Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

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.

Have you heard the phrase “you either love it or you hate it“?  It is called the Marmite Effect.

Improvement science has Marmite-like effect on some people, or more specifically, the theory part does.

Both evidence and experience show that most people prefer to learn-by-doing first; and then consolidate their learning with the minimum, necessary amount of supporting theory.

But that is not how we usually share what we know with others.  We usually attempt to teach the theory first, perhaps in the belief that it will speed up the process of learning.

Sadly, it usually has the opposite effect. Too much theory too soon often creates a barrier to engagement. It actually slows learning down! Which was not the impact we were intending.

The implications of this is that teachers of the science of improvement need to provide a range of different ways to engage with the subject.  Complementary ways.  And leave the choice of which suits whom … to the learner.

And the way to tell if it is working is … the sound of laughter.

Why is that?

Laughing is a complex behaviour that leaves us feeling happier. Which is good.

Comedians make a living from being able to trigger this behaviour in their audiences, and we will gladly part with hard cash when we know something will make us feel better.

And laughing is one of the healthiest ways to feel better!

So why do we laugh when we are learning?

It is believed that one trigger for the laughter reaction is the sudden shift from one perspective to another.  More specifically, a mental shift that relieves a growing emotional tension.  The punch line of a really good joke for example.

And later-in-life learning is often more a process of unlearning.

When we challenge a learned assumption with evidence and if we disprove it … we are unlearning.  And doing that generates emotional tension. We are often very attached to our unconscious assumptions and will usually resist them being challenged.

The way to unlearn effectively is to use the evidence of our own eyes to raise doubts about our unconscious assumptions.  We need to actively generate a bit of confusion.

Then, we resolve the apparent paradox by creatively shifting perspective, often with a real example, a practical explanation or a hands-on demonstration.

And when we experience the “Ah ha! Now I see!” reaction, and we emerge from the fog of confusion, we will relieve the emotional tension and our involuntary reaction is to laugh.

But if our teacher unintentionally triggers a Marmite effect; a “Yeuk, I am NOT enjoying this!” feeling, then we need to respect that, and step back, and adopt a different tack.

Over the last few months I have been experimenting with different approaches to introducing the principles of improvement-by-design.

And the results are clear.

A minority prefer to start with the abstract theory, and then apply it in practice.

The majority have various degrees of Marmite reaction to the theory, and some are so put off that they actively disengage.  But when they have an opportunity to see the same principles demonstrated in a concrete, practical way; they learn and laugh.

Unlearning-by-doing seems to work better for the majority.

So, if you want to have fun and learn how to deliver significant and sustained improvements … then the evidence points to this as the starting point …

… the Flow Design Practical Skills One Day Workshop.

And if you also want to dip into a bit of the tried-and-tested theory that underpins improvement-by-design then you can do that as well, either before or later (when it becomes necessary), or both.

So, to have lots of fun and learn some valuable improvement-by-design practical skills at the same time …  click here.

This week about thirty managers and clinicians in South Wales conducted two experiments to test the design of the Flow Design Practical Skills One Day Workshop.

Their collective challenge was to diagnose and treat a “chronically sick” clinic and the majority had no prior exposure to health care systems engineering (HCSE) theory, techniques, tools or training.

Two of the group, Chris and Jat, had been delegates at a previous ODWS, and had then completed their Level-1 HCSE training and real-world projects.

They had seen it and done it, so this experiment was to test if they could now teach it.

Could they replicate the “OMG effect” that they had experienced and that fired up their passion for learning and using the science of improvement?

Read on »

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.

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.

Dr Bill Hyde was already at the bar when Bob Jekyll arrived.

Bill and  Bob had first met at university and had become firm friends, but their careers had diverged and it was only by pure chance that their paths had crossed again recently.

They had arranged to meet up for a beer and to catch up on what had happened in the 25 years since they had enjoyed the “good old times” in the university bar.

<Dr Bill> Hi Bob, what can I get you? If I remember correctly it was anything resembling real ale. Will this “Black Sheep” do?

<Bob> Hi Bill, Perfect! I’ll get the nibbles. Plain nuts OK for you?

<Dr Bill> My favourite! So what are you up to now? What doors did your engineering degree open?

<Bob> Lots!  I’ve done all sorts – mechanical, electrical, software, hardware, process, all except civil engineering. And I love it. What I do now is a sort of synthesis of all of them.  And you? Where did your medical degree lead?

<Dr Bill> To my hearts desire, the wonderful Mrs Hyde, and of course to primary care. I am a GP. I always wanted to be a GP since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.

<Bob> Yes, you always had that “I’m going to save the world one patient at a time!” passion. That must be so rewarding! Helping people who are scared witless by the health horror stories that the media pump out.  I had a fright last year when I found a lump.  My GP was great, she confidently diagnosed a “hernia” and I was all sorted in a matter of weeks with a bit of nifty day case surgery. I was convinced my time had come. It just shows how damaging the fear of the unknown can be!

<Dr Bill> Being a GP is amazingly rewarding. I love my job. But …

<Bob> But what? Are you alright Bill? You suddenly look really depressed.

<Dr Bill> Sorry Bob. I don’t want to be a damp squib. It is good to see you again, and chat about the old days when we were teased about our names.  And it is great to hear that you are enjoying your work so much. I admit I am feeling low, and frankly I welcome the opportunity to talk to someone I know and trust who is not part of the health care system. If you know what I mean?

<Bob> I know exactly what you mean.  Well, I can certainly offer an ear, “a problem shared is a problem halved” as they say. I can’t promise to do any more than that, but feel free to tell me the story, from the beginning. No blood-and-guts gory details though please!

<Dr Bill> Ha! “Tell me the story from the beginning” is what I say to my patients. OK, here goes. I feel increasingly overwhelmed and I feel like I am drowning under a deluge of patients who are banging on the practice door for appointments to see me. My intuition tells me that the problem is not the people, it is the process, but I can’t seem to see through the fog of frustration and chaos to a clear way forward.

<Bob> OK. I confess I know nothing about how your system works, so can you give me a bit more context.

<Dr Bill> Sorry. Yes, of course. I am what is called a single-handed GP and I have a list of about 1500 registered patients and I am contracted to provide primary care for them. I don’t have to do that 24 x 7, the urgent stuff that happens in the evenings and weekends is diverted to services that are designed for that. I work Monday to Friday from 9 AM to 5 PM, and I am contracted to provide what is needed for my patients, and that means face-to-face appointments.

<Bob> OK. When you say “contracted” what does that mean exactly?

<Dr Bill> Basically, the St. Elsewhere’s® Practice is like a small business. It’s annual income is a fixed amount per year for each patient on the registration list, and I have to provide the primary care service for them from that pot of cash. And that includes all the costs, including my income, our practice nurse, and the amazing Mrs H. She is the practice receptionist, manager, administrator and all-round fixer-of-anything.

<Bob> Wow! What a great design. No need to spend money on marketing, research, new product development, or advertising! Just 100% pure service delivery of tried-and-tested medical know-how to a captive audience for a guaranteed income. I have commercial customers who would cut off their right arms for an offer like that!

<Dr Bill> Really? It doesn’t feel like that to me. It feels like the more I offer, the more the patients expect. The demand is a bottomless well of wants, but the income is capped and my time is finite!

<Bob> H’mm. Tell me more about the details of how the process works.

<Dr Bill> Basically, I am a problem-solving engine. Patients phone for an appointment, Mrs H books one, the patient comes at the appointed time, I see them, and I diagnose and treat the problem, or I refer on to a specialist if it’s more complicated. That’s basically it.

<Bob> OK. Sounds a lot simpler than 99% of the processes that I’m usually involved with. So what’s the problem?

<Dr Bill> I don’t have enough capacity! After all the appointments for the day are booked Mrs H has to say “Sorry, please try again tomorrow” to every patient who phones in after that.  The patients who can’t get an appointment are not very happy and some can get quite angry. They are anxious and frustrated and I fully understand how they feel. I feel the same.

<Bob> We will come back to what you mean by “capacity”. Can you outline for me exactly how a patient is expected to get an appointment?

<Dr Bill> We tell them to phone at 8 AM for an appointment, there is a fixed number of bookable appointments, and it is first-come-first-served.  That is the only way I can protect myself from being swamped and is the fairest solution for patients.  It wasn’t my idea; it is called Advanced Access. Each morning at 8 AM we switch on the phones and brace ourselves for the daily deluge.

<Bob> You must be pulling my leg! This design is a batch-and-queue phone-in appointment booking lottery!  I guess that is one definition of “fair”.  How many patients get an appointment on the first attempt?

