telephone_ringing_300_wht_14975[Ring Ring]

<Bob> Hi Leslie how are you to today?

<Leslie> I am good thanks Bob and looking forward to today’s session. What is the topic?

<Bob> We will use your Niggle-o-Gram® to choose something. What is top of the list?

<Leslie> Let me see.  We have done “Engagement” and “Productivity” so it looks like “Near-Misses” is next.

<Bob> OK. That is an excellent topic. What is the specific Niggle?

<Leslie> “We feel scared when we have a safety near-miss because we know that there is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

<Bob> OK so the Purpose is to have a system that we can trust not to generate avoidable harm. Is that OK?

<Leslie> Yes – well put. When I ask myself the purpose question I got a “do” answer rather than a “have” one. The word trust is key too.

<Bob> OK – what is the current safety design used in your organisation?

<Leslie> We have a computer system for reporting near misses – but it does not deliver the purpose above. If the issue is ranked as low harm it is just counted, if medium harm then it may be mentioned in a report, and if serious harm then all hell breaks loose and there is a root cause investigation conducted by a committee that usually results in a new “you must do this extra check” policy.

<Bob> Ah! The Burn-and-Scrape model.

<Leslie>Pardon? What was that? Our Governance Department call it the Swiss Cheese model.

<Bob> Burn-and-Scrape is where we wait for something to go wrong – we burn the toast – and then we attempt to fix it – we scrape the burnt toast to make it look better. It still tastes burnt though and badly burnt toast is not salvageable.

<Leslie>Yes! That is exactly what happens all the time – most issues never get reported – we just “scrape the burnt toast” at all levels.

fire_blaze_s_150_clr_618 fire_blaze_h_150_clr_671 fire_blaze_n_150_clr_674<Bob> One flaw with the Burn-and-Scrape design is that harm has to happen for the design to work.

It is all reactive.

Another design flaw is that it focuses attention on the serious harm first – avoidable mortality for example.  Counting the extra body bags completely misses the purpose.  Avoidable death means avoidably shortened lifetime.  Avoidable non-fatal will also shorten lifetime – and it is even harder to measure.  Just consider the cumulative effect of all that non-fatal life-shortening avoidable-but-ignored harm?

Most of the reasons that we live longer today is because we have removed a lot of lifetime shortening hazards – like infectious disease and severe malnutrition.

Take health care as an example – accurately measuring avoidable mortality in an inherently high-risk system is rather difficult.  And to conclude “no action needed” from “no statistically significant difference in mortality between us and the global average” is invalid and it leads to a complacent delusion that what we have is good enough.  When it comes to harm it is never “good enough”.

<Leslie> But we do not have the resources to investigate the thousands of cases of minor harm – we have to concentrate on the biggies.

<Bob> And do the near misses keep happening?

<Leslie> Yes – that is why they are top rank  on the Niggle-o-Gram®.

<Bob> So the Burn-and-Scrape design is not fit-for-purpose.

<Leslie> So it seems. But what is the alternative? If there was one we would be using it – surely?

<Bob> Look back Leslie. How many of the Improvement Science methods that you have already learned are business-as-usual?

<Leslie> Good point. Almost none.

<Bob> And do they work?

<Leslie> You betcha!

<Bob> This is another example.  It is possible to design systems to be safe – so the frequent near misses become rare events.

<Leslie> Is it?  Wow! That know-how would be really useful to have. Can you teach me?

<Bob> Yes. First we need to explore what the benefits would be.

<Leslie> OK – well first there would be no avoidable serious harm and we could trust in the safety of our system – which is the purpose.

<Bob> Yes …. and?

<Leslie> And … all the effort, time and cost spent “scraping the burnt toast” would be released.

<Bob> Yes …. and?

<Leslie> The safer-by-design processes would be quicker and smoother, a more enjoyable experience for both customers and suppliers, and probably less expensive as well!

<Bob> Yes. So what does that all add up to?

<Leslie> A win-win-win-win outcome!

<Bob> Indeed. So a one-off investment of effort, time and money in learning Safety-by-Design methods would appear to be a wise business decision.

