Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Only a few parts of the NHS were adversely affected by the RansomWare cyber-attack on Friday 12th May 2017.

This well-known malware was designed to exploit a security loop-hole in out-of-date and poorly maintained computers still using the Windows XP operating system.

And just like virulent organisms and malignant cells … the loop-holes in our IT immune systems were exploited to cause infectious diseases and cancer!

The diagnosis and treatment of these acquired IT diseases is painful, expensive and it comes with no guarantee of a happy outcome.

Lesson: Proactive prevention is better than reactive cure!

And all it requires to achieve it is … a Checklist.

Prevention requires pre-emptive design, and to do this the system needs to be studied, and understood well enough for an early warning system (EWS) to be designed, tested and implemented.

Having an effective EWS also requires that the measured response to an EWS alert has been designed, tested and implemented as well.

The sensor and the effector are linked by something called a processor.

And the processor can be implemented using an easy-to-use, low-cost, effective tool called a Checklist.

The NHS was not cyber-attacked.  Parts of the NHS were more vulnerable than others to a well-known, endemic cyber-threat, and they were more vulnerable because they did not use an effective cyber-security checklist.  An error of omission.

Checklists are not recipes of how or why to do something.  They are primarily there to remind us to do what is required, and to not do what is not required.

But we need to refer to them … we need to befriend them … we need to create them and maintain them. They are our friends and they will protect us from harm.

And if we do that the we will reap the benefits of time and energy that are released in the future – to do with as we choose.

There is a Catch-22 in health care improvement and it goes a bit like this:

Most people are too busy fire-fighting the chronic chaos to have time to learn how to prevent the chaos, so they are stuck.

There is a deeper Catch-22 as well though:

The first step in preventing chaos is to diagnose the root cause and doing that requires experience, and we don’t have that experience available, and we are too busy fire-fighting to develop it.

Health care is improvement science in action – improving the physical and psychological health of those who seek our help. Patients.

And we have a tried-and-tested process for doing it.

First we study the problem to arrive at a diagnosis; then we design alternative plans to achieve our intended outcome and we decide which plan to go with; and then we deliver the plan.

Study ==> Plan ==> Do.

Diagnose  ==> Design & Decide ==> Deliver.

But here is the catch. The most difficult step is the first one, diagnosis, because there are many different illnesses and they often present with very similar patterns of symptoms and signs. It is not easy.

And if we make a poor diagnosis then all the action plans that follow will be flawed and may lead to disappointment and even harm.

Complaints and litigation follow in the wake of poor diagnostic ability.

So what do we do?

We defer reassuring our patients, we play safe, we request more tests and we refer for second opinions from specialists. Just to be on the safe side.

These understandable tactics take time, cost money and are not 100% reliable.  Diagnostic tests are usually precisely focused to answer specific questions but can have false positive and false negative results.

To request a broad batch of tests in the hope that the answer will appear like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat is … mediocre medicine.

This diagnostic dilemma arises everywhere: in primary care and in secondary care, and in non-urgent and urgent pathways.

And it generates extra demand, more work, bigger queues, longer delays, growing chaos, and mounting frustration, disappointment, anxiety and cost.

The solution is obvious but seemingly impossible: to ensure the most experienced diagnostician is available to be consulted at the start of the process.

But that must be impossible because if the consultants were seeing the patients first, what would everyone else do?  How would they learn to become more expert diagnosticians? And would we have enough consultants?

When I was a junior surgeon I had the great privilege to have the opportunity to learn from wise and experienced senior surgeons, who had seen it, and done it and could teach it.

Mike Thompson is one of these.  He is a general surgeon with a special interest in the diagnosis and treatment of bowel cancer.  And he has a particular passion for improving the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis step; because it can be a life-saver.

Mike is also a disruptive innovator and an early pioneer of the use of endoscopy in the outpatient clinic.  It is called point-of-care testing nowadays, but in the 1980’s it was a radically innovative thing to do.

He also pioneered collecting the symptoms and signs from every patient he saw, in a standard way using a multi-part printed proforma. And he invested many hours entering the raw data into a computer database.

He also did something that even now most clinicians do not do; when he knew the outcome for each patient he entered that into his database too – so that he could link first presentation with final diagnosis.

Mike knew that I had an interest in computer-aided diagnosis, which was a hot topic in the early 1980’s, and also that I did not warm to the Bayesian statistical models that underpinned it.  To me they made too many simplifying assumptions.

The human body is a complex adaptive system. It defies simplification.

Mike and I took a different approach.  We  just counted how many of each diagnostic group were associated with each pattern of presenting symptoms and signs.

The problem was that even his database of 8000+ patients was not big enough! This is why others had resorted to using statistical simplifications.

So we used the approach that an experienced diagnostician uses.  We used the information we had already gleaned from a patient to decide which question to ask next, and then the next one and so on.

And we always have three pieces of information at the start – the patient’s age, gender and presenting symptom.

What surprised and delighted us was how easy it was to use the database to help us do this for the new patients presenting to his clinic; the ones who were worried that they might have bowel cancer.

And what surprised us even more was how few questions we needed to ask arrive at a statistically robust decision to reassure-or-refer for further tests.

So one weekend, I wrote a little computer program that used the data from Mike’s database and our simple bean-counting algorithm to automate this process.  And the results were amazing.  Suddenly we had a simple and reliable way of using past experience to support our present decisions – without any statistical smoke-and-mirror simplifications getting in the way.

The computer program did not make the diagnosis, we were still responsible for that; all it did was provide us with reliable access to a clear and comprehensive digital memory of past experience.

What it then enabled us to do was to learn more quickly by exploring the complex patterns of symptoms, signs and outcomes and to develop our own diagnostic “rules of thumb”.

We learned in hours what it would take decades of experience to uncover. This was hot stuff, and when I presented our findings at the Royal Society of Medicine the audience was also surprised and delighted (and it was awarded the John of Arderne Medal).

So, we called it the Hot Learning System, and years later I updated it with Mike’s much bigger database (29,000+ records) and created a basic web-based version of the first step – age, gender and presenting symptom.  You can have a play if you like … just click HERE.

So what are the lessons here?

  1. We need to have the most experienced diagnosticians at the start of the improvement process.
  2. The first diagnostic assessment can be very quick so long as we have developed evidence-based heuristics.
  3. We can accelerate the training in diagnostic skills using simple information technology and basic analysis techniques.

And exactly the same is true in the health care system improvement.

We need to have an experienced health care improvement practitioner involved at the start, because if we skip this critical study step and move to plan without a correct diagnosis, then we will make errors, poor decisions, and counter-productive actions.  And then generate more work, more queues, more delays, more chaos, more distress and increased costs.

Exactly the opposite of what we want.

Q1: So, how do we develop experienced improvement practitioners more quickly?

Q2: Is there a hot learning system for improvement science?

A: Yes, there is. It can be found here.

Chickens make interesting pets. They have personalities – no two are the same – and they produce something useful and valuable. Eggs. Yum yum!

But chickens are yummy too … especially to foxes. So we have a problem. We need to keep our ‘chucks’ safe and that means a fox-proof coop.

Here’s a picture of a chicken coop … looks great doesn’t it? You can just hear the happy clucks and taste the fresh eggs.

Have you any idea how complicated, difficult and expensive this would be to build from scratch?

Better not even try … just reach for the laptop and credit card and order a prefabricated one.  Just assembling the courier-delivered-flat-packed-made-in-China-from-renewable-forest-softwood coop will be enough of a DIY challenge!

We have had chickens for years and we have learned that they are very funny-feathered-characters-who-lay-eggs.

And we started with an old Wendy house, some softwood battening, some rolls of weld-mesh, a bag of screws and staples and a big dollop of suck-it-and-see.

The first attempt was Heath-Robinson but it worked OK.  The old Wendy house was transformed into a cosy coop and a safe-from-foxes chuck run.

And the eggs were delicious and nutritious.

But the arrow of time is relentless, and as with all organic things, the “rot had set in”.

The time had come for an update. Doing nothing was not an option.

Q: Start from scratch with a blank piece of paper and design and build a new coop and run (i.e. scrap the old one)? Or re-purpose what we have (i.e. cut out the rot, keep the good stuff and re-fashion something that is fit-for-purpose for years to come?

Oh, and we also need to keep-the-ship-afloat in the process – i.e. the keep the chucks safe-from-foxes and happily laying eggs.  That meant doing the project in one day.

What was interesting about this mini-transformation project was that I could apply exactly the same improvement framework as I would to a health care systems engineering one.

I had a clear problem (unsafe, semi-rotten chicken coop) and a clear purpose (fit-for-purpose and affordable coop and run).

Next I needed a diagnosis.  What was rotten and what was not?  And that required a bit of poking with a probe … and what I found was that most of the rot was hidden!

First I needed to study the problem (symptoms) and the purpose (required outcome) and the problem again (disease).

This was going to require some radical surgery!

With a clear destination and diagnosis it was now time to plan. For this I needed a robust design framework for exploring “radical” options – particularly those that open new opportunities that the old design prevented!  This is called “future-proofing”.

And the capital cost is always a factor – building a shiny, high-tech version of an old design that is no longer fit-for-purpose is a waste of capital investment and locks us into the past.

And remember, the innovative, fit-for-purpose, elegant, affordable design is just a dream when it is still only a plan.  Someone has to do the building work.  And it has to be feasible with the time, tools and skills available.  And all that needs to be considered at the design stage too!

With the benefit of hindsight, I have come to appreciate that the most valuable long-term investment is the new theory, new techniques, new tools and the new skills to use them. This is called “innovation”.

So with a diagnosis, a design, a sunny day, a sharpened-pencil-behind-the-ear, a just-in-time delivery of the bulkier building materials, a freshly charged power drill, and a hot cuppa … the work started.

It was going to be like performing a major operation.

The chucks were more than happy to be let out to scratch around in the garden; and groundwork always generates the opportunity for a creepy-crawly feast!  But safety comes first – foxes mainly hunt at night so in one daylight period I had to surgically excise the rot and then transform what was left into a safe space for the chucks to sleep.

When the study and plan work has been done diligently – the do phase is enjoyable.

If we skip the study phase and leap straight to plan with all the old assumptions (some rotten some not) still in place … the do phase is usually miserable! (No wonder many people have developed a high level of aversion to change!).

And the outcome?

Happy chucks, safely tucked up in their transformed, rot-free, safe-from-harm, coop and run.

The work is not quite finished – a new roof is awaiting installation but that is a quality issue not a safety one.

Safety always comes first.

And just look at how much rot had to be chopped out.

Any surgeon will tell you … “for the fastest recovery you have to cut out all the rot first“.

And that requires careful planning, courage, skill, a sharp blade, focus and … team work!

A story was shared this week.

A story of hope for the hard-pressed NHS, its patients, its staff and its managers and its leaders.

A story that says “We can learn how to fix the NHS ourselves“.