<Dr Bill> Not many.  The appointments are usually all gone by 9 AM and a lot are to people who have been trying to get one for several days. When they do eventually get to see me they are usually grumpy and then spring the trump card “And while I’m here doctor I have a few other things that I’ve been saving up to ask you about“. I help if I can but more often than not I have to say, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to book another appointment!“.

<Bob> I’m not surprised you patients are grumpy. I would be too. And my recollection of seeing my GP with my scary lump wasn’t like that at all. I phoned at lunch time and got an appointment the same day. Maybe I was just lucky, or maybe my GP was as worried as me. But it all felt very calm. When I arrived there was only one other patient waiting, and I was in and out in less than ten minutes – and mightily reassured I can tell you! It felt like a high quality service that I could trust if-and-when I needed it, which fortunately is very infrequently.

<Dr Bill> I dream of being able to offer a service like that! I am prepared to bet you are registered with a group practice and you see whoever is available rather than your own GP. Single-handed GPs like me who offer the old fashioned personal service are a rarity, and I can see why. We must be suckers!

<Bob> OK, so I’m starting to get a sense of this now. Has it been like this for a long time?

<Dr Bill> Yes, it has. When I was younger I was more resilient and I did not mind going the extra mile.  But the pressure is relentless and maybe I’m just getting older and grumpier.  My real fear is I end up sounding like the burned-out cynics that I’ve heard at the local GP meetings; the ones who crow about how they are counting down the days to when they can retire and gloat.

<Bob> You’re the same age as me Bill so I don’t think either of us can use retirement as an exit route, and anyway, that’s not your style. You were never a quitter at university. Your motto was always “when the going gets tough the tough get going“.

<Dr Bill> Yeah I know. That’s why it feels so frustrating. I think I lost my mojo a long time back. Maybe I should just cave in and join up with the big group practice down the road, and accept the inevitable loss of the personal service. They said they would welcome me, and my list of 1500 patients, with open arms.

<Bob> OK. That would appear to be an option, or maybe a compromise, but I’m not sure we’ve exhausted all the other options yet.  Tell me, how do you decide how long a patient needs for you to solve their problem?

<Dr Bill> That’s easy. It is ten minutes. That is the time recommended in the Royal College Guidelines.

<Bob> Eh? All patients require exactly ten minutes?

<Dr Bill> No, of course not!  That is the average time that patients need.  The Royal College did a big survey and that was what most GPs said they needed.

<Bob> Please tell me if I have got this right.  You work 9-to-5, and you carve up your day into 10-minute time-slots called “appointments” and, assuming you are allowed time to have lunch and a pee, that would be six per hour for seven hours which is 42 appointments per day that can be booked?

<Dr Bill> No. That wouldn’t work because I have other stuff to do as well as see patients. There are only 25 bookable 10-minute appointments per day.

<Bob> OK, that makes more sense. So where does 25 come from?

<Dr Bill> Ah! That comes from a big national audit. For an average GP with and average  list of 1,500 patients, the average number of patients seeking an appointment per day was found to be 25, and our practice population is typical of the national average in terms of age and deprivation.  So I set the upper limit at 25. The workload is manageable but it seems to generate a lot of unhappy patients and I dare not increase the slots because I’d be overwhelmed with the extra workload and I’m barely coping now.  I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place!

<Bob> So you have set the maximum slot-capacity to the average demand?

<Dr Bill> Yes. That’s OK isn’t it? It will average out over time. That is what average means! But it doesn’t feel like that. The chaos and pressure never seems to go away.

There was a long pause while Bob mulls over what he had heard, sips his pint of Black Sheep and nibbles on the dwindling bowl of peanuts.  Eventually he speaks.

<Bob> Bill, I have some good news and some not-so-good news and then some more good news.

<Dr Bill> Oh dear, you sound just like me when I have to share the results of tests with one of my patients at their follow up appointment. You had better give me the “bad news sandwich”!

<Bob> OK. The first bit of good news is that this is a very common, and easily treatable flow problem.  The not-so-good news is that you will need to change some things.  The second bit of good news is that the changes will not cost anything and will work very quickly.

<Dr Bill> What! You cannot be serious!! Until ten minutes ago you said that you knew nothing about how my practice works and now you are telling me that there is a quick, easy, zero cost solution.  Forgive me for doubting your engineering know-how but I’ll need a bit more convincing than that!

<Bob> And I would too if I were in your position.  The clues to the diagnosis are in the story. You said the process problem was long-standing; you said that you set the maximum slot-capacity to the average demand; and you said that you have a fixed appointment time that was decided by a subjective consensus.  From an engineering perspective, this is a perfect recipe for generating chronic chaos, which is exactly the symptoms you are describing.

<Dr Bill> Is it? OMG. You said this is well understood and resolvable? So what do I do?

<Bob> Give me a minute.  You said the average demand is 25 per day. What sort of service would you like your patients to experience? Would “90% can expect a same day appointment on the first call” be good enough as a starter?

<Dr Bill> That would be game changing!  Mrs H would be over the moon to be able to say “Yes” that often. I would feel much less anxious too, because I know the current system is a potentially dangerous lottery. And my patients would be delighted and relieved to be able to see me that easily and quickly.

<Bob> OK. Let me work this out. Based on what you’ve said, some assumptions, and a bit of flow engineering know-how; you would need to offer up to 31 appointments per day.

<Dr Bill> What! That’s impossible!!! I told you it would be impossible! That would be another hour a day of face-to-face appointments. When would I do the other stuff? And how did you work that out anyway?

<Bob> I did not say they would have to all be 10-minute appointments, and I did not say you would expect to fill them all every day. I did however say you would have to change some things.  And I did say this is a well understood flow engineering problem.  It is called “resilience design“. That’s how I was able to work it out on the back of this Black Sheep beer mat.

<Dr Bill> H’mm. That is starting to sound a bit more reasonable. What things would I have to change? Specifically?

<Bob> I’m not sure what specifically yet.  I think in your language we would say “I have taken a history, and I have a differential diagnosis, so next I’ll need to examine the patient, and then maybe do some tests to establish the actual diagnosis and to design and decide the treatment plan“.

<Dr Bill> You are learning the medical lingo fast! What do I need to do first? Brace myself for the forensic rubber-gloved digital examination?

<Bob> Alas, not yet and certainly not here. Shall we start with the vital signs? Height, weight, pulse, blood pressure, and temperature? That’s what my GP did when I went with my scary lump.  The patient here is not you, it is your St. Elsewhere’s® Practice, and we will need to translate the medical-speak into engineering-speak.  So one thing you’ll need to learn is a bit of the lingua-franca of systems engineering.  By the way, that’s what I do now. I am a systems engineer, or maybe now a health care systems engineer?

<Dr Bill> Point me in the direction of the HCSE dictionary! The next round is on me. And the nuts!

<Bob> Excellent. I’ll have another Black Sheep and some of those chilli-coated ones. We have work to do.  Let me start by explaining what “capacity” actually means to an engineer. Buckle up. This ride might get a bit bumpy.

This story is fictional, but the subject matter is factual.

Bob’s diagnosis and recommendations are realistic and reasonable.

Chapter 1 of the HCSE dictionary can be found here.

And if you are a GP who recognises these “symptoms” then this may be of interest.

Sometimes change is dramatic. A big improvement appears very quickly. And when that happens we are caught by surprise (and delight).

Our emotional reaction is much faster than our logical response. “Wow! That’s a miracle!

Our logical Tortoise eventually catches up with our emotional Hare and says “Hare, we both know that there is no such thing as miracles and magic. There must be a rational explanation. What is it?

And Hare replies “I have no idea, Tortoise.  If I did then it would not have been such a delightful surprise. You are such a kill-joy! Can’t you just relish the relief without analyzing the life out of it?

Tortoise feels hurt. “But I just want to understand so that I can explain to others. So that they can do it and get the same improvement.  Not everyone has a ‘nothing-ventured-nothing-gained’ attitude like you! Most of us are too fearful of failing to risk trusting the wild claims of improvement evangelists. We have had our fingers burned too often.

The apparent miracle is real and recent … here is a snippet of the feedback:

Notice carefully the last sentence. It took a year of discussion to get an “OK” and a month of planning to prepare the “GO”.

That is not a miracle and some magic … that took a lot of hard work!

The evangelist is the customer. The supplier is an engineer.

The context is the chronic niggle of patients trying to get an appointment with their GP, and the chronic niggle of GPs feeling overwhelmed with work.

Here is the back story …

In the opening weeks of the 21st Century, the National Primary Care Development Team (NPDT) was formed.  Primary care was a high priority and the government had allocated £168m of investment in the NHS Plan, £48m of which was earmarked to improve GP access.