<Leslie> Yes indeed!  When do we start?

<Bob> We have already started.

For a real-world example of this approach delivering a significant and sustained improvement in safety click here.

The ah ha moments in life – Steve Peak

There I was 6 days ago quietly minding mine own business observing a session at the Keele University Clinical Management & Leadership course & now I am writing my first ever blog! How did that happen? The simple truth is that I had one of those OMG or ah ha moments when after years of attempting to tackle difficult and challenging operational matters there was an approach to delivery that seemed to have the potential to bring order, discipline and a sense of hope. I can pin this on an introduction to improvement science led by Simon Dodds. I went home that evening thinking I must have more of this and need to understand the foundations of putting improvement science into practice. I had already committed myself and ‘paid’ Simon a compliment by approaching him after his session and blurting out “where do I learn this stuff”?

In my career to date I have undertaken many operational roles & spent 10 years at Board level including stints as CEO. What this tells you is that I have observed hospitals, how they function or don’t as the case may be and on a number of occasions have failed to make a difference that is sustainable because my tool kit wasn’t up to it. So 6 days on from the ah ha moment and a couple of swift drinks at a hostelry in Warwickshire I have enrolled on the FISH (Foundations in Improvement Science in Healthcare) course, am writing this blog and looking forward to finally having an approach, alongside my other leadership training, to help me resolve the myriad of operational challenges that beset our great NHS. My big hope is to become a practitioner capable of sharing the approach of improvement science to as wider audience as possible. The 24 years of experience in operational leadership in the NHS tells me that very few of us have these skills that would make a very significant difference to the quality, safety, people engagement & efficiency of the services we all want to be proud of.

So I am going to write my thoughts down as I go along my FISH course so that in some small way I might influence others to want to know more. I might even become a better blogger as a result!

Feel free to comment below or email me on steven.peak@sky.com if you want to comment or question my wave of enthusiasm!

Invisible Design

Improvement Science is all about making some-thing better in some-way by some-means.

There are lots of things that might be improved – almost everything in fact.

There are lots of ways that those things might be improved. If it was a process we might improve safety, quality, delivery, and productivity. If it was a product we might improve reliability, usability, durability and affordability.

There are lots of means by which those desirable improvements might be achieved – lots of different designs.

Multiply that lot together and you get a very big number of options – so it is no wonder we get stuck in the “what to do first?” decision process.

So how do we approach this problem currently?

We use our intuition.

Intuition steers us to the obvious – hence the phrase intuitively obvious. Which means what looks to our minds-eye to be a good option.And that is OK. It is usually a lot better than guessing (but not always).

However, the problem using “intuitively obvious” is that we end up with mediocrity. We get “about average”. We get “OKish”.  We get “satisfactory”. We get “what we expected”. We get “same as always”. We do not get “significantly better-than-average’. We do not get “reliably good”. We do not get improvement. And we do not because anyone and everyone can do the “intuitively obvious” stuff.

To improve we need a better-than-average functional design. We need a Reliably Good Design. And that is invisible.

By “invisible” I mean not immediately obvious to our conscious awareness.  We do not notice good functional design because it does not get in the way of achieving our intention.  It does not trip us up.

We notice poor functional design because it trips us up. It traps us into making mistakes. It wastes out time. It fails to meet our expectation. And we are left feeling disappointed, irritated, and anxious. We feel Niggled.

We also notice exceptional design – because it works far better than we expected. We are surprised and we are delighted.

We do not notice Good Design because it just works. But there is a trap here. And that is we habitually link expectation to price.  We get what we paid for.  Higher cost => Better design => Higher expectation.

So we take good enough design for granted. And when we take stuff for granted we are on the slippery slope to losing it. As soon as something becomes invisible it is at risk of being discounted and deleted.

If we combine these two aspects of “invisible design” we arrive at an interesting conclusion.

To get from Poor Design to OK Design and then Good Design we have to think “counter-intuitively”.  We have to think “outside the box”. We have to “think laterally”.

And that is not a natural way for us to think. Not for individuals and not for teams. To get improvement we need to learn a method of how to counter our habit of thinking intuitively and we need to practice the method so that we can do it when we need to. When we want to need to improve.

