Managing Administrative Reform through Language Work. Implementing Lean in Swedish Public Sector Organisations

Kristina Tamm Hallström, Renita Thedvall


The paper accounts for the early implementation of Lean in two Swedish public sector organisations justifying Lean as a remedy for the negative consequences of New Public Management (NPM). But is Lean radically different, or rather yet another NPM reform? We use a social constructivist approach and focus on the role of language in influencing employees’ minds and subjective perceptions, and thereby mobilising new patterns of governance. The concept of ‘language work’, comprising three organisational levels, is suggested for analysing the meaning and consequences of the Lean efforts studied. The analysis reveals that the first level of Lean language work largely mirrors typical NPM ideals, including entrepreneurship, empowerment and customer orientation. In contrast, there are more salient differences at the second level about labels used for organisational classifications having both empowering and disempowering effects on categorised people. At the third level of analysis targeting the day-to-day practice, we see a return of NPM performance measurement–oriented practices and their (often-unintended) consequences discussed in research on NPM reforms, although they surface in somewhat new ways, including communicative symbols and other linguistic expressions. The main contribution lies in the conceptualisation of language work widening the scope of the constitutive role of language to include the levels of political programmes and technologies of government as well as organisational classifications.

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Scandinavian Journal of Public Administration

School of Public Administration, Box 712 - SE-405 30 Göteborg

ISSN: 2001-7405, E-ISSN: 2001-7413