Continuous Improvement Public Sector Organisation
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Continuous Improvement in Public Sector Organisations

Is there method in our madness, or rather madness in our methods?

I had been a civil servant since I was 19, and during that time had personally experienced the joys and sorrows of life as a CI practitioner in various capacities in the Ministry of Justice. I remember the initial buzz as we embarked on a series of Lean initiatives, and the palpable sense of optimism that we would revolutionise the way we delivered our services to our users. The teams I was working with were bursting with enthusiasm and ideas about how we could re-design and improve the work. Brilliant! Over time however, I noticed that (managers in particular) became less and less interested. Tried as I might, I struggled to achieve the engagement needed to achieve genuine, continuous improvement.

A typical event would start by a cursory welcome from the manager, ‘here’s Chris everyone, he’s here to do Lean on us”. The once bright-eyed and hopeful teams on the shop floor soon regarded me with caution, wondering what tools they were going to be lumbered with or process changes they would be told to make. One manager even announced that Lean was just a tick-box exercise and they should just do what I suggested so as not to incur the wrath of their management. Needless to say, by the time I took my career break to go back to university, I had become somewhat disillusioned, perhaps even a bit cynical. This bothered me. Firstly, because it felt like a personal failure. Secondly, because there was so much wasted potential. I was left with questions. What had made the wheels fall of? Why couldn’t my management see the potential I saw? What was getting in the way?

So, when I got the opportunity to write my dissertation on CI implementation in the public sector, I jumped at the chance. The basic purpose of my research was to examine and evaluate the implementation of CI in Public Sector Organisations (PSOs) over the last two decades.

It began with a review of some of the common CI methodologies and examination of CI implementations in PSOs. Undoubtedly some successes had been achieved, but I soon observed a recurring pattern: few PSOs had been able to achieve socially and economically sustainable results in the long term. As was often the case, after some initial success and cost reduction, CI efforts tended to fade away over time.  To this day, the same, well known challenges that were being reported over a decade ago (leadership commitment, employee engagement, alignment of CI with strategy etc) are still prevalent now. It seems Einstein’s famous definition of insanity (doing the same thing over again expecting different results), cliched as it might be, is still entirely relevant to the state of CI today. Why haven’t we learned? We are better than this!

The emphasis on cost reduction and internal efficiency was a near-universal feature of every CI intervention I reviewed. I call this the PSO paradigm (the values, beliefs which manifest in behaviours). It’s rooted in the tenets of New Public Management and reinforced more recently by austerity pressures. Consequently, the ability of organisations to experiment and develop new and innovative approaches to service delivery, which requires genuine learning, leadership commitment and the release of resources, has been stifled.

What I discovered

But don’t take my word for it. These sentiments were echoed by the leading experts I interviewed. There was overwhelming consensus that they are underwhelmed by the effectiveness of CI in public sector to date. Similarly, they unanimously agree successfully addressing organisational thinking makes the difference in achieving sustainable and ongoing improvements. Creating conditions for genuine organisational learning it seems is the only way to achieve true CI sustainability.

Let us now turn briefly to organisational learning theory. Argyris & Schon define learning as the “detection and correction of errors” such that mismatches between the actions taken and the desired outcome are identified. This is typically how organisations solve problems. However, I discovered a shortfall in most PSO organisations as they solve problems by only correcting errors in the external environment without reflecting inwards. Of equal, if not greater importance is the need to change the way people reason about their individual and collective behaviour. This is double loop learning (DLL). In other words, to change behaviours, we need to understand why people behave the way they behave: the governing variables!

diagram representing Double Loop Learning

Taken from Argyris (1990)

My analysis frames Argyris’ theory in a PSO-specific context. Figure 1 below illustrates the current state of CI and organisational learning in PSOs, including observable indicators of SLL. The flow indicated in red illustrates the effect of the PSO paradigm, which sits astride the governmental and local boundaries on reinforcing SLL. The PSO paradigm itself is shown to be unilaterally influenced by central government-level drivers translating into local SLL outcomes.

diagram representing Current CI State

Current State of organisational learning in PSOs

Adapted from Argyris (1999)

Figure 2 below illustrates an ideal, DLL flow in green. This diagram follows a similar format but demonstrates DLL in action, as indicated by the reflection and evolution of governing PSO logic at a local level. In turn, this begins to influence the governmental PSO paradigm, and exerts a bi-directional influence on external drivers. This diagram represents an ideal state of CI in PSOs, where DLL leads to sustainable CI and service delivery.

diagram representing ideal CI State

Figure 2: Ideal State of organisational learning in PSOs

Adapted from Argyris (1999)

Reflections on CI in Public Sector

My thesis is simple: we must consider double loop learning when designing CI interventions. This should be our starter for 10, our entry point and our guiding principle in any CI intervention. Don’t worry so much about the tools and methods; they come later, but instead consider how to address the underlying logic first. Otherwise expect only mediocrity and unsustained results. On a wider scale, if we cannot unlock this problem across PSOs (and perhaps service organisations in general), then the existing paradigms and routines which have driven conventional CI implementation for the past twenty-plus years will remain unchallenged. This will only lead to re-occurring problems and perpetually failing public service systems. It’s high time we put the continuous back into continuous improvement.

The importance of behavioural and cognitive aspects of CI and organisational learning in PSOs over methodology cannot be overstated. It’s this inability to successfully challenge organisational paradigms that leads to failure. Too often our efforts focus on the toolboxes and frameworks themselves. Put another way, we need to address the madness in our methods just as much, if not more so, than the methods in our madness.




  • Failure to challenge the existing paradigms at a local or broader level will ultimately result in re-occurring problems and worsening service delivery
  • There is an emerging recognition that public service improvements are unsustainable under the current paradigm, regardless of the type of CI methodology deployed. In order to address this;
  • Organisations must challenge deep-rooted organisational and individual cognitive patterns, thinking and logic which are inhibiting genuine learning such that;
  • A fundamental re-assessment of the purpose of public services needs to take place so new PSO paradigm can emerge which will allow PSOs to meet current and future challenges
  • Intervention design must incorporate DLL and challenge existing governing behaviours
  • Leaders in particular must be receptive to challenging their own, and their organisational behaviours and routines, such that they create an environment conducive to genuine learning; otherwise your CI methodology WILL FAIL!
  • Giving permission (implicitly and explicitly) for employees to experiment, test and learn (this includes failure), to drive CI in the organisation is essential in achieving sustainable CI on PSOs.

This article is written by Chris Buckell, and if you would like to discuss the topics covered in this research, please email Chris directly, or you can find him on LinkedIn.

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