The Cost of Chaos

british_pound_money_three_bundled_stack_400_wht_2425This week I conducted an experiment – on myself.

I set myself the challenge of measuring the cost of chaos, and it was tougher than I anticipated it would be.

It is easy enough to grasp the concept that fire-fighting to maintain patient safety amidst the chaos of healthcare would cost more in terms of tears and time …

… but it is tricky to translate that concept into hard numbers; i.e. cash.

Chaos is an emergent property of a system.  Safety, delivery, quality and cost are also emergent properties of a system. We can measure cost, our finance departments are very good at that. We can measure quality – we just ask “How did your experience match your expectation”.  We can measure delivery – we have created a whole industry of access target monitoring.  And we can measure safety by checking for things we do not want – near misses and never events.

But while we can feel the chaos we do not have an easy way to measure it. And it is hard to improve something that we cannot measure.

So the experiment was to see if I could create some chaos, then if I could calm it, and then if I could measure the cost of the two designs – the chaotic one and the calm one.  The difference, I reasoned, would be the cost of the chaos.

And to do that I needed a typical chunk of a healthcare system: like an A&E department where the relationship between safety, flow, quality and productivity is rather important (and has been a hot topic for a long time).

But I could not experiment on a real A&E department … so I experimented on a simplified but realistic model of one. A simulation.

What I discovered came as a BIG surprise, or more accurately a sequence of big surprises!

  1. First I discovered that it is rather easy to create a design that generates chaos and danger.  All I needed to do was to assume I understood how the system worked and then use some averaged historical data to configure my model.  I could do this on paper or I could use a spreadsheet to do the sums for me.
  2. Then I discovered that I could calm the chaos by reactively adding lots of extra capacity in terms of time (i.e. more staff) and space (i.e. more cubicles).  The downside of this approach was that my costs sky-rocketed; but at least I had restored safety and calm and I had eliminated the fire-fighting.  Everyone was happy … except the people expected to foot the bill. The finance director, the commissioners, the government and the tax-payer.
  3. Then I got a really big surprise!  My safe-but-expensive design was horribly inefficient.  All my expensive resources were now running at rather low utilisation.  Was that the cost of the chaos I was seeing? But when I trimmed the capacity and costs the chaos and danger reappeared.  So was I stuck between a rock and a hard place?
  4. Then I got a really, really big surprise!!  I hypothesised that the root cause might be the fact that the parts of my system were designed to work independently, and I was curious to see what happened when they worked interdependently. In synergy. And when I changed my design to work that way the chaos and danger did not reappear and the efficiency improved. A lot.
  5. And the biggest surprise of all was how difficult this was to do in my head; and how easy it was to do when I used the theory, techniques and tools of Improvement-by-Design.

So if you are curious to learn more … I have written up the full account of the experiment with rationale, methods, results, conclusions and references and I have published it here.

Does your job title say “Manager” or “Leader”?

by Julian Simcox

Actually, it doesn’t much matter because everyone needs to be able to choose between managing and leading – as distinct and yet mutually complementary action/ logics – and to argue that one is better than the other, or worse to try to school people about just one of them on its own, is inane. The UK’s National Health Service for example is currently keen on convincing medics that they should become “clinical leaders”, the term “clinical manager” being rarely heard, yet if anything the NHS suffers more from a shortage of management skill.

It is not only healthcare that is short on management. In the first half of my career I held the title “manager” in seven different roles, and in three different organisations, and had even completed an Exec MBA, but still didn’t properly get what it meant. The people I reported into also had little idea about what “managing well” actually meant, and even if they had possessed an inclination to coach me, would have merely added to my confusion.

If however you are fortunate enough to be working in an organisation that over time has been purposefully developed as a “Learning Culture” you will have acquired an appreciation of the vital distinction between managing and leading, and just what a massive difference this makes to your effectiveness, for it requires you, before you act, to understand (11) how your system is really flowing and performing. Only then will you be ready to choose whether to manage or to lead.

It is therefore not your role’s title that matters but whether the system you are running is stable, and whether it is capable of producing the outcomes needed by your customers. It also matters how risk is to be handled by you and your organisation when you are making changes. Outcomes will depend heavily upon you and your team’s accumulated levels of learning – as well, as it turns out, upon your personal world view/ developmental stage (more of which later).

Here is a diagram that illustrates that there are three basic learning contexts that a “managerial leader” (7) needs to be adept at operating within if they are to be able to nimbly choose between them.


