We Don't Make Widgets
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“Government is a group of hard-working people trapped in dysfunctional systems producing invisible things for people who do not want them, on behalf of others that do for reasons we can rarely articulate and hardly measure.” -- Ken Miller

The message of We Don’t Make Widgets is both simple and profound. It was created to help people “get it”. Consider it a Rosetta stone – a way to finally crack the code to the world of performance improvement that so often gets lost in translation. What we believe about government –that we don’t make widgets, that we don’t have customers, and that we’re not here to make a profit – all feed the bigger myth: that we’re different. That somehow the improvements everybody else is making can’t possibly work here. Until these beliefs are changed, any improvement initiative will hit a brick wall.

Government will radically improve when we see the world in a different way – free of our long-held myths. We will improve when:

We recognize we do make widgets and that what we do can easily be
 measured, managed and improved.

We see our work as the factories that make these widgets and discover how to
 use the same tools as industry to make them run 80% faster at less cost.

We discover that we have real customers with all the rights and privileges that
 terms bestows, that they are not who we think they are, and that their
 satisfaction is absolutely essential to our success.

We learn that we are here to deliver a return to our investors and have the
 responsibility of figuring out innovative ways of achieving better results with
 less resources.


How to share this message:

1. Read the book and pass it on
2. Lead your team or work unit through the exercises
3. Attend a live event
4. Bring Ken in-house


We will improve when committed managers see past the myths and work with teams of employees to improve vital systems for the betterment of the organization, its customers and employees.

Here are the key points from We Don’t Make Widgets.
Myth 1: We Don't Make Widgets
Myth 2: We Don't Have Customers
Myth 3: We're Not Here to Make a Profit

Each of these points is reinforced with real-world application exercises in Ken’s workshops.


Why it matters:

To improve an organization you have to improve it’s systems (the processes that produce
 widgets for customers to achieve results)
The squishy way we describe our work in government makes it difficult to see the systems,
 making it hard to measure, manage and improve. (which leads to all the ineffective ways
 we try to make change: performance appraisals, pay for performance, throwing fish,
 moving cheese, reorganizations, new IT systems, etc.)
When we see the widgets we become plant managers and can use all the tools they have at
 their disposal to make the widgets better and factories more efficient. And why do we want
 to do this? So we can better satisfy customers and achieve a higher return for our investors
 of course – myths two and three.
Widgets are the connection between what we care about and manage (our activities) our
 customers and results. When we can’t see the widget, we focus our attention on how we do
 things and forget about who we do them for and why.

The truth:

We do make widgets – the tangible deliverables produced in our factories that we deliver to customers in order to achieve results. It is our responsibility to achieve a higher return for investors by making those widgets better, faster and cheaper.

What to measure:

How many widgets we produce
How long it takes to produce a widget
How long it takes a customer to get a widget
How much it costs to make a widget
How many widgets are produced correctly on the first try

How satisfied customers are with the widget
What results the widget is achieving

How to improve:

Talk with customers to determine their expectations for the widget
Design the widget to meet customer expectations
Flowchart the existing process that produces the widget
Calculate the two units of time: elapsed and work
Close the gap between elapsed and work time by at least 80% by eliminating hand-offs, cutting batches and batch sizes, eliminating
 bottlenecks, processing in parallel, and reducing inspections
Identify ways to reduce the work time
Use problem solving to reduce errors and variance in the process
Involve employees in all of the above


Why it matters:

Just as the widget is the link between our factory and our customers, the customer is the link
 between our widget and our outcomes. That is, the only way we achieve our outcomes is if
 the customer can successfully use our widget. All factories have widgets, all widgets have
Confusion about who the customer is leads to misplaced priorities. We have multiple
 customers with competing interests. Those with power and purse strings tend to dictate how
 the widget will be. Often the real users are left out and are stuck with ineffective, unsatisfying
Customers experience the “system”. While good customer service is necessary it is not
 sufficient. Customer service focuses on the human to human interaction (live or on the phone).
 However customers experience the entire system (of which the human interaction is a piece).
Customer satisfaction is based on improving the entire system to meet the explicit desires of
 our customers.
Urgency to act is hampered by our incredibly misleading, high customer survey scores.
 Customer expectations are shaped by past experience.
We may be getting very high satisfaction scores against very low expectations.
We are public servants and exist to serve. Helping employees connect with and satisfy their
 end-users makes for a culture of service.
Dissatisfied customers yell a lot (at the employees, their elected officials, the media).