And the story comes with evidence; hard, objective, scientific, statistically significant evidence.

The story starts almost exactly three years ago when a Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) in England made a bold strategic decision to invest in improvement, or as they termed it “Achieving Clinical Excellence” (ACE).

They invited proposals from their local practices with the “carrot” of enough funding to allow GPs to carve-out protected time to do the work.  And a handful of proposals were selected and financially supported.

This is the story of one of those proposals which came from three practices in Sutton who chose to work together on a common problem – the unplanned hospital admissions in their over 70’s.

Their objective was clear and measurable: “To reduce the cost of unplanned admissions in the 70+ age group by working with hospital to reduce length of stay.

Did they achieve their objective?

Yes, they did.  But there is more to this story than that.  Much more.

One innovative step they took was to invest in learning how to diagnose why the current ‘system’ was costing what it was; then learning how to design an improvement; and then learning how to deliver that improvement.

They invested in developing their own improvement science skills first.

They did not assume they already knew how to do this and they engaged an experienced health care systems engineer (HCSE) to show them how to do it (i.e. not to do it for them).

Another innovative step was to create a blog to make it easier to share what they were learning with their colleagues; and to invite feedback and suggestions; and to provide a journal that captured the story as it unfolded.

And they measured stuff before they made any changes and afterwards so they could measure the impact, and so that they could assess the evidence scientifically.

And that was actually quite easy because the CCG was already measuring what they needed to know: admissions, length of stay, cost, and outcomes.

All they needed to learn was how to present and interpret that data in a meaningful way.  And as part of their IS training,  they learned how to use system behaviour charts, or SBCs.

By Jan 2015 they had learned enough of the HCSE techniques and tools to establish the diagnosis and start to making changes to the parts of the system that they could influence.

Two years later they subjected their before-and-after data to robust statistical analysis and they had a surprise. A big one!

Reducing hospital mortality was not a stated objective of their ACE project, and they only checked the mortality data to be sure that it had not changed.

But it had, and the “p=0.014” part of the statement above means that the probability that this 20.0% reduction in hospital mortality was due to random chance … is less than 1.4%.  [This is well below the 5% threshold that we usually accept as “statistically significant” in a clinical trial.]

But …

This was not a randomised controlled trial.  This was an intervention in a complicated, ever-changing system; so they needed to check that the hospital mortality for comparable patients who were not their patients had not changed as well.

And the statistical analysis of the hospital mortality for the ‘other’ practices for the same patient group, and the same period of time confirmed that there had been no statistically significant change in their hospital mortality.

So, it appears that what the Sutton ACE Team did to reduce length of stay (and cost) had also, unintentionally, reduced hospital mortality. A lot!

And this unexpected outcome raises a whole raft of questions …

If you would like to read their full story then you can do so … here.

It is a story of hunger for improvement, of humility to learn, of hard work and of hope for the future.

Improvement implies change, but change does not imply improvement.

We have all experienced the pain of disappointment when a change that promised much delivered no improvement, or even worse, a negative impact.

We have learned to become wary and skeptical about change.

We have learned a whole raft of tactics for deflection and diffusion of the enthusiasm of others.  And by doing so we don the black hat of the healthy skeptic and the tell tale mantra of “Yes, but …”.

So here is an onion diagram to use as a reference.  It comes from a recently published essay that compares and contrasts two schools of flow improvement.  Eli Goldratt’s “Theory of Constraints” and a translation of Systems Engineering called 6M Design®.

The first five layers can be described as “denial”, the second four as “grudging acceptance” … and the last one is the sound of the final barrier coming down and revealing the raw emotion underpinning our reluctance to change. Fear.

The good news is that this diagram helps us to shape and steer change in a way that improves its chances of success, because if we can learn to peel back these layers by sharing information that soothes the fear of the unknown, then we can align and engage.  And that is essential for emotional momentum to build.

So when we meet resistance do we push or not?

Ask yourself. How would prefer to be engaged? Pushed or not?

Bob Jekyll was already sitting at a table, sipping a pint of Black Sheep and nibbling on a bowl of peanuts when Hugh and Louise arrived.

<Hugh> Hello, are you Bob?

<Bob> Yes, indeed! You must be Hugh and Louise. Can I get you a thirst quencher?

<Louise> Lime and soda for me please.

<Hugh> I’ll have the same as you, a Black Sheep.

<Bob> On the way.

<Hugh> Hello Louise, I’m Hugh Lewis.  I am the ops manager for acute medicine at St. Elsewhere’s Hospital. It is good to meet you at last. I have seen your name on emails and performance reports.

<Louise> Good to meet you too Hugh. I am senior data analyst for St. Elsewhere’s and I think we may have met before, but I’m not sure when.  Do you know what this is about? Your invitation was a bit mysterious.

<Hugh> Yes. Sorry about that. I was chatting to a friend of mine at the golf club last week, Dr Bill Hyde who is one of our local GPs.  As you might expect, we got to talking about the chronic pressure we are all under in both primary and secondary care.  He said he has recently crossed paths with an old chum of his from university days who he’d had a very interesting conversation with in this very pub, and he recommended I email him. So I did. And that led to a phone conversation with Bob Jekyll. I have to say he asked some very interesting questions that left me feeling a mixture of curiosity and discomfort. After we talked Bob suggested that we meet for a longer chat and that I invite my senior data analyst along. So here we are.

<Louise> I have to say my curiosity was pricked by your invitation, specifically the phrase ‘system behaviour charts’. That is a new one on me and I have been working in the NHS for some time now. It is too many years to mention since I started as junior data analyst, fresh from university!

<Hugh> That is the term Bob used, and I confess it was new to me too.

<Bob> Here we are, Black Sheep, lime soda and more peanuts.  Thank you both for coming, so shall we talk about the niggle that Hugh raised when we spoke on the phone?

<Hugh> Ah! Louise, please accept my apologies in advance. I think Bob might be referring to when I said that “90% of the performance reports don’t make any sense to me“.

<Louise> There is no need to apologise Hugh. I am actually reassured that you said that. They don’t make any sense to me either! We only produce them that way because that is what we are asked for.  My original degree was geography and I discovered that I loved data analysis! My grandfather was a doctor so I guess that’s how I ended up in doing health care data analysis. But I must confess, some days I do not feel like I am adding much value.

<Hugh> Really? I believe we are in heated agreement! Some days I feel the same way.  Is that why you invited us both Bob?

<Bob> Yes.  It was some of the things that Hugh said when we talked on the phone.  They rang some warning bells for me because, in my line of work, I have seen many people fall into a whole minefield of data analysis traps that leave them feeling confused and frustrated.

<Louise> What exactly is your line of work, Bob?

<Bob> I am a systems engineer.  I design, build, verify, integrate, implement and validate systems. Fit-for-purpose systems.

<Louise> In health care?

<Bob> Not until last week when I bumped into Bill Hyde, my old chum from university.  But so far the health care system looks just like all the other ones I have worked in, so I suspect some of the lessons from other systems are transferable.

<Hugh> That sounds interesting. Can you give us an example?

<Bob> OK.  Hugh, in our first conversation, you often used the words “demand”  and “capacity”. What do you mean by those terms?

<Hugh> Well, demand is what comes through the door, the flow of requests, the workload we are expected to manage.  And capacity is the resources that we have to deliver the work and to meet our performance targets.  Capacity is the staff, the skills, the equipment, the chairs, and the beds. The stuff that costs money to provide.  As a manager, I am required to stay in-budget and that consumes a big part of my day!

<Bob> OK. Speaking as an engineer I would like to know the units of measurement of “demand” and “capacity”?

<Hugh> Oh! Um. Let me think. Er. I have never been asked that question before. Help me out here Louise.  I told you Bob asks tricky questions!

<Louise> I think I see what Bob is getting at.  We use these terms frequently but rather loosely. On reflection they are not precisely defined, especially “capacity”. There are different sorts of capacity all of which will be measured in different ways so have different units. No wonder we spend so much time discussing and debating the question of if we have enough capacity to meet the demand.  We are probably all assuming different things.  Beds cannot be equated to staff, but too often we just seem to lump everything together when we talk about “capacity”.  So by doing that what we are really asking is “do we have enough cash in the budget to pay for the stuff we thing we need?”. And if we are failing one target or another we just assume that the answer is “No” and we shout for “more cash”.

<Bob> Exactly my point. And this was one of the warning bells.  Lack of clarity on these fundamental definitions opens up a minefield of other traps like the “Flaw of Averages” and “Time equals Money“.  And if we are making those errors then they will, unwittingly, become incorporated into our data analysis.

<Louise> But we use averages all the time! What is wrong with an average?

<Bob> I can sense you are feeling a bit defensive Louise.  There is no need to.  An average is perfectly OK and is very useful tool.  The “flaw” is when it is used inappropriately.  Have you heard of Little’s Law?

<Louise> No. What’s that?

<Bob> It is the mathematically proven relationship between flow, work-in-progress and lead time.  It is a fundamental law of flow physics and it uses averages. So averages are OK.

<Hugh> So what is the “Flaw of Averages”?

<Bob> It is easier to demonstrate it than to describe it.  Let us play a game.  I have some dice and we have a big bowl of peanuts.  Let us simulate a simple two step process.  Hugh you are Step One and Louise you are Step Two.  I will be the the source of demand.

I will throw a dice and count that many peanuts out of the bowl and pass them to Hugh.  Hugh, you then throw the dice and move that many peanuts from your heap to Louise, then Louise throws the dice and moves that many from her pile to the final heap which we will call activity.

<Hugh> Sounds easy enough.  If we all use the same dice then the average flow through each step will be the same so after say ten rounds we should have, um …

<Louise> … thirty five peanuts in the activity heap.  On average.

<Bob> OK.  That’s the theory, let’s see what happens in reality.  And no eating the nuts-in-progress please.

They play the game and after a few minutes they have completed the ten rounds.

<Hugh> That’s odd.  There are only 30 nuts in the activity heap and we expected 35.  Nobody nibbled any nuts so its just chance I suppose.  Lets play again. It should average out.

…..  …..

<Louise> Thirty four this time which is better, but is still below the predicted average.  That could still be a chance effect though.  Let us run the ‘nutty’ game this a few more times.

….. …..

<Hugh> We have run the same game six times with the same nuts and the same dice and we delivered activities of 30, 34, 30, 24, 23 and 31 and there are usually nuts stuck in the process at the end of each game, so it is not due to a lack of demand.  We are consistently under-performing compared with our theoretical prediction.  That is weird.  My head says we were just unlucky but I have a niggling doubt that there is more to it.

<Louise> Is this the Flaw of Averages?

<Bob> Yes, it is one of them. If we set our average future flow-capacity to the average historical demand and there is any variation anywhere in the process then we will see this effect.

<Hugh> H’mmm.  But we do this all the time because we assume that the variation will average out over time. Intuitively it must average out over time.  What would happen if we kept going for more cycles?