Depending on one’s definitions of the processes of managing and leading, most people would agree that the first learning context pertains to the process of managing, and the third to the process of leading. The second context         (P-D-S-A) which helpfully for NHS employees is core to the NHS “Model of Improvement” turns out to be especially vital for effective managerial leadership for it binds the other two contexts together – as long as you know how?

Following the Mid-Staffs Hospital disaster, David Cameron asked Professor Don Berwick to recommend how to enhance public safety in the UK’s healthcare system. Unusually for a clinician he gets the importance of understanding your system and knowing moment-to-moment whether managing or leading is the right course of action. He recommends that to evolve a system to be as safe as it can be, all NHS employees should “Learn, master and apply the modern methods of quality control, quality improvement and quality planning” (1). He makes this recommendation because without the thinking that accompanies modern quality control methods, clinical managerial leadership is lame.

The Journal of Improvement Science has recently re-published my 10 year old essay called:

“Intervening into Personal and Organisational Systems by Powerfully Leading and Wisely Managing”

Originally written from the perspective of a practising executive coach, and as a retrospective on the work of W. Edwards Deming, the essay describes just what it is that a few extraordinary Managerial Leaders seem to possess that enables them to simultaneously Manage and Lead Transformation – first of themselves, and second of their organisation. The essay culminates in a comparison of “conventional” and “post-conventional” organisations. Toyota (9,12) in which Deming’s influence continues to be profound, is used as an example of the latter. Using the 3 generic intervention modes/ learning contexts, and the way that these corresponds to an executive’s evolving developmental stage I illustrate how this works and with it what a massive difference it makes. It is only in the later (post-conventional) stages for example that the processes of managing and leading are seen as two sides of the same coin. Dee Hock (6) called these heightened levels of awareness “chaordic” and Jim Collins (2) calls the level of power this brings “Level 5 Leadership”.


Berwick, borrowing from Deming (4,5) knows that to be structured-to-learn organisations need systems thinking (11) – and that organisations need Managerial Leaders who are sufficiently developed to know how to think and intervene systemically – in other words he recognises the need for personally developing the capability to lead and manage.

Deming in particular seemed to understand the importance of developing empathy for different worldviews – he knew that each contains coherence, just as in its own flat-earth world Euclidian geometry makes perfect sense. When consulting he spent much of his time listening and asking people questions that might develop paradigmatic understanding – theirs and his. Likewise in my own work, primed with knowledge about the developmental stage of key individual players, I am more able to give my interventions teeth.

Possessing a definition of managerial leadership that can work at all the stages is also vital:

Managing =  keeping things flowing, and stable – and hence predictable – so you can consistently and confidently deliver what you’re promising. Any improvement comes from noticing what causes instability and eliminating that cause, or from learning what causes it via experimentation.

Leading  =  changing things, or transforming them, which risks a temporary loss of stability/ predictability in order to shift performance to a new and better level – a level that can then be managed and sustained.

If you resonate with the first essay you need to know that after publishing it I continued to develop the managerial leadership model into one that would work equally well for Managerial Leaders in either developmental epoch – conventional and post-conventional – whilst simultaneously balancing the level of change needed with the level of risk that’s politically tolerable – and all framed by the paradigm-shifts that typically characterise these two epochs. This revised model is described in detail in the essay:

Managerial Leadership: Five action logics viewed via two developmental lenses

– also soon to be made available via the Journal of Improvement Science.


  1. Berwick Donald M. – Berwick Review into patient safety (2013)
  2. Collins J.C. – Level 5 Leadership: The triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve – HBR Jan 2001
  3. Covey. S.R. – The 7 habits of Highly Effective People – 1989 (ISBN 0613191455)
  4. Deming W. Edwards – Out of the Crisis – 1986   (ISBN 0-911379-01-0)
  5. Deming W.E – The New Economics – 1993 (ISBN 0-911379-07-X) First edition
  6. Hock. D. – The birth of the Chaordic Age 2000 (ISBN: 1576750744)
  7. Jaques. E. – Requisite Organisation: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organisation and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century 1998 (ISBN 1886436045)
  8. Kotter. J. P. – A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management – 1990
  9. Liker J.K & Meier D. – The Toyota Way Fieldbook. 2006
  10. Scholtes Peter R. The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done. 1998
  11. Senge. P. M. – The Fifth Discipline 1990   ISBN 10-0385260946
  12. Spear. S. – Learning to Lead at Toyota – Harvard Business Review – May 2004


Hypothesis: Chaotic behaviour of healthcare systems is inevitable without more resources.