To illustrate what I mean let us consider an real example.

Suppose we have 26 cards laid out in a row on a table; each card has a number on it; and our task is to sort the cards into ascending order. The constraint is that we can only move cards by swapping them.  How do we go about doing it?

There are many sorting designs that could achieve the intended purpose – so how do we choose one?

One criteria might be the time it takes to achieve the result. The quicker the better.

One criteria might be the difficulty of the method we use to achieve the result. The easier the better.

When individuals are given this task they usually do something like “scan the cards for the smallest and swap it with the first from the left, then repeat for the second from the left, and so on until we have sorted all the cards“.

This card-sorting-design is fit for purpose.  It is intuitively obvious, it is easy to explain, it is easy to teach and it is easy to do. But is it the quickest?

The answer is NO. Not by a long chalk.  For 26 randomly mixed up cards it will take about 3 minutes if we scan at a rate of 2 per second. If we have 52 cards it will take us about 12 minutes. Four times as long. Using this intuitively obvious design the time taken grows with the square of the number of cards that need sorting.

In reality there are much quicker designs and for this type of task one of the quickest is called Quicksort. It is not intuitively obvious though, it is not easy to describe, but it is easy to do – we just follow the Quicksort Policy.  (For those who are curious you can read about the method here and make up your own mind about how “intuitively obvious” it is.  Quicksort was not invented until 1960 so given that sorting stuff is not a new requirement, it clearly was not obvious for a few thousand years).

Using Quicksort to sort our 52 cards would take less than 3 minutes! That is a 400% improvement in productivity when we flip from an intuitive to a counter-intuitive design.  And Quicksort was not chance discovery – it was deliberately designed to address a specific sorting problem – and it was designed using robust design principles.

So our natural intuition tends to lead us to solutions that are “effective, easy and inefficient” – and that means expensive in terms of use of resources.

This has an important conclusion – if we are all is given the same improvement assignment and we all used our intuition to solve it then we will get similar and mediocre results.  It will feel OK and it will appear obvious but there will be no improvement.

We then conclude that “OK, this is the best we can expect.” which is intuitively obvious, logically invalid, and wrong. It is that sort of intuitive thinking trap that blocked us from inventing Quicksort for thousands of years.

And remember, to decide what is “best” we have to explore all options exhaustively – both intuitively obvious and counter-intuitively obscure. That impossible in practice.  This is why “best” and “optimum” are generally unhelpful concepts in the context of improvement science.

So how do we improve when good design is so counter-intuitive?

The answer is that we learn a set of “good designs” from a teacher who knows and understands them, and then we prove them to ourselves in practice. We leverage the “obvious in retrospect” effect. And we practice until we understand. And then we then teach others.

So if we wanted to improve the productivity of our designed-by-intuition card sorting process we could:
(a) consult a known list of proven sorting algorithms,
(b) choose one that meets our purpose (our design specification),
(c) compare the measured performance of our current “intuitively obvious” design with the predicted performance of that “counter-intuitively obscure” design,
(d) set about planning how to implement the higher performance design – possibly as a pilot first to confirm the prediction, reassure the fence-sitters, satisfy the skeptics, and silence the cynics.

So if these proven good designs are counter-intuitive then how do we get them?

The simplest and quickest way is to learn from people who already know and understand them. If we adopt the “not invented by us” attitude and attempt to re-invent the wheel then we may get lucky and re-discover a well-known design, we might even discover a novel design; but we are much more likely to waste a lot of time and end up no better off, or worse. This is called “meddling” and is driven by a combination of ignorance and arrogance.

So who are these people who know and understand good design?

They are called Improvement Scientists – and they have learned one-way-or-another what a good design looks like. That lalso means they can see poor design where others see only-possible design.

That difference of perception creates a lot of tension.

The challenge that Improvement Scientists face is explaining how counter-intuitive good design works: especially to highly intelligent, skeptical people who habitually think intuitively. They are called Academics.  And it is a pointless exercise trying to convince them using rhetoric.