<Bob> That is a very good question.  And your intuition is correct.  It does average out eventually but there is a catch.

<Hugh> What is the catch?

<Bob>  The number of peanuts in the process and the time it takes for one peanut to get through is very variable.

<Louise> Is there any pattern to the variation? Is it predictable?

<Bob> Another excellent question.  Yes, there is a pattern.  It is called “chaos”.  Predictable chaos if you like.

<Hugh> So is that the reason you said on the phone that we should present our metrics as time-series charts?

<Bob> Yes, one of them.  The appearance of chaotic system behaviour is very characteristic on a time-series chart.

<Louise> And if we see the chaos pattern on our charts then we could conclude that we have made the Flaw of Averages error?

<Bob> That would be a reasonable hypothesis.

<Hugh> I think I understand the reason you invited us to a face-to-face demonstration.  It would not have worked if you had just described it.  You have to experience it because it feels so counter-intuitive.  And this is starting to feel horribly familiar; perpetual chaos about sums up my working week!

<Louise> You also mentioned something you referred to as the “time equals money” trap.  Is that somehow linked to this?

<Bob> Yes.  We often equate time and money but they do not behave the same way.  If have five pounds today and I only spend four pounds then I can save the remaining one pound for tomorrow and spend it then – so the Law of Averages works.  But if I have five minutes today and I only use four minutes then the other minute cannot be saved and used tomorrow, it is lost forever.  That is why the Law of Averages does not work for time.

<Hugh> But that means if we set our budgets based on the average demand and the cost of people’s time then not only will we have queues, delays and chaos, we will also consistently overspend the budget too.  This is sounding more and more familiar by the minute!  This is nuts, if you will excuse the pun.

<Louise> So what is the solution?  I hope you would not have invited us here if there was no solution.

<Bob> Part of the solution is to develop our knowledge of system behaviour and how we need to present it in a visual format. With that we develop a deeper understanding of what the system behaviour charts are saying to us.  With that we can develop our ability to make wiser decisions that will lead to effective actions which will eliminate the queues, delays, chaos and cost-pressures.

<Hugh> This is possible?

<Bob> Yes. It is called systems engineering. That’s what I do.

<Louise> When do we start?

<Bob> We have started.

Today was an especially interesting one.

All days are interesting and every day I learn something of great value and today was no different.

But today was in a different league!

My job today was to deliver health care. I am a surgeon. I perform operations that are intended to improve the health of the people who place their trust in me.


But I was only able to deliver three operations today. Usually I would do eight. Normally I would use every precious minute of operating theatre time.

But today, half of that (very expensive) time went unused. It was paid for but it was wasted. The whole theatre team were idle. And patients needing operations were waiting too. Lose, lose.

And the reason?

The day surgery unit in my hospital was being used for something that it was not designed for. It was being used by non-surgical patients.

And that was the best of a bad job because the alternative was those non-surgical patients would otherwise have been lying on trolleys in corridors.

But how could frail elderly medical emergency admissions spill over into the day surgery unit?

Because the current design of the health and social care system guarantees that will happen.  That was not the intention, but it is the impact of the policies that dictate how the system behaves.

So, to fill in the idle time while unable to operate (and after deleting all the spam email and processing the non-spam email) I looked at jobs on the NHS jobs website.

This is a behaviour I have observed many times, and to-date I have not indulged in it, but today I was idle, and I was irritated, and I was curious to see what I might find.

And I quite quickly came across a job for a “STP Programme Director” with an eye-watering, five-figure salary!  H’mmm …

STP is shortcut for “Sustainability and Transformation Plans” and, forgive me for appearing skeptical but, that sounds rather familiar.

But, ever wary of the dangers of pre-judgement, I dug deeper into the online information to learn more.

And I downloaded the STP for our local health care economy, all 80-pages of it, and I even had time to read it.

The offered purpose made complete sense to me.

A vision of an integrated health and social care system that converts public cash into public contentment. Fantastic! Sign me up to that!!

What I was less able to make sense of was the process for delivering the dream.

The job of the STP Programme Director seemed to be “to bring all the separate parts of the current system together and to weld them into a synergistic whole“.

That would be the perfect job for someone who sees the whole as greater than the sum of the parts, and someone with the skills and experience to do that. Someone like a systems engineer. A health and social care systems engineer.

My interest was growing!

And it was at that point that I felt the emotional pain of disappointment.

There was nothing new in the JD or the STP that even hinted at “how” this wonderful vision would be achieved. All I found was the well-worn “CIP and QIPP” language.

That, forgive me for saying, does not seem to have delivered so far. Apologies for the reality check.

Oh well! Never mind. My skepticism had prepared me for disappointment.

Ah! Here is the next patient. Time to wield the scalpel and to actually deliver some health care. A much better use of my time than web-surfing, eh?

But the idle time was not completely wasted. I did learn much but from the opportunity to experience the streeeeetch between the NHS reality and the NHS rhetoric.

Every day is an opportunity to learn something. You never know what will turn up tomorrow.

I am a big fan of pictures that tell a story … and this week I discovered someone who is creating great pictures … Hayley Lewis.

This is one of Hayley’s excellent sketch notes … the one that captures the essence of the Bruce Tuckman model of team development.

The reason that I share this particular sketch-note is because my experience of developing improvement-by-design teams is that it works just like this!

The tricky phase is the STORMING one because not all teams survive it!

About half sink in the storm – and that seems like an awful waste – and I believe it is avoidable.

This means that before starting the team development cycle, the leader needs to be aware of how to navigate themselves and the team through the storm phase … and that requires training, support and practice.

Which is the reason why coaching from a independent, experienced, capable practitioner is a critical element of the improvement process.


“Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells” announced Bob’s computer as he logged into the Webex meeting with Lesley.

<Bob> Hi Lesley, in case I forget later I’d like to wish you a Happy Christmas and hope that 2017 brings you new opportunity for learning and fun.

<Lesley> Thanks Bob, and I wish you the same. And I believe the blog last week pointed to some.

<Bob> Thank you and I agree;  every niggle is an opportunity for improvement and the “Houston we have a problem!” one is a biggie.

<Lesley> So how do we start on this one? It is massive!

<Bob> The same way we do on all niggles; we diagnose the root cause first. What do you feel they might be?

<Lesley> Well, following it backwards from your niggle, the board reports are created by the data analysts, and they will produce whatever they are asked to. It must be really irritating for them to have their work rubbished!

<Bob> Are you suggesting that they understand the flaws in what they are asked to do but keep quiet?

<Lesley> I am not sure they do, but there is clearly a gap between their intent and their impact. Where would they gain the insight? Do they have access to the sort of training I have am getting?

<Bob> That is a very good question, and until this week I would not have been able to answer, but an interesting report by the Health Foundation was recently published on that very topic. It is entitled “Understanding Analytical Capability In Health Care” and what I says is that there is a lost tribe of data analysts in the NHS.

<Lesley> How interesting! That certainly resonates with my experience.  All the data analysts I know seem to be hidden away behind their computers, caught in the cross-fire between between the boards and the wards, and very sensibly keeping their heads down and doing what they are asked to.

<Bob> That would certainly help to explain what we are seeing! And the good news is that Martin Bardsley, the author of the paper, has interviewed many people across the system, gathered their feedback, and offered some helpful recommendations.  Here is a snippet.


<Lesley> I like these recommendations, especially the “in-work training programmes” and inclusion “in general management and leadership training“. But isn’t that one of the purposes of the CHIPs training?

<Bob> It is indeed, which is why it is good to see that Martin has specifically recommended it.


<Lesley> Excellent! That means that my own investment in the CHIPs training has just gained in street value and that’s good for my CV. An unexpected early Xmas present. Thank you!

stick_figure_superhero_anim_150_wht_1857Have you heard the phrase “Pride comes before a fall“?

What does this mean? That the feeling of pride is the reason for the subsequent fall?

So by following that causal logic, if we do not allow ourselves to feel proud then we can avoid the fall?

And none of us like the feeling of falling and failing. We are fearful of that negative feeling, so with this simple trick we can avoid feeling bad. Yes?

But we all know the positive feeling of achievement – we feel pride when we have done good work, when our impact matches our intent.  Pride in our work.

Is that bad too?

Should we accept under-achievement and unexceptional mediocrity as the inevitable cost of avoiding the pain of possible failure?  Is that what we are being told to do here?

The phrase comes from the Bible, from the Book of Proverbs 16:18 to be precise.


And the problem here is that the phrase “pride comes before a fall” is not the whole proverb.

It has been simplified. Some bits have been omitted. And those omissions lead to ambiguity and the opportunity for obfuscation and re-interpretation.

In the fuller New International Version we see a missing bit … the “haughty spirit” bit.  That is another way of saying “over-confident” or “arrogant”.

But even this “authorised” version is still ambiguous and more questions spring to mind:

Q1. What sort of pride are we referring to? Just the confidence version? What about the pride that follows achievement?

Q2. How would we know if our feeling of confidence is actually justified?

Q3. Does a feeling of confidence always precede a fall? Is that how we diagnose over-confidence? Retrospectively? Are there instances when we feel confident but we do not fail? Are there instances when we do not feel confident and then fail?

Q4. Does confidence cause the fall or it is just a temporal association? Is there something more fundamental that causes both high-confidence and low-competence?

There is a well known model called the Conscious-Competence model of learning which generates a sequence of four stages to achieving a new skill. Such as one we need to achieve our intended outcomes.

We all start in the “blissful ignorance” zone of unconscious incompetence.  Our unknowns are unknown to us.  They are blind spots.  So we feel unjustifiably confident.


In this model the first barrier to progress is “wrong intuition” which means that we actually have unconscious assumptions that are distorting our perception of reality.

What we perceive makes sense to us. It is clear and obvious. We feel confident. We believe our own rhetoric.

But our unconscious assumptions can trick us into interpreting information incorrectly.  And if we derive decisions from unverified assumptions and invalid analysis then we may do the wrong thing and not achieve our intended outcome.  We may unintentionally cause ourselves to fail and not be aware of it.  But we are proud and confident.

Then the gap between our intent and our impact becomes visible to all and painful to us. So we are tempted to avoid the social pain of public failure by retreating behind the “Yes, But” smokescreen of defensive reasoning. The “doom loop” as it is sometimes called. The Victim Vortex. “Don’t name, shame and blame me, I was doing my best. I did not intent that to happen. To err is human”.

The good news is that this learning model also signposts a possible way out; a door in the black curtain of ignorance.  It suggests that we can learn how to correct our analysis by using feedback from reality to verify our rhetorical assumptions.  Those assumptions which pass the “reality check” we keep, those which fail the “reality check” we redesign and retest until they pass.  Bit by bit our inner rhetoric comes to more closely match reality and the wisdom of our decisions will improve.

And what we then see is improvement.  Our impact moves closer towards our intent. And we can justifiably feel proud of that achievement. We do not need to be best-compared-with-the-rest; just being better-than-we-were-before is OK. That is learning.