The truth:

We do have customers – specifically end-users of the widgets we produce. It is our obligation to ensure that we understand and balance the priorities of the multiple customers without losing sight of the needs of our end-users.

What to measure:

How well the customers were able to achieve their desired outcomes
How well we are meeting customer priorities like
Ease of use (the # of minutes to complete a form)
Timeliness (the # of days to receive a permit)
Accuracy (% of payments correct the first time)
Cost (# of days of lost productivity)
Choice (% of customers using internet transactions)

How to improve:

Proactively talk with customers to determine their expectations for the widget
Develop objective measures for customer priorities (see above)
Work with customers to assign numerical targets for the measures (i.e. receive a permit in 2 days)
Identify ways to close the gap between the customer-desired target and current performance
Use innovation to develop alternative widgets that could better achieve customer outcomes
Involve employees in all of the above


Why it matters:

To say we’re not here to achieve a profit is akin to saying we’re not here to achieve results.
Profit (our outcomes) are the reason we exist – period. When we are not focused on results
 we get bogged down with “how” we do things (our policies, procedures, processes) and forget
 to ask “why” are we doing them in the first place.
Our investors (the taxpayers) primary concern is to achieve the maximum return for the
 smallest investment. When we can’t demonstrate results, we can’t communicate with investors.
Focusing on outcomes allows us to avoid becoming obsolete and instead developing innovative
 new ways of delivering results.

The truth:

We are here to make a profit – it’s just not measured in dollars. Rather it’s measured in jobs created, reduced recidivism, higher quality of life, etc. It’s our responsibility to achieve a higher return for investors by making better widgets for customers in more efficient factories.

What to measure:

The results customers achieve by using our widgets
The results the organization achieves by customers using our widgets (outcomes tend to occur in a hierarchy, the trick is to measure the
 right level of outcome – choose too big an outcome and you’ll have a hard time seeing any improvement or proving your contribution;
 choose too small and you limit your thinking.)

How to improve:

Use 5 why thinking to define the true purpose for your widget
Ensure you are in the right business (TDK tapes or iPods)
Develop innovative alternatives to your existing widget that could better meet each purpose from the 5 why thinking
Work with customers to help design those new widgets
Build new, efficient factories to produce the new widgets
Involve employees in all of the above



1. Get it.
Again, people will not believe what they can change until they change what they believe. The first step to radical improvement is to remove the current limiting beliefs and replace them with an optimism and enthusiasm for what is possible. We Don’t Make Widgets creates a progressive series of “ah-has” that turn even the hardest skeptics into supporters of making positive change. How can you help people
“get it”?

1. Read the book and pass it on
2. Lead your team or work unit through the exercises
3. Attend a live event with Ken
4. Bring Ken in-house

2. Do it.
Change happens in projects. If you want great change, run great projects. Great projects have four ingredients:

1. They are focused on improving a key system
2. They have a supportive management sponsor
3. They are run by skilled change agents
4. They have a team of open-minded team members
* that understand the system being improved.

* all of these people have to “get it” first.

Your organization may have these ingredients already. If so, great – send us an email and let us know how it worked out. If you are not yet self-sufficient, my organization would be happy to help you get there. Give us 3 projects and 3 months and we will blow your mind as to what is possible. Typical results include 80% faster processes, 50% drop in customer wait-times, doubling capacity, reducing phone calls, and of course cost savings.

3. Live it.
Once a critical mass “gets it” and you actually “do it” – the momentum builds to make these concepts a permanent part of the culture. To “live it” simply means that the organization has the strategy, tools and the capacity to continuously improve the vital parts of its operations. The organization has a systematic way of identifying improvement opportunities, as well as a systematic way of running improvement projects. Further the organization has a clear “leadership system” that integrates strategic planning, performance measurement, customer focus, process improvement and employee development.

Five ingredients are necessary to live it:

1. Define the desired results (profit) for the organization
2. Identify the key systems (widgets) most vital to achieving the results
3. Developing a balanced set of performance measures for each key system
4. Developing a cadre of skilled change agents who can lead projects to improve key systems
5. Integrating We Don’t Make Widgets into management curriculum – turning managers into change agents.

Contact us to learn how we can help you do each of these.


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