F4P_PillsWe all want a healthcare system that is fit for purpose.

One which can deliver diagnosis, treatment and prognosis where it is needed, when it is needed, with empathy and at an affordable cost.

One that achieves intended outcomes without unintended harm – either physical or psychological.

We want safety, delivery, quality and affordability … all at the same time.

And we know that there are always constraints we need to work within.

There are constraints set by the Laws of the Universe – physical constraints.

These are absolute,  eternal and are not negotiable.

Dr Who’s fantastical tardis is fictional. We cannot distort space, or travel in time, or go faster than light – well not with our current knowledge.

There are also constraints set by the Laws of the Land – legal constraints.

Legal constraints are rigid but they are also adjustable.  Laws evolve over time, and they are arbitrary. We design them. We choose them. And we change them when they are no longer fit for purpose.

The third limit is often seen as the financial constraint. We are required to live within our means. There is no eternal font of  limitless funds to draw from.  We all share a planet that has finite natural resources  – and ‘grow’ in one part implies ‘shrink’ in another.  The Laws of the Universe are not negotiable. Mass, momentum and energy are conserved.

The fourth constraint is perceived to be the most difficult yet, paradoxically, is the one that we have most influence over.

It is the cultural constraint.

The collective, continuously evolving, unwritten rules of socially acceptable behaviour.

Improvement requires challenging our unconscious assumptions, our beliefs and our habits – and selectively updating those that are no longer fit-4-purpose.

To learn we first need to expose the gaps in our knowledge and then to fill them.

We need to test our hot rhetoric against cold reality – and when the fog of disillusionment forms we must rip up and rewrite what we have exposed to be old rubbish.

We need to examine our habits with forensic detachment and we need to ‘unlearn’ the ones that are limiting our effectiveness, and replace them with new habits that better leverage our capabilities.

And all of that is tough to do. Life is tough. Living is tough. Learning is tough. Leading is tough. But it energising too.

Having a model-of-effective-leadership to aspire to and a peer-group for mutual respect and support is a critical piece of the jigsaw.

It is not possible to improve a system alone. No matter how smart we are, how committed we are, or how hard we work.  A system can only be improved by the system itself. It is a collective and a collaborative challenge.

So with all that in mind let us sketch a blueprint for a leader of systemic cultural improvement.

What values, beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, skills and behaviours would be on our ‘must have’ list?

What hard evidence of effectiveness would we ask for? What facts, figures and feedback?

And with our check-list in hand would we feel confident to spot an ‘effective leader of systemic cultural improvement’ if we came across one?

This is a tough design assignment because it requires the benefit of  hindsight to identify the critical-to-success factors: our ‘must have and must do’ and ‘must not have and must not do’ lists.

H’mmmm ….

So let us take a more pragmatic and empirical approach. Let us ask …

“Are there any real examples of significant and sustained healthcare system improvement that are relevant to our specific context?”

And if we can find even just one Black Swan then we can ask …

Q1. What specifically was the significant and sustained improvement?
Q2. How specifically was the improvement achieved?
Q3. When exactly did the process start?
Q4. Who specifically led the system improvement?

And if we do this exercise for the NHS we discover some interesting things.

First let us look for exemplars … and let us start using some official material – the Monitor website ( for example … and let us pick out ‘Foundation Trusts’ because they are the ones who are entrusted to run their systems with a greater degree of capability and autonomy.

And what we discover is a league table where those FTs that are OK are called ‘green’ and those that are Not OK are coloured ‘red’.  And there are some that are ‘under review’ so we will call them ‘amber’.

The criteria for deciding this RAG rating are embedded in a large balanced scorecard of objective performance metrics linked to a robust legal contract that provides the framework for enforcement.  Safety metrics like standardised mortality ratios, flow metrics like 18-week and 4-hour target yields, quality metrics like the friends-and-family test, and productivity metrics like financial viability.

A quick tally revealed 106 FTs in the green, 10 in the amber and 27 in the red.

But this is not much help with our quest for exemplars because it is not designed to point us to who has improved the most, it only points to who is failing the most!  The league table is a name-and-shame motivation-destroying cultural-missile fuelled by DRATs (delusional ratios and arbitrary targets) and armed with legal teeth.  A projection of the current top-down, Theory-X, burn-the-toast-then-scrape-it management-of-mediocrity paradigm. Oh dear!