And this is how it feels … this is the Learning Curve … or the Nerve Curve as we call it.

What it says is that to be able to assess confidence we must also measure competence. Outcomes. Impact.

And to achieve excellence we have to be prepared to actively look for any gap between intent and impact.  And we have to be prepared to see it as an opportunity rather than as a threat. And we will need to be able to seek feedback and other people’s perspectives. And we need to be to open to asking for examples and explanations from those who have demonstrated competence.

It says that confidence is not a trustworthy surrogate for competence.

It says that we want the confidence that flows from competence because that is the foundation of trust.

Improvement flows at the speed of trust and seeing competence, confidence and trust growing is a joyous thing.

Pride and Joy are OK.

Arrogance and incompetence comes before a fall would be a better proverb.

thinker_figure_unsolve_puzzle_150_wht_18309Many of the challenges that we face in delivering effective and affordable health care do not have well understood and generally accepted solutions.

If they did there would be no discussion or debate about what to do and the results would speak for themselves.

This lack of understanding is leading us to try to solve a complicated system design challenge in our heads.  Intuitively.

And trying to do it this way is fraught with frustration and risk because our intuition tricks us. It was this sort of challenge that led Professor Rubik to invent his famous 3D Magic Cube puzzle.

It is difficult enough to learn how to solve the Magic Cube puzzle by trial and error; it is even more difficult to attempt to do it inside our heads! Intuitively.

And we know the Rubik Cube puzzle is solvable, so all we need are some techniques, tools and training to improve our Rubik Cube solving capability.  We can all learn how to do it.

Returning to the challenge of safe and affordable health care, and to the specific problem of unscheduled care, A&E targets, delayed transfers of care (DTOC), finance, fragmentation and chronic frustration.

This is a systems engineering challenge so we need some systems engineering techniques, tools and training before attempting it.  Not after failing repeatedly.


One technique that a systems engineer will use is called a Vee Diagram such as the one shown above.  It shows the sequence of steps in the generic problem solving process and it has the same sequence that we use in medicine for solving problems that patients present to us …

Diagnose, Design and Deliver

which is also known as …

Study, Plan, Do.

Notice that there are three words in the diagram that start with the letter V … value, verify and validate.  These are probably the three most important words in the vocabulary of a systems engineer.

One tool that a systems engineer always uses is a model of the system under consideration.

Models come in many forms from conceptual to physical and are used in two main ways:

  1. To assist the understanding of the past (diagnosis)
  2. To predict the behaviour in the future (prognosis)

And the process of creating a system model, the sequence of steps, is shown in the Vee Diagram.  The systems engineer’s objective is a validated model that can be trusted to make good-enough predictions; ones that support making wiser decisions of which design options to implement, and which not to.

So if a systems engineer presented us with a conceptual model that is intended to assist our understanding, then we will require some evidence that all stages of the Vee Diagram process have been completed.  Evidence that provides assurance that the model predictions can be trusted.  And the scope over which they can be trusted.

Last month a report was published by the Nuffield Trust that is entitled “Understanding patient flow in hospitals”  and it asserts that traffic flow on a motorway is a valid conceptual model of patient flow through a hospital.  Here is a direct quote from the second paragraph in the Executive Summary:

Unfortunately, no evidence is provided in the report to support the validity of the statement and that omission should ring an alarm bell.

The observation that “the hospitals with the least free space struggle the most” is not a validation of the conceptual model.  Validation requires a concrete experiment.

To illustrate why observation is not validation let us consider a scenario where I have a headache and I take a paracetamol and my headache goes away.  I now have some evidence that shows a temporal association between what I did (take paracetamol) and what I got (a reduction in head pain).

But this is not a valid experiment because I have not considered the other seven possible combinations of headache before (Y/N), paracetamol (Y/N) and headache after (Y/N).

An association cannot be used to prove causation; not even a temporal association.

When I do not understand the cause, and I am without evidence from a well-designed experiment, then I might be tempted to intuitively jump to the (invalid) conclusion that “headaches are caused by lack of paracetamol!” and if untested this invalid judgement may persist and even become a belief.

Understanding causality requires an approach called counterfactual analysis; otherwise known as “What if?” And we can start that process with a thought experiment using our rhetorical model.  But we must remember that we must always validate the outcome with a real experiment. That is how good science works.

A famous thought experiment was conducted by Albert Einstein when he asked the question “If I were sitting on a light beam and moving at the speed of light what would I see?” This question led him to the Theory of Relativity which completely changed the way we now think about space and time.  Einstein’s model has been repeatedly validated by careful experiment, and has allowed engineers to design and deliver valuable tools such as the Global Positioning System which uses relativity theory to achieve high positional precision and accuracy.

So let us conduct a thought experiment to explore the ‘faster movement requires more space‘ statement in the case of patient flow in a hospital.

First, we need to define what we mean by the words we are using.

The phrase ‘faster movement’ is ambiguous.  Does it mean higher flow (more patients per day being admitted and discharged) or does it mean shorter length of stage (the interval between the admission and discharge events for individual patients)?

The phrase ‘more space’ is also ambiguous. In a hospital that implies physical space i.e. floor-space that may be occupied by corridors, chairs, cubicles, trolleys, and beds.  So are we actually referring to flow-space or storage-space?

What we have in this over-simplified statement is the conflation of two concepts: flow-capacity and space-capacity. They are different things. They have different units. And the result of conflating them is meaningless and confusing.

However, our stated goal is to improve understanding so let us consider one combination, and let us be careful to be more precise with our terminology, “higher flow always requires more beds“. Does it? Can we disprove this assertion with an example where higher flow required less beds (i.e. space-capacity)?

The relationship between flow and space-capacity is well understood.

The starting point is Little’s Law which was proven mathematically in 1961 by J.D.C. Little and it states:

Average work in progress = Average lead time  X  Average flow.

In the hospital context, work in progress is the number of occupied beds, lead time is the length of stay and flow is admissions or discharges per time interval (which must be the same on average over a long period of time).

(NB. Engineers are rather pedantic about units so let us check that this makes sense: the unit of WIP is ‘patients’, the unit of lead time is ‘days’, and the unit of flow is ‘patients per day’ so ‘patients’ = ‘days’ * ‘patients / day’. Correct. Verified. Tick.)

So, is there a situation where flow can increase and WIP can decrease? Yes. When lead time decreases. Little’s Law says that is possible. We have disproved the assertion.

Let us take the other interpretation of higher flow as shorter length of stay: i.e. shorter length of stay always requires more beds.  Is this correct? No. If flow remains the same then Little’s Law states that we will require fewer beds. This assertion is disproved as well.

And we need to remember that Little’s Law is proven to be valid for averages, does that shed any light on the source of our confusion? Could the assertion about flow and beds actually be about the variation in flow over time and not about the average flow?

And this is also well understood. The original work on it was done almost exactly 100 years ago by Agner Arup Erlang and the problem he looked at was the quality of customer service of the early telephone exchanges. Specifically, how likely was the caller to get the “all lines are busy, please try later” response.

What Erlang showed was there there is a mathematical relationship between the number of calls being made (the demand), the probability of a call being connected first time (the service quality) and the number of telephone circuits and switchboard operators available (the service cost).

So it appears that we already have a validated mathematical model that links flow, quality and cost that we might use if we substitute ‘patients’ for ‘calls’, ‘beds’ for ‘telephone circuits’, and ‘being connected’ for ‘being admitted’.

And this topic of patient flow, A&E performance and Erlang queues has been explored already … here.

So a telephone exchange is a more valid model of a hospital than a motorway.

We are now making progress in deepening our understanding.

The use of an invalid, untested, conceptual model is sloppy systems engineering.

So if the engineering is sloppy we would be unwise to fully trust the conclusions.

And I share this feedback in the spirit of black box thinking because I believe that there are some valuable lessons to be learned here – by us all.

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One of the challenges involved in learning the science of improvement, is to be able to examine our own beliefs.

We need to do that to identify the invalid assumptions that lead us to make poor decisions, and to act in ways that push us off the path to our intended outcome.

Over two thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher developed a way of exposing invalid assumptions.  He was called Socrates.

The Socratic method involves a series of questions that are posed to help a person or group to determine their underlying beliefs and the extent of their knowledge.  It is a way to develop better hypotheses by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions.

Socrates designed his method to force one to examine one’s own beliefs and the validity of such beliefs.

That skill is as valuable today as it was then, and is especially valuable when we explore complex subjects,  such as improving the performance of our health and social care system.

Our current approach is called reactive improvement – and we are reacting to failure.

Reactive improvement zealots seem obsessed with getting away from failure, disappointment, frustration, fear, waste, variation, errors, cost etc. in the belief that what remains after the dross has been removed is the good stuff. The golden nuggets.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

It has a couple of downsides though:

  1. Removing dross leaves holes, that all too easily fill up with different dross!
  2. Reactive improvement needs a big enough problem to drive it.  A crisis!

The implication is that reactive improvement grinds to a halt as the pressure is relieved and as it becomes mired in a different form of bureaucratic dross … the Quality Control Inspectorate!

No wonder we feel as if we are trapped in a perpetual state of chronic and chaotic mediocrity.

Creative improvement is, as the name suggests, focused on creating something that we want in the future.  Something like a health and social care system that is safe, calm, fit-4-purpose, and affordable.

Creative improvement does not need a problem to get started. A compelling vision and a choice to make-it-so is enough.

Creative improvement does not fizzle out as soon as we improve… because our future vision is always there to pull us forward.  And the more we practice creative improvement, the better we get, the more progress we make, and the stronger the pull becomes.

The main thing that blocks us from using creative improvement are our invalid, unconscious beliefs and assumptions about what is preventing us achieving our vision now.

So we need a way to examine our beliefs and assumptions in a disciplined and robust way, and that is the legacy that Socrates left us.

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On 5th July 2018, the NHS will be 70 years old, and like many of those it was created to serve, it has become elderly and frail.

We live much longer, on average, than we used to and the growing population of frail elderly are presenting an unprecedented health and social care challenge that the NHS was never designed to manage.

The creases and cracks are showing, and each year feels more pressured than the last.

This week a story that illustrates this challenge was shared with me along with permission to broadcast …

“My mother-in-law is 91, in general she is amazingly self-sufficient, able to arrange most of her life with reasonable care at home via a council tendered care provider.

She has had Parkinson’s for years, needing regular medication to enable her to walk and eat (it affects her jaw and swallowing capability). So the care provision is time critical, to get up, have lunch, have tea and get to bed.

She’s also going deaf, profoundly in one ear, pretty bad in the other. She wears a single ‘in-ear’ aid, which has a micro-switch on/off toggle, far too small for her to see or operate. Most of the carers can’t put it in, and fail to switch it off.

