, we're typically the only game in town. As a result, people don't have a choice, and so we don't really care if they are happy or not.
  3. We're not here to make a profit. Because of no profit, we don't have an incentive to improve, and there might be systems in place that deter us from making these improvements.

Miller does a great job of breaking down these myths government workers have and how to overcome the objections that come with these myths.

The system of work

This is a crucial concept of the book, which translates a factory system that produces widgets into a government system that provides a service. Here's the basic system of work:

  • Factory - a place that makes something
  • Widget - the thing that is produced
  • Customers - people who use that widget
  • Outcomes - results that we are attempting to achieve

That's it. Four things. A system of work for the Ford Mustang would be:

  • Factory - Ford Mustang Factory
  • Widget - Ford Mustang
  • Customers - Drivers
  • Outcomes - For Ford: Profit; For Customers: look cool, feel young, gain transportation

A system of work for a civil engineer squadron might be:

  • Factory - Construction project design process
  • Widget - Construction project plans
  • Customers - Tradesmen, construction foreman, and project manager
  • Outcomes - Well-constructed building, on-time/on-budget project delivery

Understanding the system of work concept is a new way of thinking about government processes. If you can understand how the four things relate to each other, you'll construct better metrics, measures, and outcomes for your operations.

What you should do

Flipping to the last chapter of the book gets you to a section titled, "So, What Should We Do?" Here are some tidbits from this section:

  • Define the desired results (the profit) for the organization. There's probably a strategic plan somewhere in your organization. If it's not focused (i.e., has three to five priorities for improvement), write a focused plan (with only three to five priorities for improvement).
  • Identify the Key Systems (the Widgets) Most Vital to Achieving the Results. This is very much tied to understanding the four parts of the system of work (see above). If you know the system, then you can run a project to change the system. Also: change happens in projects. You can attend as many offsite events, conferences, and run as many surveys as you want, but the only way to get after change is to run a great project.
  • Form Teams to Improve Key Systems. You can't improve systems alone. With the right leadership and leadership support, you can get the right team of people to implement lasting improvements in your organization.

Get the book or pass

Just like the other books in this section of my blog, this book is very much worth the read. (I should probably get rid of the star system because I only write about the books I enjoy reading.) So, absolutely get the book!