Instead our Improvement Scientists side-steps the “theoretical discussion” and the “cynical discounting” by pragmatically demonstrating the measured effect of good design in practice. They use reality to make the case for good design – not rhetoric.

Improvement Scientists are Pragmatists.

And because they have learned how counter-intuitive good design is to the novice – how invisible it is to their intuition – then they are also Voracious Learners. They have enough humility to see themselves as Eternal Novices and enough confidence to be selective students.  They will actively seek learning from those who can demonstrate the “what” and explain the “how”.  They know and understand it is a much quicker and easier way to improve their knowledge and understanding.  It is Good Design.


“When the Student is ready …”

Improvement Science is not a new idea.  The principles are enduring and can be traced back as far as recorded memory – for Millennia. This means that there is a deep well of ancient wisdom that we can draw from.  Much of this wisdom is condensed into short sayings which capture a fundamental principle or essence.

One such saying is attributed to Zen Buddhism and goes “When the Student is ready the Teacher will appear.

This captures the essence of a paradigm shift – a term made popular by Thomas S Kuhn in his seminal 1962 book – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  It was written just over 50 years ago.

System-wide change takes time and the first stage is the gradual build up of dissatisfaction with the current paradigm.  The usual reaction from the Guardians of the Status Quo is to silence the first voices of dissent, often brutally. As the pressure grows there are too many voices to silence individually so more repressive Policies and Policing are introduced. This works for a while but does not dissolve the drivers of dissatisfaction. The pressure builds and the cracks start to appear.  This is a dangerous phase.

There are three ways out: repression, revolution, and evolution.  The last one is the preferred option – and it requires effective leadership to achieve.  Effective leaders are both Teachers and Students. Knowledge and understanding flow through them as they acquire Wisdom.

The first essence of the message is that the solutions to the problems are already known – but the reason they are not widely known and used is our natural affection for the familiar and our distrust of the unfamiliar.  If we are comfortable then why change?

It is only when we are uncomfortable enough that we will start to look for ways to regain comfort – physical and psychological.

The second essence of the message is that to change we need to learn something and that means we have to become Students, and to seek the guidance of a Teacher. Someone who understands the problems, their root causes, the solutions, the benefits and most importantly – how to disseminate that knowledge and understanding.  A Teacher that can show us how not just tell us what.

The third essence of the message is that the Students become Teachers themselves as they put into practice what they have learned and prove to themselves that it works, and it is workable.  The new understanding flows along the Optimism-Skepticism gradient until the Tipping Point is reached.  It is then unstoppable and the Paradigm flips. Often remarkably quickly.

The risk is that change means opportunity and there are many who can sniff out an opportunity to cash in on the change chaos. They are the purveyors of Snakeoil – and they prey on the dissatisfied and desperate.

So how does a Student know a True-Teacher from a Snakeoil Salesperson?

Simple – the genuine Teacher will be able to show a portfolio of successes and delighted ex-students; will be able to explain and demonstrate how they were both achieved; will be willing to share their knowledge; and will respectfully decline to teach someone who they feel is not yet ready to learn.

The Green Shoots of Improvement

one_on_one_challenge_150_wht_8069Improvement is a form of innovation and it obeys the same Laws of Innovation.

One of these Laws describes how innovation diffuses and it is called Rogers’ Law.

The principle is that innovations diffuse according to two opposing forces – the Force of Optimism and the Force of Skepticism.  As individuals we differ in our balance of these two preferences.

When we are in status quo the two forces are exactly balanced.

As the Force of Optimism builds (usually from increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo driving Necessity-the-Mother-of-Invention) then the Force of Skepticism tends to build too. It feels like being in a vice that is slowly closing. The emotional stress builds, the strain starts to show and the cracks begin to appear.  Sometimes the Optimism jaw of the vice shatters first, sometimes the Skepticism jaw does – either way the pent-up-tension is relieved. At least for a while.

The way to avoid the Vice is to align the forces of Optimism and Skepticism so that they both pull towards the common goal, the common purpose, the common vision.  And there always is one. People want a win-win-win outcome, they vary in daring to dream that it is possible. It is.