However,  despite these drawbacks we could make better use of this data.  We could look at the ‘reds’ and specifically at their styles of cultural leadership and compare with a random sample of all the ‘greens’ and their models for success. We could draw out the differences and correlate with outcomes: red, amber or green.

That could offer us some insight and could give us the head start with our blueprint and check-list.

It would be a time-consuming and expensive piece of work and we do not want to wait that long. So what other avenues are there we can explore now and at no cost?

Well there are unofficial sources of information … the ‘grapevine’ … the stuff that people actually talk about.

What examples of effective improvement leadership in the NHS are people talking about?

Well a little blue bird tweeted one in my ear this week …

And specifically they are talking about a leader who has learned to walk-the-improvement-walk and is now talking-the-improvement-walk: and that is Sir David Dalton, the CEO of Salford Royal.

Here is a copy of the slides from Sir David’s recent lecture at the Kings Fund … and it is interesting to compare and contrast it with the style of NHS Leadership that led up to the Mid Staffordshire Failure, and to the Francis Report, and to the Keogh Report and to the Berwick Report.

Chalk and cheese!

So if you are an NHS employee would you rather work as part of an NHS Trust where the leaders walk-DD’s-walk and talk-DD’s-talk?

And if you are an NHS customer would you prefer that the leaders of your local NHS Trust walked Sir David’s walk too?

We are the system … we get the leaders that we deserve … we make the  choice … so we need to choose wisely … and we need to make our collective voice heard.

Actions speak louder than words.  Walk works better than talk.  We must be the change we want to see.

A Little Law and Order

teamwork_puzzle_build_PA_150_wht_2341[Bing bong]. The sound heralded Lesley logging on to the weekly Webex coaching session with Bob, an experienced Improvement Science Practitioner.

<Bob> Good afternoon Lesley.  How has your week been and what topic shall we explore today?

<Lesley> Hi Bob. Well in a nutshell, the bit of the system that I have control over feels like a fragile oasis of calm in a perpetual desert of chaos.  It is hard work keeping the oasis clear of the toxic sand that blows in!

<Bob> A compelling metaphor. I can just picture it.  Maintaining order amidst chaos requires energy. So what would you like to talk about?

<Lesley> Well, I have a small shoal of FISHees who I am guiding  through the foundation shallows and they are getting stuck on Little’s Law.  I confess I am not very good at explaining it and that suggests to me that I do not really understand it well enough either.

<Bob> OK. So shall we link those two theme – chaos and Little’s Law?

<Lesley> That sounds like an excellent plan!

<Bob> OK. So let us refresh the foundation knowledge. What is Little’s Law?

<Lesley>It is a fundamental Law of process physics that relates flow, with lead time and work in progress.

<Bob> Good. And specifically?

<Lesley> Average lead time is equal to the average flow multiplied by the average work in progress.

<Bob>Yes. And what are the units of flow in your equation?

<Lesley> Ah yes! That is  a trap for the unwary. We need to be clear how we express flow. The usual way is to state it as number of tasks in a defined period of time, such as patients admitted per day.  In Little’s Law the convention is to use the inverse of that which is the average interval between consecutive flow events. This is an unfamiliar way to present flow to most people.

<Bob> Good. And what is the reason that we use the ‘interval between events’ form?

<Leslie> Because it is easier to compare it with two critically important  flow metrics … the takt time and the cycle time.

<Bob> And what is the takt time?

<Leslie> It is the average interval between new tasks arriving … the average demand interval.

<Bob> And the cycle time?

<Leslie> It is the shortest average interval between tasks departing …. and is determined by the design of the flow constraint step.

<Bob> Excellent. And what is the essence of a stable flow design?

<Lesley> That the cycle time is less than the takt time.

<Bob>Why less than? Why not equal to?

<Leslie> Because all realistic systems need some flow resilience to exhibit stable and predictable-within-limits behaviour.

<Bob> Excellent. Now describe the design requirements for creating chronically chaotic system behaviour?

<Leslie> This is a bit trickier to explain. The essence is that for chronically chaotic behaviour to happen then there must be two feedback loops – a destabilising loop and a stabilising loop.  The destabilising loop creates the chaos, the stabilising loop ensures it is chronic.