This appears to be a rather widely held belief, but what is the evidence?

Can we disprove this hypothesis?

Chaos is a predictable, emergent behaviour of many systems, both natural and man made, a discovery that was made rather recently, in the 1970’s.  Chaotic behaviour is not the same as random behaviour.  The fundamental difference is that random implies independence, while chaos requires the opposite: chaotic systems have interdependent parts.

Chaotic behaviour is complex and counter-intuitive, which may explain why it took so long for the penny to drop.

Chaos is a complex behaviour and it is tempting to assume that complicated structures always lead to complex behaviour.  But they do not.  A mechanical clock is a complicated structure but its behaviour is intentionally very stable and highly predictable – that is the purpose of a clock.  It is a fit-for-purpose design.

The healthcare system has many parts; it too is a complicated system; it has a complicated structure.  It is often seen to demonstrate chaotic behaviour.

So we might propose that a complicated system like healthcare could also be stable and predictable. If it were designed to be.

But there is another critical factor to take into account.

A mechanical clock only has inanimate cogs and springs that only obey the Laws of Physics – and they are neither adaptable nor negotiable.

A healthcare system is different. It is a living structure. It has patients, providers and purchasers as essential components. And the rules of how people work together are both negotiable and adaptable.

So when we are thinking about a healthcare system we are thinking about a complex adaptive system or CAS.

And that changes everything!

The good news is that adaptive behaviour can be a very effective anti-chaos strategy, if it is applied wisely.  The not-so-good news is that if it is not applied wisely then it can actually generate even more chaos.

Which brings us back to our hypothesis.

What if the chaos we are observing on out healthcare system is actually iatrogenic?

What if we are unintentionally and unconsciously generating it?

These questions require an answer because if we are unwittingly contributing to the chaos, with insight, understanding and wisdom we can intentionally calm it too.

These questions also challenge us to study our current way of thinking and working.  And in that challenge we will need to demonstrate a behaviour called humility. An ability to acknowledge that there are gaps in our knowledge and our understanding. A willingness to learn.

This all sounds rather too plausible in theory. What about an example?

Let us consider the highest flow process in healthcare: the outpatient clinic stream.

The typical design is a three-step process called the New-Test-Review design. This sequential design is simpler because the steps are largely independent of each other. And this simplicity is attractive because it is easier to schedule so is less likely to be chaotic. The downsides are the queues and delays between the steps and the risk of getting lost in the system. So if we are worried that a patient may have a serious illness that requires prompt diagnosis and treatment (e.g. cancer), then this simpler design is actually a potentially unsafe design.

A one-stop clinic is a better design because the New-Test-Review steps are completed in one visit, and that is better for everyone. But, a one-stop clinic is a more challenging scheduling problem because all the steps are now interdependent, and that is fertile soil for chaos to emerge.  And chaos is exactly what we often see.

Attending a chaotic one-stop clinic is frustrating experience for both patients and staff, and it is also less productive use of resources. So the chaos and cost appears to be price we are asked to pay for a quicker and safer design.

So is the one stop clinic chaos inevitable, or is it avoidable?

Simple observation of a one stop clinic shows that the chaos is associated with queues – which are visible as a waiting room full of patients and front-of-house staff working very hard to manage the queue and to signpost and soothe the disgruntled patients.

What if the one stop clinic queue and chaos is iatrogenic? What if it was avoidable without investing in more resources? Would the chaos evaporate? Would the quality improve?  Could we have a safer, calmer, higher quality and more productive design?

Last week I shared evidence that proved the one-stop clinic chaos was iatrogenic – by showing it was avoidable.

A team of healthcare staff were shown how to diagnose the cause of the queue and were then able to remove that cause, and to deliver the same outcome without the queue and the associated chaos.

And the most surprising lesson that the team learned was that they achieved this improvement using the same resources as before; and that those resources also felt the benefit of the chaos evaporating. Their work was easier, calmer and more predictable.

The impossible-without-more-resources hypothesis had been disproved.

So, where else in our complicated and complex healthcare system might we apply anti-chaos?


And for more about complexity science see Santa Fe Institute

Melting the Queue


<Leslie> Hi Bob, I hope I am not interrupting you.  Do you have five minutes?

<Bob> Hi Leslie. I have just finished what I was working on and a chat would be a very welcome break.  Fire away.

<Leslie> I really just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the workshop this week, and so did all the delegates.  They have been emailing me to say how much they learned and thanking me for organising it.