The approach the NPDT chose was:

harvest best practice +
use a panel of experts +
disseminate best practice.

Dr (later Sir) John Oldham was the innovator and figure-head.  The best practice was copied from Dr Mark Murray from Kaiser Permanente in the USA – the Advanced Access model.  The dissemination method was copied from from Dr Don Berwick’s Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in Boston – the Collaborative Model.

The principle of Advanced Access is “today’s-work-today” which means that all the requests for a GP appointment are handled the same day.  And the proponents of the model outlined the key elements to achieving this:

1. Measure daily demand.
2. Set capacity so that is sufficient to meet the daily demand.
3. Simple booking rule: “phone today for a decision today”.

But that is not what was rolled out. The design was modified somewhere between aspiration and implementation and in two important ways.

First, by adding a policy of “Phone at 08:00 for an appointment”, and second by adding a policy of “carving out” appointment slots into labelled pots such as ‘Dr X’ or ‘see in 2 weeks’ or ‘annual reviews’.

Subsequent studies suggest that the tweaking happened at the GP practice level and was driven by the fear that, by reducing the waiting time, they would attract more work.

In other words: an assumption that demand for health care is supply-led, and without some form of access barrier, the system would be overwhelmed and never be able to cope.

The result of this well-intended tampering with the Advanced Access design was to invalidate it. Oops!

To a systems engineer this is meddling was counter-productive.

The “today’s work today” specification is called a demand-led design and, if implemented competently, will lead to shorter waits for everyone, no need for urgent/routine prioritization and slot carve-out, and a simpler, safer, calmer, more efficient, higher quality, more productive system.

In this context it does not mean “see every patient today” it means “assess and decide a plan for every patient today”.

In reality, the actual demand for GP appointments is not known at the start; which is why the first step is to implement continuous measurement of the daily number and category of requests for appointments.

The second step is to feed back this daily demand information in a visual format called a time-series chart.

The third step is to use this visual tool for planning future flow-capacity, and for monitoring for ‘signals’, such as spikes, shifts, cycles and slopes.

That was not part of the modified design, so the reasonable fear expressed by GPs was (and still is) that by attempting to do today’s-work-today they would unleash a deluge of unmet need … and be swamped/drowned.

So a flood defense barrier was bolted on; the policy of “phone at 08:00 for an appointment today“, and then the policy of  channeling the over spill into pots of “embargoed slots“.

The combined effect of this error of omission (omitting the measured demand visual feedback loop) and these errors of commission (the 08:00 policy and appointment slot carve-out policy) effectively prevented the benefits of the Advanced Access design being achieved.  It was a predictable failure.

But no one seemed to realize that at the time.  Perhaps because of the political haste that was driving the process, and perhaps because there were no systems engineers on the panel-of-experts to point out the risks of diluting the design.

It is also interesting to note that the strategic aim of the NPCT was to develop a self-sustaining culture of quality improvement (QI) in primary care. That didn’t seem to have happened either.

The roll out of Advanced Access was not the success it was hoped. This is the conclusion from the 300+ page research report published in 2007.

The “Miracle on Tavanagh Avenue” that was experienced this week by both patients and staff was the expected effect of this tampering finally being corrected; and the true potential of the original demand-led design being released – for all to experience.

Remember the essential ingredients?

1. Measure daily demand and feed it back as a visual time-series chart.
2. Set capacity so that is sufficient to meet the daily demand.
3. Use a simple booking rule: “phone anytime for a decision today”.

But there is also an extra design ingredient that has been added in this case, one that was not part of the original Advanced Access specification, one that frees up GP time to provide the required “resilience” to sustain a same-day service.

And that “secret” ingredient is how the new design worked so quickly and feels like a miracle – safe, calm, enjoyable and productive.

This is health care systems engineering (HCSE) in action.

So congratulations to Harry Longman, the whole team at GP Access, and to Dr Philip Lusty and the team at Riverside Practice, Tavangh Avenue, Portadown, NI.

You have demonstrated what was always possible.

The fear of failure prevented it before, just as it prevented you doing this until you were so desperate you had no other choices.

To read the fuller story click here.

PS. Keep a close eye on the demand time-series chart and if it starts to rise then investigate the root cause … immediately.

Phil and Pete are having a coffee and a chat.  They both work in the NHS and have been friends for years.

They have different jobs. Phil is a commissioner and an accountant by training, Pete is a consultant and a doctor by training.

They are discussing a challenge that affects them both on a daily basis: unscheduled care.

Both Phil and Pete want to see significant and sustained improvements and how to achieve them is often the focus of their coffee chats.

<Phil> We are agreed that we both want improvement, both from my perspective as a commissioner and from your perspective as a clinician. And we agree that what we want to see improvements in patient safety, waiting, outcomes, experience for both patients and staff, and use of our limited NHS resources.

<Pete> Yes. Our common purpose, the “what” and “why”, has never been an issue.  Where we seem to get stuck is the “how”.  We have both tried many things but, despite our good intentions, it feels like things are getting worse!

<Phil> I agree. It may be that what we have implemented has had a positive impact and we would have been even worse off if we had done nothing. But I do not know. We clearly have much to learn and, while I believe we are making progress, we do not appear to be learning fast enough.  And I think this knowledge gap exposes another “how” issue: After we have intervened, how do we know that we have (a) improved, (b) not changed or (c) worsened?

<Pete> That is a very good question.  And all that I have to offer as an answer is to share what we do in medicine when we ask a similar question: “How do I know that treatment A is better than treatment B?”  It is the essence of medical research; the quest to find better treatments that deliver better outcomes and at lower cost.  The similarities are strong.

<Phil> OK. How do you do that? How do you know that “Treatment A is better than Treatment B” in a way that anyone will trust the answer?

 <Pete> We use a science that is actually very recent on the scientific timeline; it was only firmly established in the first half of the 20th century. One reason for that is that it is rather a counter-intuitive science and for that reason it requires using tools that have been designed and demonstrated to work but which most of us do not really understand how they work. They are a bit like magic black boxes.

<Phil> H’mm. Please forgive me for sounding skeptical but that sounds like a big opportunity for making mistakes! If there are lots of these “magic black box” tools then how do you decide which one to use and how do you know you have used it correctly?

<Pete> Those are good questions! Very often we don’t know and in our collective confusion we generate a lot of unproductive discussion.  This is why we are often forced to accept the advice of experts but, I confess, very often we don’t understand what they are saying either! They seem like the medieval Magi.

<Phil> H’mm. So these experts are like ‘magicians’ – they claim to understand the inner workings of the black magic boxes but are unable, or unwilling, to explain in a language that a ‘muggle’ would understand?

<Pete> Very well put. That is just how it feels.

<Phil> So can you explain what you do understand about this magical process? That would be a start.

<Pete> OK, I will do my best.  The first thing we learn in medical research is that we need to be clear about what it is we are looking to improve, and we need to be able to measure it objectively and accurately.

<Phil> That  makes sense. Let us say we want to improve the patient’s subjective quality of the A&E experience and objectively we want to reduce the time they spend in A&E. We measure how long they wait. 

<Pete> The next thing is that we need to decide how much improvement we need. What would be worthwhile? So in the example you have offered we know that reducing the average time patients spend in A&E by just 30 minutes would have a significant effect on the quality of the patient and staff experience, and as a by-product it would also dramatically improve the 4-hour target performance.

<Phil> OK.  From the commissioning perspective there are lots of things we can do, such as commissioning alternative paths for specific groups of patients; in effect diverting some of the unscheduled demand away from A&E to a more appropriate service provider.  But these are the sorts of thing we have been experimenting with for years, and it brings us back to the question: How do we know that any change we implement has had the impact we intended? The system seems, well, complicated.

<Pete> In medical research we are very aware that the system we are changing is very complicated and that we do not have the power of omniscience.  We cannot know everything.  Realistically, all we can do is to focus on objective outcomes and collect small samples of the data ocean and use those in an attempt to draw conclusions can trust. We have to design our experiment with care!

<Phil> That makes sense. Surely we just need to measure the stuff that will tell us if our impact matches our intent. That sounds easy enough. What’s the problem?

<Pete> The problem we encounter is that when we measure “stuff” we observe patient-to-patient variation, and that is before we have made any changes.  Any impact that we may have is obscured by this “noise”.

<Phil> Ah, I see.  So if the our intervention generates a small impact then it will be more difficult to see amidst this background noise. Like trying to see fine detail in a fuzzy picture.

<Pete> Yes, exactly like that.  And it raises the issue of “errors”.  In medical research we talk about two different types of error; we make the first type of error when our actual impact is zero but we conclude from our data that we have made a difference; and we make the second type of error when we have made an impact but we conclude from our data that we have not.