<Bob> Good … so can you give me an example of a destabilising feedback loop?

<Leslie> A common one that I see is when there is a long delay between detecting a safety risk and the diagnosis, decision and corrective action.  The risks are often transitory so if the corrective action arrives long after the root cause has gone away then it can actually destabilise the process and paradoxically increase the risk of harm.

<Bob> Can you give me an example?

<Leslie>Yes. Suppose a safety risk is exposed by a near miss.  A delay in communicating the niggle and a root cause analysis means that the specific combination of factors that led to the near miss has gone. The holes in the Swiss cheese are not static … they move about in the chaos.  So the action that follows the accumulation of many undiagnosed near misses is usually the non-specific mantra of adding yet another safety-check to the already burgeoning check-list. The longer check-list takes more time to do, and is often repeated many times, so the whole flow slows down, queues grow bigger, waiting times get longer and as pressure comes from the delivery targets corners start being cut, and new near misses start to occur; on top of the other ones. So more checks are added and so on.

<Bob> An excellent example! And what is the outcome?

<Leslie> Chronic chaos which is more dangerous, more disordered and more expensive. Lose lose lose.

<Bob> And how do the people feel who work in the system?

<Leslie> Chronically naffed off! Angry. Demotivated. Cynical.

<Bob>And those feelings are the key symptoms.  Niggles are not only symptoms of poor process design, they are also symptoms of a much deeper problem: a violation of values.

<Leslie> I get the first bit about poor design; but what is that second bit about values?

<Bob>  We all have a set of values that we learned when we were very young and that have bee shaped by life experience.  They are our source of emotional energy, and our guiding lights in an uncertain world. Our internal unconscious check-list.  So when one of our values is violated we know because we feel angry. How that anger is directed varies from person to person … some internalise it and some externalise it.

<Leslie> OK. That explains the commonest emotion that people report when they feel a niggle … frustration which is the same as anger.

<Bob>Yes.  And we reveal our values by uncovering the specific root causes of our niggles.  For example if I value ‘Hard Work’ then I will be niggled by laziness. If you value ‘Experimentation’ then you may be niggled by ‘Rigid Rules’.  If someone else values ‘Safety’ then they may value ‘Rigid Rules’ and be niggled by ‘Innovation’ which they interpret as risky.

<Leslie> Ahhhh! Yes, I see.  This explains why there is so much impassioned discussion when we do a 4N Chart! But if this behaviour is so innate then it must be impossible to resolve!

<Bob> Understanding  how our values motivate us actually helps a lot because we are naturally attracted to others who share the same values – because we have learned that it reduces conflict and stress and improves our chance of survival. We are tribal and tribes share the same values.

<Leslie> Is that why different  departments appear to have different cultures and behaviours and why they fight each other?

<Bob> It is one factor in the Silo Wars that are a characteristic of some large organisations.  But Silo Wars are not inevitable.

<Leslie> So how are they avoided?

<Bob> By everyone knowing what common purpose of the organisation is and by being clear about what values are aligned with that purpose.

<Leslie> So in the healthcare context one purpose is avoidance of harm … primum non nocere … so ‘safety’ is a core value.  Which implies anything that is felt to be unsafe generates niggles and well-intended but potentially self-destructive negative behaviour.

<Bob> Indeed so, as you described very well.

<Leslie> So how does all this link to Little’s Law?

<Bob>Let us go back to the foundation knowledge. What are the four interdependent dimensions of system improvement?

<Leslie> Safety, Flow, Quality and Productivity.

<Bob> And one measure of  productivity is profit.  So organisations that have only short term profit as their primary goal are at risk of making poor long term safety, flow and quality decisions.

<Leslie> And flow is the key dimension – because profit is just  the difference between two cash flows: income and expenses.

<Bob> Exactly. One way or another it all comes down to flow … and Little’s Law is a fundamental Law of flow physics. So if you want all the other outcomes … without the emotionally painful disorder and chaos … then you cannot avoid learning to use Little’s Law.

<Leslie> Wow!  That is a profound insight.  I will need to lie down in a darkened room and meditate on that!

<Bob> An oasis of calm is the perfect place to pause, rest and reflect.

Feel the Fear

monster_in_closet_150_wht_14500We spend a lot of time in a state of anxiety and fear. It is part and parcel of life because there are many real threats that we need to detect and avoid.