Her care package is well drafted, but rarely adhered to. It should be 45 minutes in the morning, 30, 15, 30 through the day. Each time administering the medications from the dossette box. Despite the register in/out process from the carers, many visits are far less time than designed (and paid for by the council), with some lasting 8 minutes instead of 30!

Most carers don’t ensure she takes her meds, which sometimes leads to dropped pills on the floor, with no hope of picking them up!

While the care is supposedly ‘time critical’ the provider don’t manage it via allocated time slots, they simply provide lists, that imply the order of work, but don’t make it clear. My mother-in-law (Mum) cannot be certain when the visit will occur, which makes going out very difficult.

The carers won’t cook food, but will micro-wave it, thus if a cooked meal is to happen, my Mum will start it, with the view of the carers serving it. If they arrive early, the food is under-cooked (“Just put vinegar on it, it will taste better”) and if they arrive late, either she’ll try to get it out herself, or it will be dried out / cremated.

Her medication pattern should be every 4 to 5 hours in the day, with a 11:40 lunch visit, and a 17:45 tea visit, followed by a 19:30 bed prep visit, she finishes up with too long between meds, followed by far too close together. Her GP has stated that this is making her health and Parkinson’s worse.

Mum also rarely drinks enough through the day, in the hot whether she tends to dehydrate, which we try to persuade her must be avoided. Part of the problem is Parkinson’s related, part the hassle of getting to the toilet more often. Parkinson’s affects swallowing, so she tends to sip, rather than gulp. By sipping often, she deludes herself that she is drinking enough.

She also is stubbornly not adjusting methods to align to issues. She drinks tea and water from her lovely bone china cups. Because her grip is not good and her hand shakes, we can’t fill those cups very high, so her ‘cup of tea’ is only a fraction of what it could be.

As she can walk around most days, there’s no way of telling whether she drinks enough, and she frequently has several different carers in a day.

When Mum gets dehydrated, it affects her memory and her reasoning, similar to the onset of dementia. It also seems to increase her probability of falling, perhaps due to forgetting to be defensive.

When she falls, she cannot get up, thus usually presses her alarm dongle, resulting in me going round to get her up, check for concussion, and check for other injuries, prior to settling her down again. These can be ten weeks apart, through to a few in a week.

When she starts to hallucinate, we do our very best to increase drinking, seeking to re-hydrate.

On Sunday, something exceptional happened, Mum fell out of bed and didn’t press her alarm. The carer found her and immediately called the paramedics and her GP, who later called us in. For the first time ever she was not sufficiently mentally alert to press her alarm switch.

After initial assessment, she was taken to A&E, luckily being early on Sunday morning it was initially quite quiet.


The Hospital is on the boundary between two counties, within a large town, a mixture of new build elements, between aging structures. There has been considerable investment within A&E, X-ray etc. due partly to that growth industry and partly due to the closures of cottage hospitals and reducing GP services out of hours.

It took some persuasion to have Mum put on a drip, as she hadn’t had breakfast or any fluids, and dehydration was a probable primary cause of her visit. They took bloods, an X-ray of her chest (to check for fall related damage) and a CT scan of her head, to see if there were issues.

I called the carers to tell them to suspend visits, but the phone simply rang without be answered (not for the first time.)

After about six hours, during which time she was awake, but not very lucid, she was transferred to the day ward, where after assessment she was given some meds, a sandwich and another drip.

Later that evening we were informed she was to be kept on a drip for 24 hours.

The next day (Bank Holiday Monday) she was transferred to another ward. When we arrived she was not on a drip, so their decisions had been reversed.

I spoke at length with her assigned staff nurse, and was told the following: Mum could come out soon if she had a 24/7 care package, and that as well as the known issues mum now has COPD. When I asked her what COPD was, she clearly didn’t know, but flustered a ‘it is a form of heart failure that affects breathing’. (I looked it up on my phone a few minutes later.)

So, to get mum out, I had to arrange a 24/7 care package, and nowhere was open until the next day.

Trying to escalate care isn’t going to be easy, even in the short term. My emails to ‘usually very good’ social care people achieved nothing to start with on Tuesday, and their phone was on the ‘out of hours’ setting for evenings and weekends, despite being during the day of a normal working week.

Eventually I was told that there would be nothing to achieve until the hospital processed the correct exit papers to Social Care.

When we went in to the hospital (on Tuesday) a more senior nurse was on duty. She explained that mum was now medically fit to leave hospital if care can be re-established. I told her that I was trying to set up 24/7 care as advised. She looked through the notes and said 24/7 care was not needed, the normal 4 x a day was enough. (She was clearly angry).

I then explained that the newly diagnosed COPD may be part of the problem, she said that she’s worked with COPD patients for 16 years, and mum definitely doesn’t have COPD. While she was amending the notes, I noticed that mum’s allergy to aspirin wasn’t there, despite us advising that on entry. The nurse also explained that as the hospital is in one county, but almost half their patients are from another, they are always stymied on ‘joined up working’

While we were talking with mum, her meds came round and she was only given paracetamol for her pain, but NOT her meds for Parkinson’s. I asked that nurse why that was the case, and she said that was not on her meds sheet. So I went back to the more senior nurse, she checked the meds as ordered and Parkinson’s was required 4 x a day, but it was NOT transferred onto the administration sheet. The doctor next to us said she would do it straight away, and I was told, “Thank God you are here to get this right!”

Mum was given her food, it consisted of some soup, which she couldn’t spoon due to lack of meds and a dry tough lump of gammon and some mashed sweet potato, which she couldn’t chew.

When I asked why meds were given at five, after the delivery of food, they said ‘That’s our system!’, when I suggested that administering Parkinson’s meds an hour before food would increase the ability to eat the food they said “that’s a really good idea, we should do that!”

On Wednesday I spoke with Social Care to try to re-start care to enable mum to get out. At that time the social worker could neither get through to the hospital nor the carers. We spoke again after I had arrived in hospital, but before I could do anything.

On arrival at the hospital I was amazed to see the white-board declaring that mum would be discharged for noon on Monday (in five days-time!). I spoke with the assigned staff nurse who said, “That’s the earliest that her carers can re-start, and anyway its nearly the weekend”.

I said that “mum was medically OK for discharge on Tuesday, after only two days in the hospital, and you are complacent to block the bed for another six days, have you spoken with the discharge team?”

She replied, “No they’ll have gone home by now, and I’ve not seen them all day” I told her that they work shifts, and that they will be here, and made it quite clear if she didn’t contact SHEDs that I’d go walkabout to find them. A few minutes later she told me a SHED member would be with me in 20 minutes.

While the hospital had resolved her medical issues, she was stuck in a ward, with no help to walk, the only TV via a complex pay-for system she had no hope of understanding, with no day room, so no entertainment, no exercise, just boredom encouraged to lay in bed, wear a pad because she won’t be taken to the loo in time.

When the SHED worker arrived I explained the staff nurse attitude, she said she would try to improve those thinking processes. She took lots of details, then said that so long as mum can walk with assistance, she could be released after noon, to have NHS carer support, 4 times a day, from the afternoon. She walked around the ward for the first time since being admitted, and while shaky was fine.

Hopefully all will be better now?”

This story is not exceptional … I have heard it many times from many people in many different parts of the UK.  It is the norm rather than the exception.

It is the story of a fragmented and fractured system of health and social care.

It is the story of frustration for everyone – patients, family, carers, NHS staff, commissioners, and tax-payers.  A fractured care system is unsafe, chaotic, frustrating and expensive.

There are no winners here.  It is not a trade off, compromise or best possible.

It is just poor system design.

What we want has a name … it is called a Frail Safe design … and this is not a new idea.  It is achievable. It has been achieved.

So why is this still happening?

The reason is simple – the NHS does not know any other way.  It does not know how to design itself to be safe, calm, efficient, high quality and affordable.

It does not know how to do this because it has never learned that this is possible.

But it is possible to do, and it is possible to learn, and that learning does not take very long or cost very much.

And the return vastly outnumbers the investment.

The title of this blog is Righteous Indignation

… if your frail elderly parents, relatives or friends were forced to endure a system that is far from frail safe; and you learned that this situation was avoidable and that a safer design would be less expensive; and all you hear is “can’t do” and “too busy” and “not enough money” and “not my job” …  wouldn’t you feel a sense of righteous indignation?

I do.

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figure_falling_with_arrow_17621The late Russell Ackoff used to tell a great story. It goes like this:

“A team set themselves the stretch goal of building the World’s Best Car.  So the put their heads together and came up with a plan.

First they talked to drivers and drew up a list of all the things that the World’s Best Car would need to have. Safety, speed, low fuel consumption, comfort, good looks, low emissions and so on.

Then they drew up a list of all the components that go into building a car. The engine, the wheels, the bodywork, the seats, and so on.

Then they set out on a quest … to search the world for the best components … and to bring the best one of each back.

Then they could build the World’s Best Car.

Or could they?

No.  All they built was a pile of incompatible parts. The WBC did not work. It was a futile exercise.

Then the penny dropped. The features in their wish-list were not associated with any of the separate parts. Their desired performance emerged from the way the parts worked together. The working relationships between the parts were as necessary as the parts themselves.

And a pile of average parts that work together will deliver a better performance than a pile of best parts that do not.

So the relationships were more important than the parts!

From this they learned that the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to degrade performance is to make working-well-together a bit more difficult.  Irrespective of the quality of the parts.

Q: So how do we reverse this degradation of performance?

A: Add more failure-avoidance targets of course!

But we just discovered that the performance is the effect of how the parts work well together?  Will another failure-metric-fueled performance target help? How will each part know what it needs to do differently – if anything?  How will each part know if the changes they have made are having the intended impact?

Fragmentation has a cost.  Fear, frustration, futility and ultimately financial failure.

So if performance is fading … the quality of the working relationships is a good place to look for opportunities for improvement.

KingsFund_Quality_Report_May_2016This week the King’s Fund published their Quality Monitoring Report for the NHS, and it makes depressing reading.

These highlights are a snapshot.

The website has some excellent interactive time-series charts that transform the deluge of data the NHS pumps out into pictures that tell a shameful story.

On almost all reported dimensions, things are getting worse and getting worse faster.

Which I do not believe is the intention.

But it is clearly the impact of the last 20 years of health and social care policy.

What is more worrying is the data that is notably absent from the King’s Fund QMR.

The first omission is outcome: How well did the NHS deliver on its intended purpose?  It is stated at the top of the NHS England web site …


And lets us be very clear here: dying, waiting, complaining, and over-spending are not measures of what we want: health and quality success metrics.  They are a measures of what we do not want; they are failure metrics.

The fanatical focus on failure is part of the hyper-competitive, risk-averse medical mindset:

primum non nocere (first do no harm),

and as a patient I am reassured to hear that but is no harm all I can expect?

What about:

tunc mederi (then do some healing)

And where is the data on dying in the Kings Fund QMR?

It seems to be notably absent.

