Rocket Science

ViewFromSpaceThis is a picture of Chris Hadfield. He is an astronaut and to prove it here he is in the ‘cupola’ of the International Space Station (ISS). Through the windows is a spectacular view of the Earth from space.

Our home seen from space.

What is remarkable about this image is that it even exists.

This image is tangible evidence of a successful outcome of a very long path of collaborative effort by 100’s of 1000’s of people who share a common dream.

That if we can learn to overcome the challenge of establishing a permanent manned presence in space then just imagine what else we might achieve?

Chis is unusual for many reasons.  One is that he is Canadian and there are not many Canadian astronauts. He is also the first Canadian astronaut to command the ISS.  Another claim to fame is that when he recently lived in space for 5 months on the ISS, he recorded a version of David Bowie’s classic song – for real – in space. To date this has clocked up 21 million YouTube hits and had helped to bring the inspiring story of space exploration back to the public consciousness.

Especially the next generation of explorers – our children.

Chris has also written a book ‘An Astronaut’s View of Life on Earth‘ that tells his story. It describes how he was inspired at a young age by seeing the first man to step onto the Moon in 1969.  He overcame seemingly impossible obstacles to become an astronaut, to go into space, and to command the ISS.  The image is tangible evidence.

We all know that space is a VERY dangerous place.  I clearly remember the two space shuttle disasters. There have been many other much less public accidents.  Those tragic events have shocked us all out of complacency and have created a deep sense of humility in those who face up to the task of learning to overcome the enormous technical and cultural barriers.

Getting six people into space safely, staying there long enough to conduct experiments on the long-term effects of weightlessness, and getting them back again safely is a VERY difficult challenge.  And it has been overcome. We have the proof.

Many of the seemingly impossible day-to-day problems that we face seem puny in comparison.

For example: getting every patient into hospital, staying there just long enough to benefit from cutting edge high-technology healthcare, and getting them back home again safely.

And doing it repeatedly and consistently so that the system can be trusted and we are not greeted with tragic stories every time we open a newspaper. Stories that erode our trust in the ability of groups of well-intended people to do anything more constructive than bully, bicker and complain.

So when the exasperated healthcare executive exclaims ‘Getting 95% of emergency admissions into hospital in less than 4 hours is not rocket science!‘ – then perhaps a bit more humility is in order. It is rocket science.

Rocket science is Improvement science.

And reading the story of a real-life rocket-scientist might be just the medicine our exasperated executives need.

Because Chris explains exactly how it is done.

And he is credible because he has walked-the-talk so he has earned the right to talk-the-walk.

The least we can do is listen and learn.

Here is is Chris answering the question ‘How to achieve an impossible dream?

Navigating the Nerve Curve

Nerve_CurveThe emotional roller-coaster ride that is associated with change, learning and improvement is called the Nerve Curve.

We are all very familiar with the first stages – of Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Despair.  We are less familiar with the stages associated with the long climb out to Resolution: because most improvement initiatives fail for one reason of another.

The critical first step is to “Disprove Impossibility” and this is the first injection of innovation. Someone (the ‘innovator’) discovers that what was believed to be impossible is not. They only have to have one example too. One Black Swan.

The tougher task is to influence those languishing in the ‘Depths of Despair’ that there is hope and that there is a ‘how’. This is not easy because cynicism is toxic to innovation.  So an experienced Improvement Science Practitioner (ISP) bypasses the cynics and engages with the depressed-but-still-healthy-skeptics.

The challenge now is how to get a shed load of them up the hill.

When we first learn to drive we start on the flat, not on hills,  for a very good reason. Safety.

We need to learn to become confident with the controls first. The brake, the accelerator, the clutch and the steering wheel.  This takes practice until it is comfortable, unconscious and almost second nature. We want to achieve a smooth transition from depression to delight, not chaotic kangaroo jumps!

Only when we can do that on the flat do we attempt a hill-start. And the key to a successful hill start is the sequence.  Hand brake on  for safety, out of gear, engine running, pointing at the goal. Then we depress the clutch and select a low gear – we do not want to stall. Speed is not the goal. Safety comes first. Then we rev the engine to give us the power we need to draw on. Then we ease the clutch until the force of the engine has overcome the force of gravity and we feel the car wanting to move forward. And only then do we ease the handbrake off, let the clutch out more and hit the gas to keep the engine revs in the green.

So when we are planning to navigate a group of healthy skeptics up the final climb of the Nerve Curve we need to plan and prepare carefully.

What is least likely to be successful?

Well, if all we have is our own set of wheels,  a cheap and cheerful mini-motor, then it is not going to be a good idea to shackle a trailer to it; fill the trailer with skeptics and attempt a hill start. We will either stall completely or burn out our clutch. We may even be dragged backwards into the Cynic Infested Toxic Swamp.