For our own safety and survival.

Unfortunately there are also many imagined threats that feel just as real and just as terrifying.

In these cases it is our fear that does the damage because it paralyses our decision making and triggers our ‘fright’ then ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ reaction.

Fear is not bad … the emotional energy it releases can be channelled into change and improvement. Just as anger can.

So we need to be able to distinguish the real fears from the imaginary ones. And we need effective strategies to defuse the imaginary ones.  Because until we do that we will find it very difficult to listen, learn, experiment, change and improve.

So let us grasp the nettle and talk about a dozen universal fears …

Fear of dying before one’s time.
Fear of having one’s basic identity questioned.
Fear of poverty or loss of one’s livelihood.
Fear of being denied one’s fundamental rights and liberties.

Fear of being unjustly accused of wrongdoing.
Fear of public humiliation.
Fear of being unjustly seen as lacking character.
Fear of being discovered as inauthentic – a fraud.

Fear of radical change.
Fear of feedback.
Fear of failure.
Fear of the unknown.

Notice that some of these fears are much ‘deeper’ than others … this list is approximately in depth order. Some relate to ‘self’; some relate to ‘others’ and all are inter-related to some degree. Fear of failure links to fear of humiliation and to fear of loss-of-livelihood.

Of these the four that are closest to the surface are the easiest to tackle … fear of radical change, fear of feedback, fear of failure, and fear of the unknown.  These are the Four Fears that block personal improvement.

Fear of the unknown is the easiest to defuse. We just open the door and look … from an emotionally safe distance so that we can run away if our worst fears are realised … which does not happen when the fear is imagined.

This is an effective strategy for defusing the emotionally and socially damaging effects of self-generated phobias.

And we find overcoming fear-of-the-unknown exhilarating … that is how theme parks and roller-coaster rides work.

First we open our eyes, we look, we see, we observe, we reflect, we learn and we convert the unknown to the unfamiliar and then to the familiar. We may not conquer our fear completely … there may be some reasonable residual anxiety … but we have learned to contain it and to control it. We have made friends with our inner Chimp. We climb aboard the roller coaster that is called ‘life’.

Fear of failure is next.  We defuse this by learning how to fail safely so that we can learn-by-doing and by that means we reduce the risk of future failures. We make frequent small safe failures in order to learn how to avoid the rare big unsafe ones!

Many people approach improvement from an academic angle. They sit on the fence. They are the reflector-theorists. And this may because they are too fearful-of-failing to learn the how-by-doing. So they are unable to demonstrate the how and their fear becomes the fear-of-fraud and the fear-of-humiliation. They are blocked from developing their pragmatist/activist capability by their self-generated fear-of-failure.

So we start small, we stay focussed, we stay inside our circle of control, and we create a safe zone where we can learn how to fail safely – first in private and later in public.

One of the most inspiring behaviours of an effective leader is the courage to learn in public and to make small failures that demonstrate their humility and humanity.

Those who insist on ‘perfect’ leaders are guaranteed to be disappointed.

And one thing that we all fail repeatedly is to ask for, to give and to receive effective feedback. This links to the deeper fear-of-humiliation.

And it is relatively easy to defuse this fear-of-feedback too … we just need a framework to support us until we find our feet and our confidence.

The key to effective feedback is to make it non-judgemental.

And that can only be done by developing our ability to step back and out of the Drama Triangle and to cultivate an I’m OK- You’re OK  mindset.

The mindset of mutual respect. Self-respect and Other-respect.

And remember that Other-respect does not imply trust, alignment, agreement, or even liking.

Sworn enemies can respect each other while at the same time not trusting, liking or agreeing with each other.

Judgement-free feedback (JFF) is a very effective technique … both for defusing fear and for developing mutual respect.

And from that foundation radical change becomes possible, even inevitable.

Wacky Language

wacky_languageAll innovative ideas are inevitably associated with new language.

Familiar words used in an unfamiliar context so that the language sounds ‘wacky’ to those in the current paradigm.

Improvement science is no different.

A problem arises when familiar words are used in a new context and therefore with a different meaning. Confusion.

So we try to avoid this cognitive confusion by inventing new words, or by using foreign words that are ‘correct’ but unfamiliar.