<Phil> OK. So does that imply that the more “noise” we observe in our measure for-improvement before we make the change, the more likely we are to make one or other error?

<Pete> Precisely! So before we do the experiment we need to design it so that we reduce the probability of making both of these errors to an acceptably low level.  So that we can be assured that any conclusion we draw can be trusted.

<Phil> OK. So how exactly do you do that?

<Pete> We know that whenever there is “noise” and whenever we use samples then there will always be some risk of making one or other of the two types of error.  So we need to set a threshold for both. We have to state clearly how much confidence we need in our conclusion. For example, we often use the convention that we are willing to accept a 1 in 20 chance of making the Type I error.

<Phil> Let me check if I have heard you correctly. Suppose that, in reality, our change has no impact and we have set the risk threshold for a Type 1 error at 1 in 20, and suppose we repeat the same experiment 100 times – are you saying that we should expect about five of our experiments to show data that says our change has had the intended impact when in reality it has not?

<Pete> Yes. That is exactly it.

<Phil> OK.  But in practice we cannot repeat the experiment 100 times, so we just have to accept the 1 in 20 chance that we will make a Type 1 error, and we won’t know we have made it if we do. That feels a bit chancy. So why don’t we just set the threshold to 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000?

<Pete> We could, but doing that has a consequence.  If we reduce the risk of making a Type I error by setting our threshold lower, then we will increase the risk of making a Type II error.

<Phil> Ah! I see. The old swings-and-roundabouts problem. By the way, do these two errors have different names that would make it  easier to remember and to explain?

<Pete> Yes. The Type I error is called a False Positive. It is like concluding that a patient has a specific diagnosis when in reality they do not.

<Phil> And the Type II error is called a False Negative?

<Pete> Yes.  And we want to avoid both of them, and to do that we have to specify a separate risk threshold for each error.  The convention is to call the threshold for the false positive the alpha level, and the threshold for the false negative the beta level.

<Phil> OK. So now we have three things we need to be clear on before we can do our experiment: the size of the change that we need, the risk of the false positive that we are willing to accept, and the risk of a false negative that we are willing to accept.  Is that all we need?

<Pete> In medical research we learn that we need six pieces of the experimental design jigsaw before we can proceed. We only have three pieces so far.

<Phil> What are the other three pieces then?

<Pete> We need to know the average value of the metric we are intending to improve, because that is our baseline from which improvement is measured.  Improvements are often framed as a percentage improvement over the baseline.  And we need to know the spread of the data around that average, the “noise” that we referred to earlier.

<Phil> Ah, yes!  I forgot about the noise.  But that is only five pieces of the jigsaw. What is the last piece?

<Pete> The size of the sample.

<Phil> Eh?  Can’t we just go with whatever data we can realistically get?

<Pete> Sadly, no.  The size of the sample is how we control the risk of a false negative error.  The more data we have the lower the risk. This is referred to as the power of the experimental design.

<Phil> OK. That feels familiar. I know that the more experience I have of something the better my judgement gets. Is this the same thing?

<Pete> Yes. Exactly the same thing.

<Phil> OK. So let me see if I have got this. To know if the impact of the intervention matches our intention we need to design our experiment carefully. We need all six pieces of the experimental design jigsaw and they must all fall inside our circle of control. We can measure the baseline average and spread; we can specify the impact we will accept as useful; we can specify the risks we are prepared to accept of making the false positive and false negative errors; and we can collect the required amount of data after we have made the intervention so that we can trust our conclusion.

<Pete> Perfect! That is how we are taught to design research studies so that we can trust our results, and so that others can trust them too.

<Phil> So how do we decide how big the post-implementation data sample needs to be? I can see we need to collect enough data to avoid a false negative but we have to be pragmatic too. There would appear to be little value in collecting more data than we need. It would cost more and could delay knowing the answer to our question.

<Pete> That is precisely the trap than many inexperienced medical researchers fall into. They set their sample size according to what is achievable and affordable, and then they hope for the best!

<Phil> Well, we do the same. We analyse the data we have and we hope for the best.  In the magical metaphor we are asking our data analysts to pull a white rabbit out of the hat.  It sounds rather irrational and unpredictable when described like that! Have medical researchers learned a way to avoid this trap?

<Pete> Yes, it is a tool called a power calculator.

<Phil> Ooooo … a power tool … I like the sound of that … that would be a cool tool to have in our commissioning bag of tricks. It would be like a magic wand. Do you have such a thing?

<Pete> Yes.

<Phil> And do you understand how the power tool magic works well enough to explain to a “muggle”?

<Pete> Not really. To do that means learning some rather unfamiliar language and some rather counter-intuitive concepts.

<Phil> Is that the magical stuff I hear lurks between the covers of a medical statistics textbook?

<Pete> Yes. Scary looking mathematical symbols and unfathomable spells!

<Phil> Oh dear!  Is there another way for to gain a working understanding of this magic? Something a bit more pragmatic? A path that a ‘statistical muggle’ might be able to follow?

<Pete> Yes. It is called a simulator.

<Phil> You mean like a flight simulator that pilots use to learn how to control a jumbo jet before ever taking a real one out for a trip?

<Pete> Exactly like that.

<Phil> Do you have one?

<Pete> Yes. It was how I learned about this “stuff” … pragmatically.

<Phil> Can you show me?

<Pete> Of course.  But to do that we will need a bit more time, another coffee, and maybe a couple of those tasty looking Danish pastries.

<Phil> A wise investment I’d say.  I’ll get the the coffee and pastries, if you fire up the engines of the simulator.

The immortal words from Apollo 13 that alerted us to an evolving catastrophe …

… and that is what we are seeing in the UK health and social care system … using the thermometer of A&E 4-hour performance. England is the red line.


The chart shows that this is not a sudden change, it has been developing over quite a long period of time … so why does it feel like an unpleasant surprise?

One reason may be that NHS England is using performance management techniques that were out of date in the 1980’s and are obsolete in the 2010’s!

Let me show you what I mean. This is a snapshot from the NHS England Board Minutes for November 2016.

RAG stands for Red-Amber-Green and what we want to see on a Risk Assessment is Green for the most important stuff like safety, flow, quality and affordability.

We are not seeing that.  We are seeing Red/Amber for all of them. It is an evolving catastrophe.

A risk RAG chart is an obsolete performance management tool.

Here is another snippet …


This demonstrates the usual mix of single point aggregates for the most recent month (October 2016); an arbitrary target (4 hours) used as a threshold to decide failure/not failure; two-point comparisons (October 2016 versus October 2015); and a sprinkling of ratios. Not a single time-series chart in sight. No pictures that tell a story.

Click here for the full document (which does also include some very sensible plans to maintain hospital flow through the bank holiday period).

The risk of this way of presenting system performance data is that it is a minefield of intuitive traps for the unwary.  Invisible pitfalls that can lead to invalid conclusions, unwise decisions, potentially ineffective and/or counter-productive actions, and failure to improve. These methods are risky and that is why they should be obsolete.

And if NHSE is using obsolete tools than what hope do CCGs and Trusts have?

Much better tools have been designed.  Tools that are used by organisations that are innovative, resilient, commercially successful and that deliver safety, on-time delivery, quality and value for money. At the same time.

And they are obsolete outside the NHS because in the competitive context of the dog-eat-dog real world, organisations do not survive if they do not innovate, improve and learn as fast as their competitors.  They do not have the luxury of being shielded from reality by having a central tax-funded monopoly!

And please do not misinterpret my message here; I am a 100% raving fan of the NHS ethos of “available to all and free at the point of delivery” and an NHS that is funded centrally and fairly. That is not my issue.

My issue is the continued use of obsolete performance management tools in the NHS.

Q: So what are the alternatives? What do the successful commercial organisations use instead?

A: System behaviour charts.

SBCs are pictures of how the system is behaving over time – pictures that tell a story – pictures that have meaning – pictures that we can use to diagnose, design and deliver a better outcome than the one we are heading towards.

Pictures like the A&E performance-over-time chart above.

Click here for more on how and why.

Therefore, if the DoH, NHSE, NHSI, STPs, CCGs and Trust Boards want to achieve their stated visions and missions then the writing-on-the-wall says that they will need to muster some humility and learn how successful organisations do this.

This is not a comfortable message to hear and it is easier to be defensive than receptive.

The NHS has to change if it wants to survive and continue serve the people who pay the salaries. And time is running out. Continuing as we are is not an option. Complaining and blaming are not options. Doing nothing is not an option.

Learning is the only option.

