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Incremental gains and survival of local government

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about our desire to focus on the big innovations as a sector. It’s long been accepted that small changes to how things are done will not deliver the savings which are needed across local government; no, it’s big, bold, organisation changing projects and programmes which are the order of the day. Go big or go bust.

In and of itself I can’t disagree with the need for major change. Local government needs overall to be radical in its thinking and be brave enough to make difficult decisions. It will need to say no to delivering the nice-to-haves and find innovative ways of delivering what it is required to.

However, I’m not entirely sure that there isn’t still a place for the continual incremental improvement that is so common in other sectors and industries. Making small, regular improvements seems to have fallen somewhat out of fashion, as if the gains are simply not great enough to be worth the effort. I think we are missing a trick.

Fans of the Freakonomics podcast will be familiar with the example they used on a recent episode looking at this very issue. The host looked at the British Cycling Team and their constant strive for perfection, a struggle that they have been remarkably successful at over recent years. Did they achieve this by waking up one day and coming up with a groundbreaking new method for building cycles? No. Did they somehow make the wheels rounder (as the French team amusingly accused them of)? No.

Instead, they looked at every single element of performance within their control and searched for ways of improving it. One person realised that the paint on the cycles added a few hundred grams of extra weight, so they made it thinner. Another thought health of the riders was important, so they set up a team to steam clean hotel rooms and sanitise surfaces, reducing the risk of illness. Each of these and hundreds more examples were small details and by themselves didn’t result in gold after gold after gold for the team.

Each of them helped, though.

It is with this in mind that I ask; when was the last time you asked your colleagues whether there was any small thing that could be done to improve their performance or that of their service by 1%? We are all aware of the organisational change projects which look to improve performance and cut costs by 10%, 20% or even more, but how about just that single, solitary 1%?

There will doubtless be things that could be done differently which could be quantifiably measured and which would make success just that little bit more likely. Perhaps the team opening up their diaries so arranging meeting times would be easier. How about changing the default meeting length on Outlook to 30 minutes rather than an hour? It’s amazing what can be achieved in a shorter time if people stay focused. Or maybe you could impose a five-page limit (without shrinking font size) on all papers and reports? Enforced A/B testing on all messages out to the public, anyone?

Will any of those by themselves save the millions of pounds you no doubt still need to save? No. Will they each contribute to making life easier, more efficient and simpler for people? Probably. Will they contribute to a culture of constant organisational improvement and reinforce the attitude that there is always a way to improve things? Undoubtedly.

Like the Renaissance so many years ago, future generations may then look back and marvel at how much progress was made in such a short period of time, or how fortunate it was to have so many key individuals and organisations revolutionising thinking at the same time. What they won’t see is how it was far more collaborative than that, with people building on and making small improvements to the work of their peers rather than anything more ‘big bang’ than that. Small improvements made by one person in isolation is one thing. Small improvements made by every team and which are then built upon by others is quite another.

Sooner or later, those fractions of a percent will add up. Who knows what major innovations they might also accidentally unlock along the way.