This use of novel and foreign language exposes us to another danger: the evolution of a clique of self-appointed experts who speak the new and ‘wacky’ language.

This self-appointed expert clique can actually hinder change because it can result yet another us-and-them division.  Another tribe. More discussion. More confusion. Less improvement.

So it is important for an effective facilitator-of-improvement to define any new language using the language of the current paradigm.  This can be achieved by sharing examples of new concepts and their language in familiar contexts and with familiar words, because we learn what words mean from their use-in-context.

For example:

The word ‘capacity’ is familiar and we all know what we think it means.  So when we link it to another familiar word, ‘demand’, then we feel comfortable that we understand what the phrase ‘demand-and-capacity’ means.

But do we?

The act of recognising a word is a use of memory or knowledge. Understanding what a word means requires more … it requires knowing the context in which the word is used.  It means understanding the concept that the word is a label for.

To a practitioner of flow science the word ‘capacity’ is confusing – because it is too fuzzy.  There are many different forms of capacity: flow-capacity, space-capacity, time-capacity, and so on.  Each has a different unit and they are not interchangeable. So the unqualified term ‘capacity’ will trigger the question:

What sort of capacity are you referring to?

[And if that is not the reaction then you may be talking to someone who has little understanding of flow science].

Then there are the foreign words that are used as new labels for old concepts.

Lean zealots seem particularly fond of peppering their monologues with Japanese words that are meaningless to anyone else but other Lean zealots.  Words like muda and muri and mura which are labels for important and useful flow science concepts … but the foreign name gives no clue as to what that essential concept is!

[And for a bit of harmless sport ask a Lean zealot to explain what these three words actually mean but only using  language that you understand. If they cannot to your satisfaction then you have exposed the niggle. And if they can then it is worth asking ‘What is the added value of the foreign language?’]

And for those who are curious to know the essential concepts that these four-letter M words refer to:

muda means ‘waste’ and refers to the effects of poor process design in terms of the extra time (and cost) required for the process to achieve its intended purpose.  A linked concept is a ‘niggle’ which is the negative emotional effect of a poor process design.

muri means ‘overburdening’ and can be illustrated  with an example.  Suppose you work in a system where there is always a big backlog of work waiting to be done … a large queue of patients in the waiting room … a big heap of notes on the trolley. That ‘burden’ generates stress and leads to other risky behaviours such as rushing, corner-cutting, deflection and overspill. It is also an outcome of poor process design, so  is avoidable.

mura means variation or uncertainty. Again an example helps. Suppose we are running an emergency service then, by definition, a we have no idea what medical problem the next patient that comes through the door will present us with. It could be trivial or life-threatening. That is unplanned and expected variation and is part of the what we need our service to be designed to handle.  Suppose when we arrive for our shift that we have no idea how many staff will be available to do the work because people phone in sick at the last minute and there is no resilience on the staffing capacity.  Our day could be calm-and-capable (and rewarding) or chaotic-and-incapable (and unrewarding).  It is the stress of not knowing that creates the emotional and cultural damage, and is the expected outcome of incompetent process design. And is avoidable.

And finally we come to words that are not foreign but are not very familiar either.

Words like praxis.

This sounds like ‘practice’ but is not spelt the same. So is the the same?

And it sounds like a medical condition called dyspraxia which means:  poor coordination of movement.

And when we look up praxis in an English dictionary we discover that one definition is:

the practice and practical side of a profession or field of study, as opposed to theory.

Ah ah! So praxis is a label for the the concept of ‘how to’ … and someone who has this ‘know how’ is called a practitioner.  That makes sense.

On deeper reflection we might then describe our poor collective process design capability as dyspraxic or uncoordinated. That feels about right too.

An improvement science practitioner (ISP) is someone who knows the science of improvement; and can demonstrate their know-how in practice; and can explain the principles that underpin their praxis using the language of the learner. Without any wacky language.

So if we want to diagnose and treat our organisational dyspraxia;

… and if we want smooth and efficient services (i.e. elimination of chaos and reduction of cost);

… and if we want to learn this know-how,  practice or praxis;

… then we could study the Foundations of Improvement Science in Healthcare (FISH);

… and we could seek the wisdom of  the growing Community of Healthcare Improvement Practitioners (CHIPs).

FISH & CHIPs … a new use for a familiar phrase?