And I would say that is a quality issue because it is something that patients are anxious about.  And that may be because they are given so much ‘open information’ about what might go wrong, not what should go right.

And you might think that sharp, objective data on dying would be easy to collect and to share.  After all, it is not conveniently fuzzy and subjective like satisfaction.

It is indeed mandatory to collect hospital mortality data, but sharing it seems to be a bit more of a problem.

The fear-of-failure fanaticism extends there too.  In the wake of humiliating, historical, catastrophic failures like Mid Staffs, all hospitals are monitored, measured and compared. And the negative deviants are named, shamed and blamed … in the hope that improvement might follow.

And to do the bench-marking we need to compare apples with apples; not peaches with lemons.  So we need to process the raw data to make it fair to compare; to ensure that factors known to be associated with higher risk of death are taken into account. Factors like age, urgency, co-morbidity and primary diagnosis.  Factors that are outside the circle-of-control of the hospitals themselves.

And there is an army of academics, statisticians, data processors, and analysts out there to help. The fruit of their hard work and dedication is called SHMI … the Summary Hospital Mortality Index.


Now, the most interesting paragraph is the third one which outlines what raw data is fed in to building the risk-adjusted model.  The first four are objective, the last two are more subjective, especially the diagnosis grouping one.

The importance of this distinction comes down to human nature: if a hospital is failing on its SHMI then it has two options:
(a) to improve its policies and processes to improve outcomes, or
(b) to manipulate the diagnosis group data to reduce the SHMI score.

And the latter is much easier to do, it is called up-coding, and basically it involves camping at the pessimistic end of the diagnostic spectrum. And we are very comfortable with doing that in health care. We favour the Black Hat.

And when our patients do better than our pessimistically-biased prediction, then our SHMI score improves and we look better on the NHS funnel plot.

We do not have to do anything at all about actually improving the outcomes of the service we provide, which is handy because we cannot do that. We do not measure it!

And what might be notably absent from the data fed in to the SHMI risk-model?  Data that is objective and easy to measure.  Data such as length of stay (LOS) for example?

Is there a statistical reason that LOS is omitted? Not really. Any relevant metric is a contender for pumping into a risk-adjustment model.  And we all know that the sicker we are, the longer we stay in hospital, and the less likely we are to come out unharmed (or at all).  And avoidable errors create delays and complications that imply more risk, more work and longer length of stay. Irrespective of the illness we arrived with.

So why has LOS been omitted from SHMI?

The reason may be more political than statistical.

We know that the risk of death increases with infirmity and age.

We know that if we put frail elderly patients into a hospital bed for a few days then they will decondition and become more frail, require more time in hospital, are more likely to need a transfer of care to somewhere other than home, are more susceptible to harm, and more likely to die.

So why is LOS not in the risk-of-death SHMI model?

And it is not in the King’s Fund QR report either.

Nor is the amount of cash being pumped in to keep the HMS NHS afloat each month.

All notably absent!

flag_waving_mountain_150_clr_13781A wise person once said:

Improvement implies change, but change does not imply improvement.

To get improvement on any dimension we need to change something: our location, our perspective, our actions, our decisions, our assumptions, our beliefs even.

And we hate doing that because we know from life experience that change does not guarantee improvement.  Even with well-intended, carefully-considered, and collectively-agreed change … things can get worse.  And we fear that.  So the safest thing to do is … nothing!  We sit on the fence.

Until a ‘fire’ breaks out.  Then we are motivated to move by a stronger emotion … fear for our very survival.  That bigger fear gives us the necessary push and we move to somewhere cooler and safer.

But as the temperature drops, the fear goes away, the push goes away too and we lose momentum and return to torpor.  Until the next fire breaks out.

The other problem with a collective fear-based motivator is that we usually jump in different directions so any shred of cohesion we did have, is lost completely.  The system fragments.  Fear is always destructive.

The alternative to fear-driven change is a different type of motivator … a burning ambition.

Ambition may feel just as hot but it is different in that it continues to pull and to motivate us.  We do not slump back into torpor after the first success.  If anything the sense of achievement fuels our fire-of-ambition and that pulls us with greater force.

And when many others share the same burning ambition then we are pulled into alignment on a common purpose and that can become constructive and synergistic … if we work collaboratively.

So let us take health care improvement as the example.

We have a burning platform.  The newspapers are full of doom-and-gloom about escalating waits, failed targets, weekend mortality effects, spiraling costs and political conflict.

But do we have a collective burning ambition?  A common goal? A shared purpose?

A common goal like a health care system that is safe, delivers on time, meets and exceeds expectation and is affordable ?

If we do, then what is the barrier to change? We have push and we have pull … so where is the friction and resistance coming from?

From inside ourselves perhaps?  Maybe we harbour limiting beliefs that it is impossible or we can’t do it?  Beliefs that self-justify our ‘do nothing’ decision.

So only one example that disproves our limiting beliefs is enough to remove them. Just one.  And I shared a video of it last week – the Luton & Dunstable one.

And the animated video by Dr Peter Fuda captures the essence of this push-and-pull Kurt Lewin Force Field concept brilliantly!

A few weeks ago I raised the undiscussable issue that the NHS feels like it is on a downward trajectory … and that what might be needed are some better engines … and to design, test, build and install them we will need some health care system engineers (HCSEs) … and that we do not have appear to have enough of those. None in fact.

The feedback shows that many people resonated with this sentiment.

This week I had the opportunity to peek inside the NHS Cockpit and look at the Dashboard … and this is what I saw on the A&E Performance panel.


This is the monthly aggregate A&E 4-hour performance for England (red), Scotland (purple), Wales (brown) and Northern Ireland (grey) for the last six years.

The trajectory looked alarmingly obvious to me – the NHS is on a predictable path to destruction – a controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).

The repeating up-and-down pattern is the annual cycle of seasons; better in the summer and worse in the winter.  This signal is driven by the celestial clock … the movement of the planets … which is beyond our power to influence.

The downward trajectory is the cumulative effect of our current design … which is the emergent effect of our collective beliefs, behaviours, policies and politics … which are completely within our gift to change.

If we chose to and if we knew how to – which we do not appear to.

Our collective ineptitude is not a topic for discussion. It is a taboo subject.

And I know that because if it were for discussion then this dashboard would be on public view on a website hosted by the NHS.

It isn’t.

George_DonaldIt was created by George Donald, a member of the public, a disappointed patient, and a retired IT consultant.  And it was shared, free for all to see and use via Twitter (@GMDonald).

The information source is open, public, shared NHS data, but it takes a lot of work to winkle it out and present it like this.  So well done George … keep up the great work!

Now have a closer look at the Dashboard Display … look at the most recent data for England and Scotland.  What do you see?

Does it look like Scotland is pulling out of the dive and England is heading down even faster?

Hard to say for sure; there are lots of signals and noise all mixed up.

So we need to use some Systems Engineering tools to help us separate the signals from the noise; and for this a statistical process control (SPC) chart is useless.  We need a system behaviour chart (SBC) and its handy helper the deviation from aim (DFA) chart.

I will not bore you with the technical details but, suffice it to say, it is a tried-and-tested technique called the Method of Residuals.

Scotland_A&E_DFA_02 Exhibit #1 is the DFA chart for Scotland.  The middle 4 years (2011-2014) are used to create a ‘predictive model’;  the model projection is then compared with measured performance; and the difference is plotted as the DFA chart.

What this “says” is that the 2015/16 performance in Scotland is significantly better than projected, and the change of direction seemed to start in the first half of 2015.

This evidence seems to support the results of our Mark I Eyeball test.


Exhibit #2 – the DFA for England suggests the 2015/16 performance is significantly worse than projected, and this deterioration appears to have started later in 2015.

Oh dear! I do not believe that was the intention, but it appears to be the impact.

So what are England and Scotland doing differently?
What can we all learn from this?
What can we all do differently in the future?

Isn’t that a question that more people like you, me and George could reasonably ask of those whom we entrust to design, build and fly our NHS?

Isn’t that a reasonable question that could be asked by the 65 million people in the UK who might, at any time, be unlucky enough to require a trip to their local A&E department.

So, let us all grasp the nettle and get the Elephant in the Room into plain view and say in unison “The Emperor Has No Clothes!”

We are suffering from mass ineptitude and hubris, to use Dr Atul Gawande’s language, and we need a better collective strategy.

And there is hope.

Some innovative hospitals have had the courage to grasp the nettle. They have seen what is coming; they have fully accepted the responsibility for their own fate; they have stepped up to the challenge; they have looked-listened-and-learned from others, and they are proving what is possible.

They have a name. They are called positive deviants.

Have a look at this short video … it is jaw-dropping … it is humbling … it is inspiring … and it is challenging … because it shows what has been achieved already.

It shows what is possible. Now, and here in the UK.

Luton and Dunstable


It has been another interesting week.  A bitter-sweet mixture of disappointment and delight. And the central theme has been ‘transformation’.

The source of disappointment was the newsreel images of picket lines of banner-waving junior doctors standing in the cold watching ambulances deliver emergencies to hospitals now run by consultants.

So what about the thousands of elective appointments and operations that were cancelled to release the consultants? If the NHS was failing elective delivery time targets before it is going to be failing them even more now. And who will pay for the “waiting list initiatives” needed to just catch up? Depressing to watch.

The mercurial Roy Lilley summed up the general mood very well in his newsletter on Thursday, the day after the strike.


What he is saying is we do not have a health care system, we have a sick care system.  Which is the term coined by the acclaimed systems thinker, the late Russell Ackoff (see the video about half way down).

We aspire to a transformation-to-better but we only appear to be able to achieve a transformation-to-worse. That is depressing.

My source of delight was sharing the stories of those who are stepping up and are transforming themselves and their bits of the world; and how they are doing that by helping each other to learn “how to do it” – a small bite at a time.

Here is one excellent example: a diagnostic study looking at the root cause of the waiting time for school-age pupils to receive a health-protecting immunisation.

So what sort of transformation does the NHS need?

A transformation in the way it delivers care by elimination of the fragmentation that is the primary cause of the distrust, queues, waits, frustration, chaos and ever-increasing costs?

A transformation from purposeless and reactive; to purposeful and proactive?

A transformation from the disappointment that flows from the mismatch between intent and impact; to the delight that flows from discovering that there is a way forward; that there is a well understood science that underpins it; and a growing body of evidence that proves its effectiveness.  The Science of Improvement.

In  a recent blog I shared the story of how it is possible to ‘melt queues‘ or more specifically how it is possible to teach anyone, who wants to learn, how to melt queues.

It is possible to do this for an outpatient clinic in one day.

So imagine what could happen if just 1% of consultants decided improve their outpatient clinics using this quick-and-easy-to-learn-and-apply method?  Those courageous and innovative consultants who are not prepared to drown in the  Victim Vortex of despair and cynicism.  And what could happen if they shared their improvement stories with their less optimistic colleagues?  And what could happen if a just a few of them followed the lead of the innovators?