So what if we hire a bus, load up our skeptical passengers, and have a go.  We may be lucky –  but if we have no practice doing hill starts with a full bus then we could be heading for disappointment; or disaster.

So what is a safer plan:
1) First we need to go up the mountain ourselves to demonstrate it is possible.
2) Then we take one or two of the least skeptical up in our car to show it is safe.
3) We then invite those skeptics with cars to learn how to do safe hill starts.
4) Finally we ask the ex-skeptics to teach the fresh-skeptics how to do it.

Brmmmm Brmmmm. Off we go.


hurry_with_the_SFQP_kit[Dring] Bob’s laptop signaled the arrival of Leslie for their regular ISP remote coaching session.

<Bob> Hi Leslie. Thanks for emailing me with a long list of things to choose from. It looks like you have been having some challenging conversations.

<Leslie> Hi Bob. Yes indeed! The deepening gloom and the last few blog topics seem to be polarising opinion. Some are claiming it is all hopeless and others, perhaps out of desperation, are trying the FISH stuff for themselves and discovering that it works.  The ‘What Ifs’ are engaged in war of words with the ‘Yes Buts’.

<Bob> I like your metaphor! Where would you like to start on the long list of topics?

<Leslie> That is my problem. I do not know where to start. They all look equally important.

<Bob> So, first we need a way to prioritise the topics to get the horse-before-the-cart.

<Leslie> Sounds like a good plan to me!

<Bob> One of the problems with the traditional improvement approaches is that they seem to start at the most difficult point. They focus on ‘quality’ first – and to be fair that has been the mantra from the gurus like W.E.Deming. ‘Quality Improvement’ is the Holy Grail.

<Leslie>But quality IS important … are you saying they are wrong?

<Bob> Not at all. I am saying that it is not the place to start … it is actually the third step.

<Leslie>So what is the first step?

<Bob> Safety. Eliminating avoidable harm. Primum Non Nocere. The NoNos. The Never Events. The stuff that generates the most fear for everyone. The fear of failure.

<Leslie> You mean having a service that we can trust not to harm us unnecessarily?

<Bob> Yes. It is not a good idea to make an unsafe design more efficient – it will deliver even more cumulative harm!

<Leslie> OK. That makes perfect sense to me. So how do we do that?

<Bob> It does not actually matter.  Well-designed and thoroughly field-tested checklists have been proven to be very effective in the ‘ultra-safe’ industries like aerospace and nuclear.

<Leslie> OK. Something like the WHO Safe Surgery Checklist?

<Bob> Yes, that is a good example – and it is well worth reading Atul Gawande’s book about how that happened – “The Checklist Manifesto“.  Gawande is a surgeon who had published a lot on improvement and even so was quite skeptical that something as simple as a checklist could possibly work in the complex world of surgery. In his book he describes a number of personal ‘Ah Ha!’ moments that illustrate a phenomenon that I call Jiggling.

<Leslie> OK. I have made a note to read Checklist Manifesto and I am curious to learn more about Jiggling – but can we stick to the point? Does quality come after safety?

<Bob> Yes, but not immediately after. As I said, Quality is the third step.

<Leslie> So what is the second one?

<Bob> Flow.

There was a long pause – and just as Bob was about to check that the connection had not been lost – Leslie spoke.

<Leslie> But none of the Improvement Schools teach basic flow science.  They all focus on quality, waste and variation!

<Bob> I know. And attempting to improve quality before improving flow is like papering the walls before doing the plastering.  Quality cannot grow in a chaotic context. The flow must be smooth before that. And the fear of harm must be removed first.

<Leslie> So the ‘Improving Quality through Leadership‘ bandwagon that everyone is jumping on will not work?

<Bob> Well that depends on what the ‘Leaders’ are doing. If they are leading the way to learning how to design-for-safety and then design-for-flow then the bandwagon might be a wise choice. If they are only facilitating collaborative agreement and group-think then they may be making an unsafe and ineffective system more efficient which will steer it over the edge into faster decline.

<Leslie>So, if we can stabilize safety using checklists do we focus on flow next?


<Leslie> OK. That makes a lot of sense to me. So what is Jiggling?

<Bob> This is Jiggling. This conversation.

<Leslie> Ah, I see. I am jiggling my understanding through a series of ‘nudges’ from you.

<Bob>Yes. And when the learning cogs are a bit rusty, some Improvement Science Oil and a bit of Jiggling is more effective and much safer than whacking the caveman wetware with a big emotional hammer.

<Leslie>Well the conversation has certainly jiggled Safety-Flow-Quality-and-Productivity into a sensible order for me. That has helped a lot. I will sort my to-do list into that order and start at the beginning. Let me see. I have a plan for safety, now I can focus on flow. Here is my top flow niggle. How do I design the resource capacity I need to ensure the flow is smooth and the waiting times are short enough to avoid ‘persecution’ by the Target Time Police?