Anyone can learn to use system behaviour charts.  No one needs to rely on averages, two-point comparisons, ratios, targets, and the combination of failure-metrics and us-versus-them-benchmarking that leads to the chronic mediocrity trap.

And there is hope for those with enough hunger, humility and who are prepared to do the hard-work of developing their personal, team, department and organisational capability to use better management methods.

Apollo 13 is a true story.  The catastrophe was averted.  The astronauts were brought home safely.  The film retells the story of how that miracle was achieved. Perhaps watching the whole film would be somewhere to start, because it holds many valuable lessons for us all – lessons on how effective teams behave.

motorway[Beep] Bob’s computer alerted him to Leslie signing on to the Webex session.

<Bob> Good afternoon Leslie, how are you? It seems a long time since we last chatted.

<Leslie> Hi Bob. I am well and it has been a long time. If you remember, I had to loop out of the Health Care Systems Engineering training because I changed job, and it has taken me a while to bring a lot of fresh skeptics around to the idea of improvement-by-design.

<Bob> Good to hear, and I assume you did that by demonstrating what was possible by doing it, delivering results, and describing the approach.

<Leslie> Yup. And as you know, even with objective evidence of improvement it can take a while because that exposes another gap, the one between intent and impact.  Many people get rather defensive at that point, so I have had to take it slowly. Some people get really fired up though.

 <Bob> Yes. Respect, challenge, patience and persistence are all needed. So, where shall we pick up?

<Leslie> The old chestnut of winter pressures and A&E targets.  Except that it is an all-year problem now and according to what I read in the news, everyone is predicting a ‘melt-down’.

<Bob> Did you see last week’s IS blog on that very topic?

<Leslie> Yes, I did!  And that is what prompted me to contact you and to re-start my CHIPs coaching.  It was a real eye opener.  I liked the black swan code-named “RC9” story, it makes it sound like a James Bond film!

<Bob> I wonder how many people dug deeper into how “RC9” achieved that rock-steady A&E performance despite a rising tide of arrivals and admissions?

<Leslie> I did, and I saw several examples of anti-carve-out design.  I have read though my notes and we have talked about carve out many times.

<Bob> Excellent. Being able to see the signs of competent design is just as important as the symptoms of inept design. So, what shall we talk about?

<Leslie> Well, by co-incidence I was sent a copy of of a report entitled “Understanding patient flow in hospitals” published by one of the leading Think Tanks and I confess it made no sense to me.  Can we talk about that?

<Bob> OK. Can you describe the essence of the report for me?

<Leslie> Well, in a nutshell it said that flow needs space so if we want hospitals to flow better we need more space, in other words more beds.

<Bob> And what evidence was presented to support that hypothesis?

<Leslie> The authors equated the flow of patients through a hospital to the flow of traffic on a motorway. They presented a table of numbers that made no sense to me, I think partly because there are no units stated for some of the numbers … I’ll email you a picture.


<Bob> I agree this is not a very informative table.  I am not sure what the definition of “capacity” is here and it may be that the authors may be equating “hospital bed” to “area of tarmac”.  Anyway, the assertion that hospital flow is equivalent to motorway flow is inaccurate.  There are some similarities and traffic engineering is an interesting subject, but they are not equivalent.  A hospital is more like a busy city with junctions, cross-roads, traffic lights, roundabouts, zebra crossings, pelican crossings and all manner of unpredictable factors such as cyclists and pedestrians. Motorways are intentionally designed without these “impediments”, for obvious reasons! A complex adaptive flow system like a hospital cannot be equated to a motorway. It is a dangerous over-simplification.

<Leslie> So, if the hospital-motorway analogy is invalid then the conclusions are also invalid?

<Bob> Sometimes, by accident, we get a valid conclusion from an invalid method. What were the conclusions?

<Leslie> That the solution to improving A&E performance is more space (i.e. hospital beds) but there is no more money to build them or people to staff them.  So the recommendations are to reduce volume, redesign rehabilitation and discharge processes, and improve IT systems.

<Bob> So just re-iterating the habitual exhortations and nothing about using well-understood systems engineering methods to accurately diagnose the actual root cause of the ‘symptoms’, which is likely to be the endemic carveoutosis multiforme, and then treat accordingly?

<Leslie> No. I could not find the term “carve out” anywhere in the document.

<Bob> Oh dear.  Based on that observation, I do not believe this latest Think Tank report is going to be any more effective than the previous ones.  Perhaps asking “RC9” to write an account of what they did and how they learned to do it would be more informative?  They did not reduce volume, and I doubt they opened more beds, and their annual report suggests they identified some space and flow carveoutosis and treated it. That is what a competent systems engineer would do.

<Leslie> Thanks Bob. Very helpful as always. What is my next step?

<Bob> Some ISP-2 brain-teasers, a juicy ISP-2 project, and some one day training workshops for your all-fired-up CHIPs.

<Leslie> Bring it on!

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reading_a_book_pa_150_wht_3136An effective way to improve is to learn from others who have demonstrated the capability to achieve what we seek.  To learn from success.

Another effective way to improve is to learn from those who are not succeeding … to learn from failures … and that means … to learn from our own failings.

But from an early age we are socially programmed with a fear of failure.

The training starts at school where failure is not tolerated, nor is challenging the given dogma.  Paradoxically, the effect of our fear of failure is that our ability to inquire, experiment, learn, adapt, and to be resilient to change is severely impaired!

So further failure in the future becomes more likely, not less likely. Oops!

Fortunately, we can develop a healthier attitude to failure and we can learn how to harness the gap between intent and impact as a source of energy, creativity, innovation, experimentation, learning, improvement and growing success.

And health care provides us with ample opportunities to explore this unfamiliar terrain. The creative domain of the designer and engineer.

The scatter plot below is a snapshot of the A&E 4 hr target yield for all NHS Trusts in England for the month of July 2016.  The required “constitutional” performance requirement is better than 95%.  The delivered whole system average is 85%.  The majority of Trusts are failing, and the Trust-to-Trust variation is rather wide. Oops!

This stark picture of the gap between intent (95%) and impact (85%) prompts some uncomfortable questions:

Q1: How can one Trust achieve 98% and yet another can do no better than 64%?

Q2: What can all Trusts learn from these high and low flying outliers?

[NB. I have not asked the question “Who should we blame for the failures?” because the name-shame-blame-game is also a predictable consequence of our fear-of-failure mindset.]

Let us dig a bit deeper into the information mine, and as we do that we need to be aware of a trap:

A snapshot-in-time tells us very little about how the system and the set of interconnected parts is behaving-over-time.

We need to examine the time-series charts of the outliers, just as we would ask for the temperature, blood pressure and heart rate charts of our patients.

Here are the last six years by month A&E 4 hr charts for a sample of the high-fliers. They are all slightly different and we get the impression that the lower two are struggling more to stay aloft more than the upper two … especially in winter.

And here are the last six years by month A&E 4 hr charts for a sample of the low-fliers.  The Mark I Eyeball Test results are clear … these swans are falling out of the sky!

So we need to generate some testable hypotheses to explain these visible differences, and then we need to examine the available evidence to test them.

One hypothesis is “rising demand”.  It says that “the reason our A&E is failing is because demand on A&E is rising“.

Another hypothesis is “slow flow”.  It says that “the reason our A&E is failing is because of the slow flow through the hospital because of delayed transfers of care (DTOCs)“.

So, if these hypotheses account for the behaviour we are observing then we would predict that the “high fliers” are (a) diverting A&E arrivals elsewhere, and (b) reducing admissions to free up beds to hold the DTOCs.

Let us look at the freely available data for the highest flyer … the green dot on the scatter gram … code-named “RC9”.

The top chart is the A&E arrivals per month.

The middle chart is the A&E 4 hr target yield per month.

The bottom chart is the emergency admissions per month.

Both arrivals and admissions are increasing, while the A&E 4 hr target yield is rock steady!

And arranging the charts this way allows us to see the temporal patterns more easily (and the images are deliberately arranged to show the overall pattern-over-time).

Patterns like the change-for-the-better that appears in the middle of the winter of 2013 (i.e. when many other trusts were complaining that their sagging A&E performance was caused by “winter pressures”).

The objective evidence seems to disprove the “rising demand”, “slow flow” and “winter pressure” hypotheses!

So what can we learn from our failure to adequately explain the reality we are seeing?

The trust code-named “RC9” is Luton and Dunstable, and it is an average district general hospital, on the surface.  So to reveal some clues about what actually happened there, we need to read their Annual Report for 2013-14.  It is a public document and it can be downloaded here.

This is just a snippet …

… and there are lots more knowledge nuggets like this in there …

… it is a treasure trove of well-known examples of good system flow design.

The results speak for themselves!

