Facebook Instagram Twitter Youtube

Lean and Mean: Municipalities Need a Little Fat

by | May 15, 2023 | Business, Economic Development

Once upon a time, back when I had more time and fewer responsibilities, I loved going out into the woods of Canada each fall on my own. Armed with the most basic of equipment, I would build my own lean-to and catch my own food. I was young, fit and happy to endure anything Mother Nature threw my way. That meant at times going for long stretches without finding drinkable water or catching something edible for dinner. The weather could also take a turn for the worst, adding to the challenges of my own version of Survivor: Northern Alberta. Key to my survival was the fact that although I was fit and lean, I wasn’t overly lean. As my grandma liked to say, I had a little “meat on the bones.” In a survival situation like that, you need your body to be adaptable, resilient, and responsive to a changing environment and changing circumstances. 

And carrying around a little bit of fat is crucial. Without a little fat, there was no resiliency and no room for adapting to unforeseen realities.

There is a notion that leaner is better by default, an observation supported by the depiction of runway models in the media and magnified by our depiction of superheroes in spandex. We like to think of being “lean” as being fit, but leanness is not the essence of fitness and in some cases may even be counter to what it means to be fit. There are different definitions of being “fit,” each appropriate to the task undertaken. Running a marathon, for example, requires stamina. Running a 100-metre sprint requires specific muscle mass. Being a weightlifter requires incredible overall muscle mass. Being lean doesn’t mean you’re automatically fit. You must also be fit to the task.

This is true not just of people, but of governments, especially small governments like municipalities.

Nevertheless, we have an unhealthy infatuation with leanness. Perhaps it is some core fundamental conservative principle, or a principle derived from economic philosophy. Either way, the fascination with cutting fat has seen local governments borrow “lean” methods used by manufacturers, methods such as Six Sigma, Lean (first developed by Toyota) and a hybrid of the two called Lean Six Sigma. The idea is to reduce the costs of operations without reducing the quality of services. It is a noble endeavor, pursuable in consistent and unchanging circumstances.

Toyota’s Just-In-Time philosophy was designed to reduce inventory and ensure the company only got the goods it needed exactly when it needed them in the manufacturing process. When it came to manufacturing, “lean” was synonymous with success.

But then COVID arrived. The world’s supply chain system collapsed. Ironically, among those hardest hit by the pandemic were automakers that considered themselves as being the fittest of the fit, the leanest of the lean. A shortage of computer chips crippled automakers. Factories around the world had to halt assembly lines.

There had been warnings about supply-chain vulnerabilities in the past but COVID brought those vulnerabilities to the surface all at once. Even though Toyota weathered the storm we learned that sometimes a company can be too lean, because being too lean doesn’t support resilience or adaptability to rapidly changing circumstances.

In an August 2021 article for the University of Pennsylvania’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education, professor Gad Allon said, “there is nothing inherently wrong with being lean.” But Allon said firms may have taken the just-in-time philosophy a step too far. “The issue is that the moment you tell people their main objective is reducing inventory, and point all key performance indicators towards that goal, lean becomes their north star. And when lean is the north star, it creates unprecedented levels of unpreparedness. There is virtually no consideration for pandemic-type risks, such as the weather in Texas and increasingly higher demand for chips. That means they are easily blindsided by disruptions.”

In municipal circles I constantly hear officials talk about how they need to lay off workers to ensure the municipality is running lean. Cutting costs is a noble goal if done properly. However, too often the “running lean” mantra is about cost-cutting without doing a proper analysis to see how those cuts will impact the organizational operations. Too many cost-cutting initiatives are now based on philosophy and ideology, rather than an appropriate analysis of need and capacity. Simply put, we can sometimes go too far by cost-cutting to the bone.

In 2011, for example, the state of Ohio cut $36 million from Cleveland’s budget, forcing the city to lay off 300 employees, more than half of them police officers and firefighters. The cuts reduced the frequency of garbage collection but more ominously shut down five fire-fighting companies and reduced the number of police patrols. Ohio acted because of a budget crisis but what happened to Cleveland illustrates what can happen when governments make cost-cutting their “north star.” 

Local government leaders are under mounting pressure to deliver more programs and services but with less funding and fewer workers. Easier said than done. Doing more with less might be successful and popular in the short term but is not sustainable – and if it leads to service cuts, it won’t be popular in the long-term, either.

Being lean for the sake of being lean in a municipal organization, or any other organization, can lead to very unhealthy choices that can leave the organization malnourished and sickly. Just like being lean is not healthy in its own right, lean in an organization is not necessarily healthy, either. Determining whether you are healthy is not a simple task. It requires figuring out where you are and where you want to go.

Your organization should be measured against the activities and the challenges you are going to meet. And, whether you like it or not, over the next 10 years, every municipality will be facing an unprecedented level of changes, challenges, and opportunities.. Each one of them will have to decide what it is they want to be if they are going to not only survive but thrive. Yet, even with a clear road map and fierce determination about what they want to become, the change that is coming will throw their plans out of whack, toss them into chaos, and force them to respond and adapt. Successful municipalities will need a little fat to be flexible enough to meet those changes and those challenges head on, and to capitalize on arising opportunities.

Every municipality will have to do more to encourage economic growth, improve beautification, attract workers, boost social supports, and increase housing, just to name a few issues. The health of an organization will be determined by its ability to handle these issues, and that will be determined by their capacity to adapt and their capacity for resilience. 

Many municipalities are running incredibly efficiently. They only have the necessary and fundamental operational capacities in place: general administration, payroll, some maintenance, maybe a little recreational programming. The problem is that they are so lean and so efficient that if one thing goes wrong, if one employee goes down, if one unexpected challenge arrives, the organization is suddenly starving for resources and lacking any resilience to adapt and survive.

By all means, explore whether your organization or municipality can become leaner. There is nothing wrong with being lean-ish. I’m simply saying that lean for the sake of being lean is not a plan and is not good decision making. It may help the municipality look good in a spandex superhero costume, but it doesn’t necessarily make the municipality useful, effective, or successful over the long term. We need to move away from the mindset that the ideology of cutting the fat is universally necessary and beneficial. Every resilient and effective organization, business, and municipality, just like a person, should have a little fat on them.