Would that be a small transformation?  Or the start of a much bigger one? Or both?

Chimp_NoHear_NoSee_NoSpeakLast week I shared a link to Dr Don Berwick’s thought provoking presentation at the Healthcare Safety Congress in Sweden.

Near the end of the talk Don recommended six books, and I was reassured that I already had read three of them. Naturally, I was curious to read the other three.

One of the unfamiliar books was “Overcoming Organizational Defenses” by the late Chris Argyris, a professor at Harvard.  I confess that I have tried to read some of his books before, but found them rather difficult to understand.  So I was intrigued that Don was recommending it as an ‘easy read’.  Maybe I am more of a dimwit that I previously believed!  So fear of failure took over my inner-chimp and I prevaricated. I flipped into denial. Who would willingly want to discover the true depth of their dimwittedness!

Later in the week, I was forwarded a copy of a recently published paper that was on a topic closely related to a key thread in Dr Don’s presentation:

understanding variation.

The paper was by researchers who had looked at the Board reports of 30 randomly selected NHS Trusts to examine how information on safety and quality was being shared and used.  They were looking for evidence that the Trust Boards understood the importance of variation and the need to separate ‘signal’ from ‘noise’ before making decisions on actions to improve safety and quality performance.  This was a point Don had stressed too, so there was a link.

The randomly selected Trust Board reports contained 1488 charts, of which only 88 demonstrated the contribution of chance effects (i.e. noise). Of these, 72 showed the Shewhart-style control charts that Don demonstrated. And of these, only 8 stated how the control limits were constructed (which is an essential requirement for the chart to be meaningful and useful).

That is a validity yield of 8 out of 1488, or 0.54%, which is for all practical purposes zero. Oh dear!

This chance combination of apparently independent events got me thinking.

Q1: What is the reason that NHS Trust Boards do not use these signal-and-noise separation techniques when it has been demonstrated, for at least 12 years to my knowledge, that they are very effective for facilitating improvement in healthcare? (e.g. Improving Healthcare with Control Charts by Raymond G. Carey was published in 2003).

Q2: Is there some form of “organizational defense” system in place that prevents NHS Trust Boards from learning useful ‘new’ knowledge?

So I surfed the Web to learn more about Chris Argyris and to explore in greater depth his concept of Single Loop and Double Loop learning.  I was feeling like a dimwit again because to me it is not a very descriptive title!  I suspect it is not to many others too.

I sensed that I needed to translate the concept into the language of healthcare and this is what emerged.

Single Loop learning is like treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease.

Double Loop learning is diagnosing the underlying disease and treating that.

So what are the symptoms?
The pain of NHS Trust  failure on all dimensions – safety, delivery, quality and productivity (i.e. affordability for a not-for-profit enterprise).

And what are the signs?
The tell-tale sign is more subtle. It’s what is not present that is important. A serious omission. The missing bits are valid time-series charts in the Trust Board reports that show clearly what is signal and what is noise. This diagnosis is critical because the strategies for addressing them are quite different – as Julian Simcox eloquently describes in his latest essay.  If we get this wrong and we act on our unwise decision, then we stand a very high chance of making the problem worse, and demoralizing ourselves and our whole workforce in the process! Does that sound familiar?

And what is the disease?
Undiscussables.  Emotive subjects that are too taboo to table in the Board Room.  And the issue of what is discussable is one of the undiscussables so we have a self-sustaining system.  Anyone who attempts to discuss an undiscussable is breaking an unspoken social code.  Another undiscussable is behaviour, and our social code is that we must not upset anyone so we cannot discuss ‘difficult’ issues.  But by avoiding the issue (the undiscussable disease) we fail to address the root cause and end up upsetting everyone.  We achieve exactly what we are striving to avoid, which is the technical definition of incompetence.  And Chris Argyris labelled this as ‘skilled incompetence’.

Does an apparent lack of awareness of what is already possible fully explain why NHS Trust Boards do not use the tried-and-tested tool called a system behaviour chart to help them diagnose, design and deliver effective improvements in safety, flow, quality and productivity?

Or are there other forces at play as well?

Some deeper undiscussables perhaps?

engineers_turbine_engine_16758The NHS is falling.

All the performance indicators on the NHSE cockpit dashboard show that it is on a downward trajectory.

The NHS engines are no longer effective enough or efficient enough to keep the NHS airship safely aloft.

And many sense the impending crash.

Scuffles are breaking out in the cockpit as scared pilots and anxious politicians wrestle with each other for the controls. The passengers and patients appear to be blissfully ignorant of the cockpit conflict.

But the cockpit chaos only serves to accelerate their collective rate of descent towards the hard reality of the Mountain of Doom.

So what is needed to avoid the crash?

Well, some calm and credible leadership in the cockpit would help; some coordinated crash avoidance would help too; and some much more effective and efficient engines to halt the descent and to lift us back to a safe altitude would help too. In fact the new NHS engines are essential.

But who is able to design, build, test and install these new health care system engines?

We need competent and experienced health care system engineers.

And clearly we do not have enough because if we had, we would not be in a CFIT scenario (cee fit = controlled flight into terrain).

So why do we not have enough health care system engineers?

Surely there are appropriate candidates and surely there are enough accredited courses with proven track records?

I looked.  There are no accredited courses in the UK and there are no proven track records. But there appears to be no shortage of suitable candidates from all corners of the NHS.

How can this be?

The answer seems to be that the complex flow system engineering science needed to do this is actually quite new … it is called Complex Adaptive Systems Engineering (CASE) … and it has not diffused into healthcare.

More worryingly, even basic flow engineering science has not either, and that seems to be because health care is so insular.

So what can we do?

The answer would seem to be clear.  First, we need to find some people who, by chance, are dual-trained in health care and systems engineering.  And there are a few of them, but not many.

People like Dr Kate Silvester who trained as an ophthalmic surgeon then retrained as a manufacturing systems engineer with Lucas and Airbus. Kate brought these novel flow engineering skills back in to the NHS in the days of the Modernisation Agency and since then has proved that they work in practice – as described in the Health Foundation Flow-Cost-Quality Programme Report.

Second, we need to ask this small band of seasoned practitioners to design and to deliver a pragmatic, hands-on, learning-by-doing Health Care Systems Engineer Development Programme.

The good news is that, not surprisingly, they have already diagnosed this skill gap and have been quietly designing, building and testing.

And they have come up with a name: The Phoenix Programme.

And because TPP is a highly disruptive innovation they know that it is too early to give it a price-tag, so they have generously offered a limited number of free tickets to the first part of TPP to clinicians and clinical scientists.

The first step is called the Foundations of Improvement Science in Healthcare online course, and better known to those who have completed it as “FISH”.

This vanguard of innovators have shared their feedback.

And, for those who are frustrated and curious enough to explore outside their comfort zones, there are still some #freeFISH tickets available.

So, if you are attracted by the opportunity of dual-training as a clinician and as a Health Care Systems Engineer (HCSE) then we invite you to step this way.

And not surprisingly, this is not a new idea … see here and here.

The Harvard Business Review is worth reading because many of its articles challenge deeply held assumptions, and then back up the challenge with the pragmatic experience of those who have succeeded to overcome the limiting beliefs.

So the heading on the April 2016 copy that awaited me on my return from an Easter break caught my eye: YOU CAN’T FIX CULTURE.



The successful leaders of major corporate transformations are agreed … the cultural change follows the technical change … and then the emergent culture sustains the improvement.

The examples presented include the Ford Motor Company, Delta Airlines, Novartis – so these are not corporate small fry!

The evidence suggests that the belief of “we cannot improve until the culture changes” is the mantra of failure of both leadership and management.

A health care system is characterised by a culture of risk avoidance. And for good reason. It is all too easy to harm while trying to heal!  Primum non nocere is a core tenet – first do no harm.

But, change and improvement implies taking risks – and those leaders of successful transformation know that the bigger risk by far is to become paralysed by fear and to do nothing.  Continual learning from many small successes and many small failures is preferable to crisis learning after a catastrophic failure!

The UK healthcare system is in a state of chronic chaos.  The evidence is there for anyone willing to look.  And waiting for the NHS culture to change, or pushing for culture change first appears to be a guaranteed recipe for further failure.

The HBR article suggests that it is better to stay focussed; to work within our circles of control and influence; to learn from others where knowledge is known, and where it is not – to use small, controlled experiments to explore new ground.

And I know this works because I have done it and I have seen it work.  Just by focussing on what is important to every member on the team; focussing on fixing what we could fix; not expecting or waiting for outside help; gathering and sharing the feedback from patients on a continuous basis; and maintaining patient and team safety while learning and experimenting … we have created a micro-culture of high safety, high efficiency, high trust and high productivity.  And we have shared the evidence via JOIS.

The micro-culture required to maintain the safety, flow, quality and productivity improvements emerged and evolved along with the improvements.

It was part of the effect, not the cause.

So the concept of ‘fix the system design flaws and the continual improvement culture will emerge’ seems to work at macro-system and at micro-system levels.

We just need to learn how to diagnose and treat healthcare system design flaws. And that is known knowledge.

So what is the next excuse?  Too busy?

Pearl_and_OysterThe word pearl is a metaphor for something rare, beautiful, and valuable.

Pearls are formed inside the shell of certain mollusks as a defense mechanism against a potentially threatening irritant.

The mollusk creates a pearl sac to seal off the irritation.

And so it is with change and improvement.  The growth of precious pearls of improvement wisdom – the ones that develop slowly over time – are triggered by an irritant.

Someone asking an uncomfortable question perhaps, or presenting some information that implies that an uncomfortable question needs to be asked.

About seven years ago a question was asked “Would improving healthcare flow and quality result in lower costs?”

It is a good question because some believe that it would and some believe that it would not.  So an experiment to test the hypothesis was needed.

The Health Foundation stepped up to the challenge and funded a three year project to find the answer. The design of the experiment was simple. Take two oysters and introduce an irritant into them and see if pearls of wisdom appeared.

The two ‘oysters’ were Sheffield Hospital and Warwick Hospital and the irritant was Dr Kate Silvester who is a doctor and manufacturing system engineer and who has a bit-of-a-reputation for asking uncomfortable questions and backing them up with irrefutable information.

Two rare and precious pearls did indeed grow.

In Sheffield, it was proved that by improving the design of their elderly care process they improved the outcome for their frail, elderly patients.  More went back to their own homes and fewer left via the mortuary.  That was the quality and safety improvement. They also showed a shorter length of stay and a reduction in the number of beds needed to store the work in progress.  That was the flow and productivity improvement.

What was interesting to observe was how difficult it was to get these profoundly important findings published.  It appeared that a further irritant had been created for the academic peer review oyster!

The case study was eventually published in Age and Aging 2014; 43: 472-77.

The pearl that grew around this seed is the Sheffield Microsystems Academy.