Q: How many black swans does it take to disprove the hypothesis that “all swans are white”.

A: Just one.

“RC9” is a black swan. An outlier. A positive deviant. “RC9” has disproved the “impossibility” hypothesis.

And there is another flock of black swans living in the North East … in the Newcastle area … so the “Big cities are different” hypothesis does not hold water either.

The challenge here is a human one.  A human factor.  Our learned fear of failure.

Learning-how-to-fail is the way to avoid failing-how-to-learn.

And to read more about that radical idea I strongly recommend reading the recently published book called Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.

It starts with a powerful story about the impact of human factors in health care … and here is a short video of Martin Bromiley describing what happened.

The “black box” that both Martin and Matthew refer to is the one that is used in air accident investigations to learn from what happened, and to use that learning to design safer aviation systems.

Martin Bromiley has founded a charity to support the promotion of human factors in clinical training, the Clinical Human Factors Group.

So if we can muster the courage and humility to learn how to do this in health care for patient safety, then we can also learn to how do it for flow, quality and productivity.

Our black swan called “RC9” has demonstrated that this goal is attainable.

And the body of knowledge needed to do this already exists … it is called Health and Social Care Systems Engineering (HSCSE).

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Postscript: And I am pleased to share that Luton & Dunstable features in the House of Commons Health Committee report entitled Winter Pressures in A&E Departments that was published on 3rd Nov 2016.

Here is part of what L&D shared to explain their deviant performance:


These points describe rather well the essential elements of a pull design, which is the antidote to the rather more prevalent pressure cooker design.

database_transferring_data_150_wht_10400It has been a busy week.

And a common theme has cropped up which I have attempted to capture in the diagram below.

It relates to how the NHS measures itself and how it “drives” improvement.

The measures are called “failure metrics” – mortality, infections, pressure sores, waiting time breaches, falls, complaints, budget overspends.  The list is long.

The data for a specific trust are compared with an arbitrary minimum acceptable standard to decide where the organisation is on the Red-Amber-Green scale.

If we are in the red zone on the RAG chart … we get a kick.  If not we don’t.

The fear of being bullied and beaten raises the emotional temperature and the internal pressure … which drives movement to get away from the pain.  A nematode worm will behave this way. They are not stupid either.

As as we approach the target line our RAG indicator turns “amber” … this is the “not statistically significant zone” … and now the stick is being waggled, ready in case the light goes red again.

So we muster our reserves of emotional energy and we PUSH until our RAG chart light goes green … but then we have to hold it there … which is exhausting.  One pain is replaced by another.

The next step is for the population of NHS nematodes to be compared with each other … they must be “bench-marked”, and some are doing better than others … as we might expect. We have done our “sadistics” training courses.

The bottom 5% or 10% line is used to set the “arbitrary minimum standard target” … and the top 10% are feted at national award ceremonies … and feast on the envy of the other 90 or 95% of “losers”.

The Cream of the Crop now have a big tick in their mission statement objectives box “To be in the Top 10% of Trusts in the UK“.  Hip hip huzzah.

And what has this system design actually achieved? The Cream of the Crap.


It is said that every system is perfectly designed to deliver what it delivers.

And a system that has been designed to only use failure and fear to push improvement can only ever achieve chronic mediocrity – either chaotic mediocrity or complacent mediocrity.

So, if we actually do want to tap into the vast zone of unfulfilled potential, and if we do actually want to escape the perpetual pain of the Cream of the Crap Trap forever … we need a better system design.

So we need some system engineers to help us do that.

And this week I met some … at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London … and it felt like finding a candle of hope in the darkness of despair.

I said it had been a busy week!

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This 100 second video of the late Russell Ackoff is solid gold!

In it he describes the DIKUW hierarchy – data, information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom – and how it is critical to put effectiveness before efficiency.

A wise objective is a purpose … the intended outcome … and a well designed system will be both effective and efficient.  That is the engineers definition of productivity.  Doing the right thing first, and doing it right second.

So how do we transform data into wisdom? What are needs to be added or taken away? What is the process?

Data is what we get from our senses.

To convert data into information we add context.

To convert information into knowledge we use memory.

To convert knowledge into understanding we need to learn-by-doing.

And the test of understanding is to be able to teach someone else what we know and to be able to support them developing an understanding through practice.

To convert understanding into wisdom requires years of experience of seeing, doing and teaching.

There are no short cuts.

So the sooner we start learning-by-doing the quicker we will develop the wisdom of purpose, and the understanding of process.

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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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This is a snapshot of an experiment in progress.  The question being asked is “Can consultant surgeons be trained to be system flow designers in one day?”

On the left are Kate Silvester and Phil Debenham … their doctor/trainers. On the right are some brave volunteer consultant surgeons.

It is a tense moment. The focused concentration is palpable. It is a tough design assignment … a chronically chaotic one-stop outpatient clinic. They know it well.

They have the raw, unprocessed, data and they are deep into diagnosis mode.  On the other side of the room is another team of consultant surgeon volunteers who are struggling with the same challenge. Competition is in the air. Reputations are on the line. The game is on.

They are racing to generate this … a process template chart … that illustrates the conversion of raw event data into something visible and meaningful. A Gantt chart.

Their tools are basic – coloured pens and squared paper – just as Henry L. Gantt used in 1916 – a hundred years ago.

Hidden in this Gantt chart is the diagnosis, the open door to the path to improving this clinic design.  It is as plain as the nose on your face … if you know what to look for. They don’t. Well, … not yet.

Skip forwards to later in the experiment. Both teams have solved the ‘impossible’ problem. They have diagnosed the system design flaw that was causing the queues, chaos and waiting … and they have designed and verified a solution. With no more than squared paper and coloured pens.  Henry G would be delighted.

And they are justifiably proud of their achievement because, when they tested their design in the real world, it showed that the queues and chaos had “evaporated”.  And it cost … nothing.

At the start of the experiment they were unaware of what was possible. At the end of the experiment they knew how to do it. In one day.

The question: ‘”Can consultant surgeons be trained to be system flow designers in one day?”

The answer: “Yes”

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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.

stick_figure_help_button_150_wht_9911Imagine this scenario:

You develop some non-specific symptoms.

You see your GP who refers you urgently to a 2 week clinic.

You are seen, assessed, investigated and informed that … you have cancer!

The shock, denial, anger, blame, bargaining, depression, acceptance sequence kicks off … it is sometimes called the Kübler-Ross grief reaction … and it is a normal part of the human psyche.

But there is better news. You also learn that your condition is probably treatable, but that it will require chemotherapy, and that there are no guarantees of success.

You know that time is of the essence … the cancer is growing.

And time has a new relevance for you … it is called life time … and you know that you may not have as much left as you had hoped.  Every hour is precious.

So now imagine your reaction when you attend your local chemotherapy day unit (CDU) for your first dose of chemotherapy and have to wait four hours for the toxic but potentially life-saving drugs.

They are very expensive and they have a short shelf-life so the NHS cannot afford to waste any.   The Aseptic Unit team wait until all the safety checks are OK before they proceed to prepare your chemotherapy.  That all takes time, about four hours.

Once the team get to know you it will go quicker. Hopefully.

It doesn’t.

The delays are not the result of unfamiliarity … they are the result of the design of the process.

All your fellow patients seem to suffer repeated waiting too, and you learn that they have been doing so for a long time.  That seems to be the way it is.  The waiting room is well used.

Everyone seems resigned to the belief that this is the best it can be.

They are not happy about it but they feel powerless to do anything.

Then one day someone demonstrates that it is not the best it can be.

It can be better.  A lot better!

And they demonstrate that this better way can be designed.

And they demonstrate that they can learn how to design this better way.

And they demonstrate what happens when they apply their new learning …

… by doing it and by sharing their story of “what-we-did-and-how-we-did-it“.


If life time is so precious, why waste it?

And perhaps the most surprising outcome was that their safer, quicker, calmer design was also 20% more productive.

growing_workload_anim_6858There is a very easy and quick-to-cook recipe for chaos.

All we have to do is to ensure that the maximum number of jobs that we can do in a given time is set equal to the average number of jobs that we are required to do in the same period of time.


That does not make sense.  Our intuition says that looks like the perfect recipe for a hyper-efficient, zero-waste, zero idle-time design which is what we want.

I know it does, but it isn’t.  Our intuition is tricking us.

It is the recipe for chaos – and to prove it all we will have to do a real world experiment – because to prove it using maths is really difficult. So difficult in fact that the formula was not revealed until 1962 – by a mathematician called John Kingman while a postgraduate student at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

The empirical experiment is very easy to do – all we need is a single step process – and a stream of jobs to do.