<Bob> Thank you Leslie. I really enjoyed it too … and I learned lots … I always do.

<Leslie> As you know I have been doing the ISP programme for some time, and I have come to believe that you could not surprise me any more … but you did!  I never thought that we could make such a dramatic improvement in waiting times.  The queue just melted away and I still cannot really believe it.  Was it a trick?

<Bob> Ahhhh, the siren-call of the battle-hardened sceptic! It was no trick. What you all saw was real enough. There were no computers, statistics or smoke-and-mirrors used … just squared paper and a few coloured pens. You saw it with your own eyes; you drew the charts; you made the diagnosis; and you re-designed the policy.  All I did was provide the context and a few nudges.

<Leslie> I know, and that is why I think seeing the before and after data would help me. The process felt so much better, but I know I will need to show the hard evidence to convince others, and to convince myself as well, to be brutally honest.  I have the before data … do you have the after data?

<Bob> I do. And I was just plotting it as BaseLine charts to send to you.  So you have pre-empted me.  Here you are.

This is the waiting time run chart for the one stop clinic improvement exercise that you all did.  The leftmost segment is the before, and the rightmost are the after … your two ‘new’ designs.

As you say, the queue and the waiting has melted away despite doing exactly the same work with exactly the same resources.  Surprising and counter-intuitive but there is the evidence.

<Leslie> Wow! That fits exactly with how it felt.  Quick and calm! But I seem to remember that the waiting room was empty, particularly in the case of the design that Team 1 created. How come the waiting is not closer to zero on the chart?

<Bob> You are correct.  This is not just the time in the waiting room, it also includes the time needed to move between the rooms and the changeover time within the rooms.  It is what I call the ‘tween-time.

<Leslie> OK, that makes sense now.  And what also jumps out of the picture for me is the proof that we converted an unstable process into a stable one.  The chaos was calmed.  So what is the root cause of the difference between the two ‘after’ designs?

<Bob> The middle one, the slightly better of the two, is the one where all patients followed the newly designed process.  The rightmost one was where we deliberately threw a spanner in the works by assuming an unpredictable case mix.

<Leslie> Which made very little difference!  The new design was still much, much better than before.

<Bob> Yes. What you are seeing here is the footprint of resilient design. Do you believe it is possible now?

<Leslie> You bet I do!

New Meat for Old Bones

FreshMeatOldBonesEvolution is an amazing process.

Using the same building blocks that have been around for a lot time, it cooks up innovative permutations and combinations that reveal new and ever more useful properties.

Very often a breakthrough in understanding comes from a simplification, not from making it more complicated.

Knowledge evolves in just the same way.

Sometimes a well understood simplification in one branch of science is used to solve an ‘impossible’ problem in another.

Cross-fertilisation of learning is a healthy part of the evolution process.

Improvement implies evolution of knowledge and understanding, and then application of that insight in the process of designing innovative ways of doing things better.

And so it is in healthcare.  For many years the emphasis on healthcare improvement has been the Safety-and-Quality dimension, and for very good reasons.  We need to avoid harm and we want to achieve happiness; for everyone.

But many of the issues that plague healthcare systems are not primarily SQ issues … they are flow and productivity issues. FP. The safety and quality problems are secondary – so only focussing on them is treating the symptoms and not the cause.  We need to balance the wheel … we need flow science.

Fortunately the science of flow is well understood … outside healthcare … but apparently not so well understood inside healthcare … given the queues, delays and chaos that seem to have become the expected norm.  So there is a big opportunity for cross fertilisation here.  If we choose to make it happen.

For example, from computer science we can borrow the knowledge of how to schedule tasks to make best use of our finite resources and at the same time avoid excessive waiting.

It is a very well understood science. There is comprehensive theory, a host of techniques, and fit-for-purpose tools that we can pick of the shelf and use. Today if we choose to.

So what are the reasons we do not?

Is it because healthcare is quite introspective?

Is it because we believe that there is something ‘special’ about healthcare?

Is it because there is no evidence … no hard proof … no controlled trials?

Is it because we assume that queues are always caused by lack of resources?

Is it because we do not like change?

Is it because we do not like to admit that we do not know stuff?

Is it because we fear loss of face?

Whatever the reasons the evidence and experience shows that most (if not all) the queues, delays and chaos in healthcare systems are iatrogenic.

This means that they are self-generated. And that implies we can un-self-generate them … at little or no cost … if only we knew how.

The only cost is to our egos of having to accept that there is knowledge out there that we could use to move us in the direction of excellence.

New meat for our old bones?