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Originally published September 6, 2012 at 9:36 PM | Page modified September 7, 2012 at 8:12 AM

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Corrected version

Truth Needle: A look at Inslee's 'lean management' claim

Truth Needle: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee says no governor, Republican or Democrat, has embraced the use of lean management techniques to make state government more efficient. That's half true.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The claim: During last week's gubernatorial debate, Democrat Jay Inslee said no governor in Washington state history has implemented lean management techniques. "There is no reason on this green Earth that we have not embraced the efficiency measures in state government that have been so successful in private enterprise," said Inslee, adding "these have not been used under any predecessor, Republican or Democrat."

What we found: Half true.

Inslee's statement came in response to a question from his Republican opponent, Rob McKenna, who asked how Inslee would differ from fellow Democrat and current Gov. Chris Gregoire.

While Inslee said in the debate that Gregoire — and every other previous governor — has never used lean management, his campaign has since said that Inslee meant to say that previous governors have never fully embraced the practice.

"At the debate, in the confines of a 90-second answer, Jay said it has never been implemented," said Sterling Clifford, a campaign spokesman. "What Jay consistently has said and obviously should have said in the debate is that it has never been fully implemented statewide."

And Inslee's website discusses expanding lean management in state government, not introducing it.

Indeed, Gregoire has clearly used lean management to some degree. So giving Inslee the benefit of the doubt about his apparent misstatement, the question then becomes how much Gregoire has implemented the program.

Despite how it sounds, the phrase "lean management" is not a vague idea, but a specific set of production principles developed by Toyota decades ago.

Implementing "lean," as it is also called, entails a careful study of organizational processes to identify and eliminate waste in seven categories, including unnecessary transportation, overproduction and waiting.

In Washington state, two companies are generally believed to have adopted the techniques most vigorously: Boeing and Virginia Mason Medical Center. Boeing says it has saved millions of dollars through the practice, and Virginia Mason was recently named as the top hospital of the decade by The Leapfrog Group, a quality-improvement organization.

Perhaps recognizing these successes, Washington state government has been exploring lean since at least 2007. That year, the Department of Corrections implemented lean in its prisoner work program.

Other state agencies have followed suit in fits and starts.

One of the most talked-about examples is the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). It reduced the average wait time for eligibility interviews for public-assistance applicants from four weeks to 45 minutes or less, and cut processing time for those applications from about two weeks to a week or less.

In March of 2011, at Gregoire's request, Boeing dispatched two full-time advisers to Olympia to work with state agencies on lean, according to company spokeswoman Susan Bradley. They stayed for between three and six months, Bradley said.

Later last year, Virginia Mason started consulting with the state, hospital spokesman John Gillespie said.

Last December, Gregoire issued an executive order, called "Lean Transformation," which mandated that all executive cabinet agencies complete a lean project by Aug. 31, 2012 — coincidentally, a deadline that fell two days after last week's debate.

State employees are now collecting data on the various projects, with a report due out in October, said Wendy Korthuis-Smith, the state's director of accountability and performance.

Still, there are many who say the state has not gone far enough.

The critics include two moderate Democrats, state Rep. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way and state Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, as well as John Bernard, who is advising the Oregon state government on lean.

Miloscia called Gregoire's approach "dabbling." He argued lean requires a fundamental culture shift, and he mocked Gregoire's requirement of one project in eight months.

"She has not embraced it at all," he said. "It's a fake program. It's not real."

Korthuis-Smith, the state accountability director, offered a different perspective.

"Are we Boeing or Virginia Mason? Absolutely not. But have we not heard of it? No. We've heard of it, and we're working on it," she said. "Having the next governor go in and say that this would be important to them aligns with the direction that we're headed."

Ultimately, analyzing the strength of Gregoire's embrace of lean is a subjective exercise.

But there are indications that Gregoire has used lean more than the Inslee campaign says.

For that, we rate Inslee's claim as half true.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

Information in this article, originally published Sept. 6, 2012, was corrected Sept. 7, 2012. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Virginia Mason hospital spokesman John Gillespie.

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