And we could do it for real, or we can simulate it using an Excel spreadsheet – which is much quicker.

So we set up our spreadsheet to simulate a new job arriving every X minutes and each job taking X minutes to complete.

Our operator can only do one job at a time so if a job arrives and the operator is busy the job joins the back of a queue of jobs and waits.

When the operator finishes a job it takes the next one from the front of the queue, the one that has been waiting longest.

And if there is no queue the operator will wait until the next job arrives.


And when we run simulation the we see that there is indeed no queue, no jobs waiting and the operator is always busy (i.e. 100% utilised). Perfection!

BUT ….

This is not a realistic scenario.  In reality there is always some random variation.  Not all jobs require the same length of time, and jobs do not arrive at precisely the right intervals.

No matter, our confident intuition tells us. It will average out.  Swings-and-roundabouts. Give-and-take.

It doesn’t.

And if you do not believe me just build the simple Excel model outlined above, verify that it works, then add some random variation to the time it takes to do each job … and observe what happens to the average waiting time.

What you will discover is that as soon as we add even a small amount of random variation we get a queue, and waiting and idle resources as well!

But not a steady, stable, predictable queue … Oh No! … We get an unsteady, unstable and unpredictable queue … we get chaos.

Try it.

So what? How does this abstract ‘queue theory’ apply to the real world?

Well, suppose we have a single black box system called ‘a hospital’ – patients arrive and we work hard to diagnose and treat them.  And so long as we have enough resource-time to do all the jobs we are OK. No unstable queues. No unpredictable waiting.

But time-costs-money and we have an annual cost improvement target (CIP) that we are required to meet so we need to ‘trim’ resource-time capacity to push up resource utilisation.  And we will call that an ‘efficiency improvement’ which is good … yes?

It isn’t actually.  I can just as easily push up my ‘utilisation’ by working slower, or doing stuff I do not need to, or by making mistakes that I have to check for and then correct.  I can easily make myself busier and delude myself I am working harder.

And we are also a victim of our own success … the better we do our job … the longer people live and the more workload they put on the health and social care system.

So we have the perfect storm … the perfect recipe for chaos … slowly rising demand … slowly shrinking budgets … and an inefficient ‘business’ design.

And that in a nutshell is the reason the NHS is descending into chaos.

So what is the solution?

Reduce demand? Stop people getting sick? Or make them sicker so they die quicker?

Increase budgets? Where will the money come from? Beg? Borrow? Steal? Economic growth?

Improve the design?  Now there’s a thought. But how? By using the same beliefs and behaviours that have created the current chaos?

Maybe we need to challenge some invalid beliefs and behaviours … and replace those that fail the Reality Test with some more effective ones.



This week I had the great pleasure of watching Dr Don Berwick sharing the story of his own ‘near religious experience‘ and his conversion to a belief that a Science of Improvement exists.  In 1986, Don attended one of W.Edwards Deming’s famous 4-day workshops.  It was an emotional roller coaster ride for Don! See here for a link to the whole video … it is worth watching all of it … the best bit is at the end.

Don outlines Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge (SoPK) and explores each part in turn. Here is a summary of SoPK from the Deming website.


W.Edwards Deming was a physicist and statistician by training and his deep understanding of variation and appreciation for a system flows from that.  He was not trained as a biologist, psychologist or educationalist and those parts of the SoPK appear to have emerged later.

Here are the summaries of these parts – psychology first …


Neurobiologists and psychologists now know that we are the product of our experiences and our learning. What we think consciously is just the emergent tip of a much bigger cognitive iceberg. Most of what is happening is operating out of awareness. It is unconscious.  Our outward behaviour is just a visible manifestation of deeply ingrained values and beliefs that we have learned – and reinforced over and over again.  Our conscious thoughts are emergent effects.

So how do we learn?  How do we accumulate these values and beliefs?

This is the summary of Deming’s Theory of Knowledge …


But to a biologist, neuroanatomist, neurophysiologist, doctor, system designer and improvement coach … this does not feel correct.

At the most fundamental biological level we do not learn by starting with a theory; we start with a sensory.  The simplest element of the animal learning system – the nervous system – is called a reflex arc.

Sensor_Processor_EffectorFirst, we have some form of sensor to gather data from the outside world. Eyes, ears, smell, taste, touch, temperature, pain and so on.  Let us consider pain.

That signal is transmitted via a sensory nerve to the processor, the grey matter in this diagram, where it is filtered, modified, combined with other data, filtered again and a binary output generated. Act or Not.

If the decision is ‘Act’ then this signal is transmitted by a motor nerve to an effector, in this case a muscle, which results in an action.  The muscle twitches or contracts and that modifies the outside world – we pull away from the source of pain.  It is a harm avoidance design. Damage-limitation. Self-preservation.

Another example of this sensor-processor-effector design template is a knee-jerk reflex, so-named because if we tap the tendon just below the knee we can elicit a reflex contraction of the thigh muscle.  It is actually part of a very complicated, dynamic, musculoskeletal stability cybernetic control system that allows us to stand, walk and run … with almost no conscious effort … and no conscious awareness of how we are doing it.

But we are not born able to walk. As youngsters we do not start with a theory of how to walk from which we formulate a plan. We see others do it and we attempt to emulate them. And we fail repeatedly. Waaaaaaah! But we learn.

Human learning starts with study. We then process the sensory data using our internal mental model – our rhetoric; we then decide on an action based on our ‘current theory’; and then we act – on the external world; and then we observe the effect.  And if we sense a difference between our expectation and our experience then that triggers an ‘adjustment’ of our internal model – so next time we may do better because our rhetoric and the reality are more in sync.

The biological sequence is Study-Adjust-Plan-Do-Study-Adjust-Plan-Do and so on, until we have achieved our goal; or until we give up trying to learn.

So where does psychology come in?

Well, sometimes there is a bigger mismatch between our rhetoric and our reality. The world does not behave as we expect and predict. And if the mismatch is too great then we are left with feelings of confusion, disappointment, frustration and fear.  (PS. That is our unconscious mind telling us that there is a big rhetoric-reality mismatch).

We can see the projection of this inner conflict on the face of a child trying to learn to walk.  They screw up their faces in conscious effort, and they fall over, and they hurt themselves and they cry.  But they do not want us to do it for them … they want to learn to do it for themselves. Clumsily at first but better with practice. They get up and try again … and again … learning on each iteration.

Study-Adjust-Plan-Do over and over again.

There is another way to avoid the continual disappointment, frustration and anxiety of learning.  We can distort our sensation of external reality to better fit with our internal rhetoric.  When we do that the inner conflict goes away.

We learn how to tamper with our sensory filters until what we perceive is what we believe. Inner calm is restored (while outer chaos remains or increases). We learn the psychological defense tactics of denial and blame.  And we practice them until they are second-nature. Unconscious habitual reflexes. We build a reality-distortion-system (RDS) and it has a name – the Ladder of Inference.

And then one day, just by chance, somebody or something bypasses our RDS … and that is the experience that Don Berwick describes.

Don went to a 4-day workshop to hear the wisdom of W.Edwards Deming first hand … and he was forced by the reality he saw to adjust his inner model of the how the world works. His rhetoric.  It was a stormy transition!

The last part of his story is the most revealing.  It exposes that his unconscious mind got there first … and it was his conscious mind that needed to catch up.

Study-(Adjust)-Plan-Do … over-and-over again.

In Don’s presentation he suggests that Frederick W. Taylor is the architect of the failure of modern management. This is a commonly held belief, and everyone is equally entitled to an opinion, that is a definition of mutual respect.

But before forming an individual opinion on such a fundamental belief we should study the raw evidence. The words written by the person who wrote them not just the words written by those who filtered the reality through their own perceptual lenses.  Which we all do.

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!

SaveTheNHSGameThe first step in the process of improvement is raising awareness, and this has to be done carefully.

Most of us spend most of our time in a mental state called blissful ignorance.  We are happily unaware of the problems, and of their solutions.

Some of us spend some of our time in a different mental state called denial.

And we enter that from yet another mental state called painful awareness.

By raising awareness we are deliberately nudging ourselves, and others, out of our comfort zones.

But suddenly moving from blissful ignorance to painful awareness is not a comfortable transition. It feels like a shock. We feel confused. We feel vulnerable. We feel frightened. And we have a choice: freeze, flee or fight.

Freeze is shock. We feel paralysed by the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

Flee is denial.  We run away from a new and uncomfortable reality.

Fight is anger. Directed first at others (blame) and then at ourselves (guilt).

It is this anger-passion that we must learn to channel and focus as determination to listen, learn and then lead.

The picture is of a recent awareness-raising event; it happened this week.