The importance of pull is critical. When we have push forces and a common goal we do get movement – but there is a danger – because things can veer out of control quickly.  Pull is much easier to steer and control than push.  We all know this from our experience of the real world.

And When the status quo starts to move in the direction of the common vision we are seeing tangible evidence of the Green Shoots of Improvement breaking through the surface into our conscious awareness.  Small signs first, tender green shoots, often invisible among the overgrowth, dead wood and weeds.

Sometimes the improvement is a reduction of the stuff we do not want – and that can be really difficult to detect if it is gradual because we adapt quickly and do not notice diffuse, slow changes.

We can detect the change by recording how it feels now then reviewing our records later (very few of us do that – very few of us keep a personal reflective journal). We can also detect change by comparing ourselves with others – but that is a minefield of hidden traps and is much less reliable (but we do that all the time!).

Improvement scientists prepare the Soil-of-Change, sow the Seeds of Innovation, and wait for the Spring to arrive.  As the soil thaws (the burning platform of a crisis may provide some energy for this) some of the Seeds will germinate and start to grow.  They root themselves in past reality and they shoot for the future rhetoric.  But they have a finite fuel store for growth – they need to get to the surface and to sunlight before their stored energy runs out. The preparation, planting and timing are all critical.

plant_growing_anim_150_wht_9902And when the Green Shoots of Improvement appear the Improvement Scientist switches role from Germinator to Grower – providing the seedlings with emotional sunshine in the form of positive feedback, encouragement, essential training, and guidance.  The Grower also has to provide protection from toxic threats that can easily kill a tender improvement seedling – the sources of Cynicide that are always present. The disrespectful sneers of “That will never last!” and “You are wasting your time – nothing good lasts long around here!”

The Improvement Scientist must facilitate harnessing the other parts of the system so that they all pull in the direction of the common vision – at least to some degree.  And the other parts add up to about 85% of it so they collectively they have enough muscle to create movement in the direction of the shared vision. If they are aligned.

And each other part has a different, significant and essential role.

The Disruptive Innovators provide the new ideas – they are always a challenge because they are always questioning “Why do we do it that way?” “What if we did it differently?” “How could we change?”  We do not want too many disruptive innovators because they are – disruptive.  Frustrated disruptive innovations can easily flip to being Cynics – so it is wise not to ignore them.

The Early Adopters provide the filter – they test the new ideas; they reject the ones that do not work; and they shape the ones that do. They provide the robust evidence of possibility. We need more Adopters than Innovators because lots of the ideas do not germinate. Duff seed or hostile soil – it does not matter which.  We want Green Shoots of Improvement.

The Majority provide the route to sharing the Adopter-Endorsed ideas, the Green Shoots of Improvement. They will sit on the fence, consider the options, comment, gossip, listen, ponder and eventually they will commit and change. The Early Majority earlier and the Late Majority later. The Late Majority are also known as the Skeptics. They are willing to be convinced but they need the most evidence. They are most risk-averse and for that reason they are really useful – because they can help guide the Shoots of  Improvement around the Traps. They will help if asked and given a clear role – “Tell us if you see gaps and risks and tell us why so that we can avoid them at the design and development stage”.  And you can tell if they are a True Skeptic or a Cynic-in-Skeptic clothing – because the Cynics will decline to help saying that they are too busy.

The last group, the Cynics, are a threat to significant and sustained improvement. And they can be managed using one or more the these four tactics:

1. Ignore them. This has the advantage of not wasting time but it tends to enrage them and they get noisier and more toxic.
2. Isolate them. This is done by establishing peer group ground rules that are is based on Respectful Challenge.
3. Remove them. This needs senior intervention and a cast-iron case with ample evidence of bad behaviour. Last resort.
4. Engage them. This is the best option if it can be achieved – invite the Cynics to be Skeptics. The choice is theirs.

It is surprising how much improvement follows from just turning blocking some of the sources of Cynicide!

growing_blue_vine_dissolve_150_wht_244So the take home message is a positive one:

  • Look for the Green Shoots of Improvement,
  • Celebrate every one you find,
  • Nurture and Protect them

and they will grow bigger and stronger and one day will flower, fruit and create their own Seeds of Innovation.