<Bob> An excellent question! I will send you the first ISP Brainteaser that will nudge us towards an answer to that question.

<Leslie> I am ready and waiting to have my brain-teased and my niggles-nudged!

The Speed of Trust

London_UndergroundSystems are built from intersecting streams of work called processes.

This iconic image of the London Underground shows a system map – a set of intersecting transport streams.

Each stream links a sequence of independent steps – in this case the individual stations.  Each step is a system in itself – it has a set of inner streams.

For a system to exhibit stable and acceptable behaviour the steps must be in synergy – literally ‘together work’. The steps also need to be in synchrony – literally ‘same time’. And to do that they need to be aligned to a common purpose.  In the case of a transport system the design purpose is to get from A to B safety, quickly, in comfort and at an affordable cost.

In large socioeconomic systems called ‘organisations’ the steps represent groups of people with special knowledge and skills that collectively create the desired product or service.  This creates an inevitable need for ‘handoffs’ as partially completed work flows through the system along streams from one step to another. Each step contributes to the output. It is like a series of baton passes in a relay race.

This creates the requirement for a critical design ingredient: trust.

Each step needs to be able to trust the others to do their part:  right-first-time and on-time.  All the steps are directly or indirectly interdependent.  If any one of them is ‘untrustworthy’ then the whole system will suffer to some degree. If too many generate dis-trust then the system may fail and can literally fall apart. Trust is like social glue.

So a critical part of people-system design is the development and the maintenance of trust-bonds.

And it does not happen by accident. It takes active effort. It requires design.

We are social animals. Our default behaviour is to trust. We learn distrust by experiencing repeated disappointments. We are not born cynical – we learn that behaviour.

The default behaviour for inanimate systems is disorder – and it has a fancy name – it is called ‘entropy’. There is a Law of Physics that says that ‘the average entropy of a system will increase over time‘. The critical word is ‘average’.

So, if we are not aware of this and we omit to pay attention to the hand-offs between the steps we will observe increasing disorder which leads to repeated disappointments and erosion of trust. Our natural reaction then is ‘self-protect’ which implies ‘check-and-reject’ and ‘check and correct’. This adds complexity and bureaucracy and may prevent further decline – which is good – but it comes at a cost – quite literally.

Eventually an equilibrium will be achieved where our system performance is limited by the amount of check-and-correct bureaucracy we can afford.  This is called a ‘mediocrity trap’ and it is very resilient – which means resistant to change in any direction.

To escape from the mediocrity trap we need to break into the self-reinforcing check-and-reject loop and we do that by developing a design that challenges ‘trust eroding behaviour’.  The strategy is to develop a skill called  ‘smart trust’.

To appreciate what smart trust is we need to view trust as a spectrum: not as a yes/no option.

At one end is ‘nonspecific distrust’ – otherwise known as ‘cynical behaviour’. At the other end is ‘blind trust’ – otherwise  known and ‘gullible behaviour’.  Neither of these are what we need.

In the middle is the zone of smart trust that spans healthy scepticism  through to healthy optimism.  What we need is to maintain a balance between the two – not to eliminate them. This is because some people are ‘glass-half-empty’ types and some are ‘glass-half-full’. And both views have a value.

The action required to develop smart trust is to respectfully challenge every part of the organisation to demonstrate ‘trustworthiness’ using evidence.  Rhetoric is not enough. Politicians always score very low on ‘most trusted people’ surveys.

The first phase of this smart trust development is for steps to demonstrate trustworthiness to themselves using their own evidence, and then to share this with the steps immediately upstream and downstream of them.

So what evidence is needed?

SFQP1Safety comes first. If a step cannot be trusted to be safe then that is the first priority. Safe systems need to be designed to be safe.

Flow comes second. If the streams do not flow smoothly then we experience turbulence and chaos which increases stress,  the risk of harm and creates disappointment for everyone. Smooth flow is the result of careful  flow design.

Third is Quality which means ‘setting and meeting realistic expectations‘.  This cannot happen in an unsafe, chaotic system.  Quality builds on Flow which builds on Safety. Quality is a design goal – an output – a purpose.

Fourth is Productivity (or profitability) and that does not automatically follow from the other three as some QI Zealots might have us believe. It is possible to have a safe, smooth, high quality design that is unaffordable.  Productivity needs to be designed too.  An unsafe, chaotic, low quality design is always more expensive.  Always. Safe, smooth and reliable can be highly productive and profitable – if designed to be.

So whatever the driver for improvement the sequence of questions is the same for every step in the system: “How can I demonstrate evidence of trustworthiness for Safety, then Flow, then Quality and then Productivity?”

And when that happens improvement will take off like a rocket. That is the Speed of Trust.  That is Improvement Science in Action.