In Warwick, it was proved that the A&E 4 hour performance could be improved by focussing on improving the design of the processes within the hospital, downstream of A&E.  For example, a redesign of the phlebotomy and laboratory process to ensure that clinical decisions on a ward round are based on todays blood results.

This specific case study was eventually published as well, but by a different path – one specifically designed for sharing improvement case studies – JOIS 2015; 22:1-30

And the pearls of wisdom that developed as a result of irritating many oysters in the Warwick bed are clearly described by Glen Burley, CEO of Warwick Hospital NHS Trust in this recent video.

Getting the results of all these oyster bed experiments published required irritating the Health Foundation oyster … but a pearl grew there too and emerged as the full Health Foundation report which can be downloaded here.

So if you want to grow a fistful of improvement and a bagful of pearls of wisdom … then you will need to introduce a bit of irritation … and Dr Kate Silvester is a proven source of grit for your oyster!

Learning how to manage is as vital as learning how to lead.

by Julian Simcox

Recently I blogged to introduce the re-publication of my 10 year old essay:

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

The key ideas in that essay were seven fold:

  1. Aiming to develop Leadership separately from Management is likely to confuse anyone targeted by a separatist training programme, the reality being that everyone in organisational life is necessarily and simultaneously both Managing and Leading (M/L) and often desperately trying to integrate them as two very different action-logics.
  2. Managing and Leading are not roles but ways of thinking and acting that need to be intently chosen, according to the particular learning context (one of three) that any Managerial Leader (12) is facing.
  3. Like in Stephen Covey’s “Maturity Continuum” (8) M/L capability evolves over time (see the diagram below) and makes possible a transformational outcome, if supported in one’s organisation by sufficient and timely post-conventional thinking.
  4. Such an outcome (9,10,11,14,17,19,20,21,23) occurred in Toyota from 1950, making it possible for the organisation to evolve into what Peter Senge (18) calls a “Learning Organisation” – one in which improvement science (4) ensues continually from the bottom-up, within a structure that has evolved top-down.
  5. In Toyota’s case it was W. Edwards Deming who is most credited with having been the catalyst. Jim Collins (6) evidences eleven other examples of an organisational transformation sparked by an individual with a post-conventional world view that transcended a pre-existing conventional one.
  6. Deming talked a lot about ways of thinking – paradigms – that, like Euclidian geometry, make sense in their own world, but not outside it. When speaking with anyone in a client organisation he always aimed at being empathic to a person’s individual frame of reference. He was interested in how individuals make their own common sense because he had learned that it is this that often negatively impacts an individual’s decision-making process and hence their impact on an organisational system that needs to continually learn – a phenomenon he called “tampering”.
  7. The diagram seeks to capture the ways in which paradigms (world views) collectively and sequentially evolve. It combines the research of several practitioners (2,7,15,16) who sought to empirically trace the archetypal evolution of individual sense-making.


In 2013, Don Berwick (5) recommended to the UK government that, in order to prioritise quality and safety, the National Health Service must become a Deming-style learning organisation. The NHS however is not one single organisation, it is a thousand organisations – both privately and publically owned.  Yet if structured with “Liberating Disciplines” (22) via appropriately set central standards (e.g. tools that prompt thinking that is scientifically methodical), each can be invited as a single organisation to transform themselves into a body with learning its core value. Berwick seems to appreciate that out of the apparently sufficient conventional thinking, enough post-conventional managerial leadership will then have a chance to take root, and in time bloom.

The purpose of this blog is to introduce a second essay:

“Managerial Leadership: Five action-logics viewed via two developmental lenses.”

In the first essay I used P-D-S-A as the integrative link between Managing and Leading – offering a total of just three learning contexts, but this always felt a little over-simplistic and in 2005 when coaching my daughter Josie – then in her sandwich year as an undergraduate trainee in the hospitality industry – I was persuaded by her to further sub-divide the two M/L modes – replacing two with four:

  1. maintaining
  2. continually improving
  3. innovating
  4. transforming.

Applying this new 4 action-logic model, Josie succeeded in transforming the fortunes of her hotel – winning a national award for her efforts – and this made me wonder if she might be on to something important?

I decided to use the new version of the model to explore what it would look like through first a “conventional” lens, and then second a “post-conventional” lens – illustrating the kinds of paradigm shifts that one might see in action when inside a learning organisation, in particular the way that accountabilities for performance are handled.

It is hard to describe a post-conventional way of seeing things to someone who developmentally has discovered only the conventional way – about 85% of adults. It is as if the instructions about how to get out of the box are on the outside. It is hoped that this essay may help some individuals unlock this conundrum. In a learning organisation for example it turns out that real-time data and feedback are essential for continually prompting individuals and organisations to rapidly evolve a new way of seeing.

BaseLine® for example is a tool that has been designed with this in mind. It allows conventional organisations and individuals, even those considering themselves relatively innumerate, to develop post-conventional habits; simply by using the time-series data that in many cases is already being collected – albeit usually for reasons of top-down accountability rather than methodical improvement. In this way, healthy developmental conversation gets sparked – and at all organisational levels: bottom, middle and top.

It also turns out that Continuous Improvement when seen though the second lens is not the same as Continual Improvement (mode 2) – and this is another one of the paradigm shifts that in the essay gets explained. Here is the model as it then appears:


Note that a fifth action-logic mode, modelling, is also now included. This emerged out of conversations I was having with Simon Dodds when writing the final draft in 2011. The essence of this mode is embodied in a phrase coined by the late Russell Ackoff – “idealized design” (1) – using modern computing technology to facilitate transformative change within tolerable levels of risk.

People often readily admit to spending much of their life in mode 1 (maintaining), whilst really preferring to be in mode 3 (innovating) – even admitting to seeing mode 1 as relatively boring, or at best as overly bureaucratic. Such individuals are especially prone to tampering, and may even shun regimes in which they feel overly controlled. What the post-conventional worldview offers however is not the prospect of being controlled, but the prospect of being in control – whilst simultaneously letting go – a paradox that is not easy to get unless developmentally ready – hence the 2005 essay. This goes for the tools too – especially when being deployed with the full cultural support that can flow from an organisation imbued with sufficient post-conventional design.

If the organisation can be designed to sufficiently support the right people to take control of each critical process or sub-system, who at the right level (usually the lowest point in the hierarchy that accountability may be accepted), may feel safely equipped to make sound decisions, genuine empowerment then becomes possible. Essentially, people then feel safe enough to self-empower and take charge of their system.

Toyota are an exemplar “learning organisation” – actually a system of organisations that work so harmoniously as a whole that by continually adapting to its changing environment, risk can be smoothly managed. Their preoccupation from bottom to top is understanding in real time what is changing so that changes (to the system) can then be proactively and wisely made. Each employee at each organisational level is educated to both manage and lead.

This approach has enabled them to grow to become the largest volume car maker in the world – and largely via organic growth alone. They have achieved this simply by constantly delivering what the customer wants with low variation (hence high reliability) and by continually studying that variation to uncover the real causes of problems. Performance is continually assessed over time and seen largely as pertaining to the system rather than being down to any one individual. Job hoppers – who though charismatic may also be practiced at being able to avoid having to live with the longer-term consequences of their actions – are not appointed to key roles.

Some will read the essay and say to themselves that little of this applies to me or my organisation – “we’re not Toyota, we’re not a private company, and we’re not even in manufacturing”. That however is likely to be a conventional view. The post-conventional principles described in the essay apply as much to service industries as to the public sector – both commissioners and providers – some of whom would intentionally evolve a post-conventional culture if given the space to do so.

At the very least I hope to have succeeded in convincing you, even if you don’t buy in to the notion of a Berwick-style learning system, that schooling people in management or leadership separately, or without a workable definition of each, is likely to be both cruel to the individual and to court dysfunction in the organisation.


  1. Ackoff R. Why so few organisations adopt systems thinking – 2007
  2. Beck D.E & Cowan C.C. – Spiral Dynamics – Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change – 1996
  3. Berwick D. – The Science of Improvement – 2008 :
  4. Berwick D. – The Science of Improvement – 2008 :
  5. Berwick Donald M. – Berwick Review into patient safety – 2013
  6. Collins J.C. – Level 5 Leadership: The triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve – HBR Jan 2001
  7. Cook-Greuter. S. – Maps for living: ego-Development Stages Symbiosis to Conscious Universal Embeddedness – 1990
  8. Covey. S.R. – The 7 habits of Highly Effective People – 1989   (ISBN 0613191455)
  9. Delavigne K.T & Robertson J. D. – Deming’s profound changes – 1994
  10. Deming W. Edwards – Out of the Crisis – 1986 (ISBN 0-911379-01-0)
  11. Deming W.Edwards – The New Economics – 1993 (ISBN 0-911379-07-X) First edition
  12. Jaques. E. – Requisite Organisation: A Total System for Effective Managerial Organisation and Managerial Leadership for the 21st Century 1998 (ISBN 1886436045)
  13. Kotter. J. P. – A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management – 1990
  14. Liker J.K & Meier D. – The Toyota Way Fieldbook – 2006
  15. Rooke D and Torbert W.R. – Organisational Transformation as a function of CEO’s Development Stage 1998 (Organisation Development Journal, Vol. 6.1)
  16. Rooke D and Torbert W.R. – Seven Transformations of Leadership – Harvard Business Review April 2005
  17. Scholtes Peter R. The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done – 1998
  18. Senge. P. M. – The Fifth Discipline 1990 ISBN 10 – 0385260946
  19. Spear. S and Bowen H. K- Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System – Harvard Business Review Sept/Oct 1999
  20. Spear. S. – Learning to Lead at Toyota – Harvard Business Review – May 2004
  21. Takeuchi H, Osono E, Shimizu N. The contradictions that drive Toyota’s success. Harvard Business Review: June 2008
  22. Torbert W.R. & Associates – Action Inquiry – The secret of timely and transforming leadership – 2004
  23. Wheeler Donald J. – Advanced Topics in Statistical Process Control – the power of Shewhart Charts – 1995


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

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?

take_a_walk_text_10710One of the barriers to improvement is jumping to judgment too quickly.

Improvement implies innovation and action …

doing something different …

and getting a better outcome.

Before an action is a decision.  Before a decision is a judgment.

And we make most judgments quickly, intuitively and unconsciously.  Our judgments are a reflection of our individual, inner view of the world. Our mental model.

So when we judge intuitively and quickly then we will actually just reinforce our current worldview … and in so doing we create a very effective barrier to learning and improvement.

We guarantee the status quo.

So how do we get around this barrier?

In essence we must train ourselves to become more consciously aware of the judgment step in our thinking process.  And one way to flush it up to the surface is to ask the deceptively powerful question … And?

When someone is thinking through a problem then an effective contribution that we can offer is to listen, reflect, summarize, clarify and to encourage by asking “And?”

This process has a name.  It is called a coaching conversation.

And anyone can learn to how do it. Anyone.