The audience is a group of NHS staff from across the depth and breadth of a health and social care system.

On the screen is the ‘Save the NHS Game’.  It is an interactive, dynamic flow simulation of a whole health care system; and its purpose is educational.  It is designed to illustrate the complex and counter-intuitive flow behaviour of a system of interdependent parts: primary care, an acute hospital, intermediate care, residential care, and so on.

We all became aware of a lot of unfamiliar concepts in a short space of time!

We all learned that a flow system can flip from calm to chaotic very quickly.

We all learned that a small change in one part of a system of interdependent parts can have a big effect in another part – either harmful or beneficial and often both.

We all learned that there is often a long time-lag between the change and the effect.

We all learned that we cannot reverse the effect just by reversing the change.

And we all learned that this high sensitivity to small changes is the result of the design of our system; i.e. our design.

Learning all that in one go was a bit of a shock!  Especially the part where we realised that we had, unintentionally, created near perfect conditions for chaos to emerge. Oh dear!

Denial felt like a very reasonable option; as did blame and guilt.

What emerged was a collective sense of determination.  “Let’s Do It!” captured the mood.

puzzle_lightbulb_build_PA_150_wht_4587The second step in the process of improvement is to show the door to the next phase of learning; the phase called ‘know how’.

This requires demonstrating that there is an another way out of the zone of painful awareness.  An alternative to denial.

This is where how-to-diagnose-and-correct-the-design-flaws needs to be illustrated. A step-at-a-time.

And when that happens it feels like a light bulb has been switched on.  What before was obscure and confusing suddenly becomes clear and understandable; and we say ‘Ah ha!’

So, if we deliberately raise awareness about a problem then, as leaders of change and improvement, we also have the responsibility to raise awareness about feasible solutions.

Because only then are we able to ask “Would we like to learn how to do this ourselves!”

And ‘Yes, please’ is what 68% of the people said after attending the awareness raising event.  Only 15% said ‘No, thank you’ and only 17% abstained.

Raising awareness is the first step to improvement.
Choosing the path out of the pain towards knowledge is the second.
And taking the first step on that path is the third.

british_pound_money_three_bundled_stack_400_wht_2425This week I conducted an experiment – on myself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Dr_Bob_ThumbnailDr Bob runs a Clinic for Sick Systems and is sharing the story of a recent case – a hospital that has presented with chronic pain in their A&E department.

It is a complicated story so Dr Bob is presenting it in bite-sized bits that only require a few minutes to read. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

To summarise the case history so far:

The patient is St.Elsewhere’s® Hospital, a medium sized district general hospital situated in mid-England. StE has a type-1 A&E Department that receives about 200 A&E arrivals per day which is rather average. StE is suffering with chronic pain – specifically the emotional, operational, cultural and financial pain caused by failing their 4-hour A&E target. Their Paymasters and Inspectors have the thumbscrews on, and each quarter … when StE publish their performance report that shows they have failed their A&E target (again) … the thumbscrews are tightened a few more clicks. Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh.

Dr Bob has discovered that StE routinely collect data on when individual patients arrive in A&E and when they depart, and that they use this information for three purposes:
1) To calculate their daily and quarterly 4-hour target failure rate.
2) To create action plans that they believe will eliminate their pain-of-failure.
3) To expedite patients who are approaching the 4-hour target – because that eases the pain.

But the action plans do not appear to have worked and, despite their heroic expeditionary effort, the chronic pain is getting worse. StE is desperate and has finally accepted that it needs help. The Board are worried that they might not survive the coming winter storm and when they hear whispers of P45s being armed and aimed by the P&I then they are finally scared enough to seek professional advice. So they Choose&Book an urgent appointment at Dr Bob’s clinic … and they want a solution yesterday … but they fear the worst. They fear discovering that there is no solution!

The Board, the operational managers and the senior clinicians feel like they are between a rock and a hard place.  If Dr Bob’s diagnosis is ‘terminal’ then they cannot avert the launch of the P45’s and it is Game Over for the Board and probably for StE as well.  And if Dr Bob’s diagnosis is ‘treatable’ then they cannot avert accepting the painful exposure of their past and present ineptitude – particularly if the prescribed humble pie is swallowed and has the desired effect of curing the A&E pain.

So whatever the diagnosis they appear to have an uncomfortable choice: leave or learn?

Dr Bob has been looking at the A&E data for one typical week that StE have shared.

And Dr Bob knows what to look for … the footprint of a dangerous yet elusive disease. A characteristic sign that doctors have a name for … a pathognomic sign.

Dr Bob is looking for the Horned Gaussian … and has found it!

So now Dr Bob has to deliver the bittersweet news to the patient.

<Dr Bob> Hello again. Please sit down and make yourselves comfortable. As you know I have been doing some tests on the A&E data that you shared.  I have the results of those tests and I need to be completely candid with you. There is good news and there is not-so-good news.


Would you like to hear this news and if so … in what order?

<StE> Oh dear. We were hoping there was only good news so perhaps we should start there.

<Dr Bob> OK.  The good news is that you appear to be suffering from a treatable disease. The data shows the unmistakable footprint of a Horned Gaussian.

<StE> Phew! Thank the Stars! That is what we had hoped and prayed for! Thank you so much. You cannot imagine how much better we feel already.  But what is the not-so-good news?

<Dr Bob> The not-so-good news is that the disease is iatrogenic which is medical jargon for self-inflicted.  And I appreciate that you did not do this knowingly so you should not feel guilt or blame for doing things that you did not know are self-defeating.


And in order to treat this disease we have to treat the root cause and that implies you have a simple choice to make.

<StE> Actually, what you are saying does not come as a surprise. We have sensed for some time that there was something that we did not really understand but we have been so consumed by fighting-the-fire that we have prevaricated in grasping that nettle.  And we think we know what the choice is: to leave or to learn. Continuing as we are is no longer an option.

<Dr Bob> You are correct.  That is the choice.

StE confers and unanimously choose to take the more courageous path … they choose to learn.

<StE> We choose to learn. Can we start immediately? Can you teach us about the Horned Gaussian?

<Dr Bob> Bravo! Of course, but before that we need to understand what a Gaussian is.

Suppose we have some very special sixty-sided dice with faces numbered 1 to 59, and suppose we toss six of them and wait until they come to rest. Then suppose we count up the total score on the topmost facet of each die … and then suppose we write that total down. And suppose we do this 1500 times and then calculate the average total score. What do you suppose the average would be … approximately?

<StE> Well … the score on each die can be between 1 and 59 and each number is equally likely to happen … so the average score for 1500 throws of one die will be about 30 … so the average score for six of these mega-dice will be about 180.

<Dr Bob> Excellent. And how will the total score vary from throw to throw?

<StE> H’mm … tricky.  We know that it will vary but our intuition does not tell us by how much.

<Dr Bob> I agree. It is not intuitively obvious at all. We sense that the further away from 180 we look the less likely we are to find that score in our set of 1500 totals but that is about as close as our intuition can take us.  So we need to do an empirical experiment and we can do that easily with a spreadsheet. I have run this experiment and this is what I found …

Sixty_Sided_Dice_GameNotice that there is rather a wide spread around our expected average of 180 and remember that this is just tossing a handful of sixty-sided dice … so this variation is random … it is inherent and expected and we have no influence over it. Notice too that on the left the distribution of the scores is plotted as a histogram … the blue line. Notice the symmetrical hump-like shape … this is the footprint of a Gaussian.

<StE> So what? This is a bit abstract and theoretical for us. How does it help us?

<Dr Bob> Please bear with me a little longer. I have also plotted the time that each of your patients were in A&E last week on the same sort of chart. What do you notice?


<StE> H’mm. This is very odd. It looks like someone has taken a blunt razor to the data … they fluffed the first bit but sharpened up their act for the rest of it. And the histogram looks a bit like the one on your chart, well the lower half does, then there is a big spike. Is that the Horned thingamy?

<Dr Bob> Yes. This is the footprint of a Horned Gaussian. What this picture of your data says is that something is distorting the natural behaviour of your A&E system and that something is cutting in at 240 minutes. Four hours.

<StE> Wait a minute! That is exactly what we do. We admit patients who are getting close to the 4-hour target to stop the A&E clock and reduce the pain of 4-hour failure.  But we can only admit as many as we have space for … and sometimes we run out of space.  That happened last Monday evening. The whole of StE hospital was gridlocked and we had no option but to store the A&E patients in the corridors – some for more than 12 hours! Just as the chart shows.

<Dr Bob> And by distorting your natural system behaviour in this way you are also distorting the data.  Your 4-hour breach rate is actually a lot lower that it would otherwise be … until the system gridlocks then it goes through the roof.  This design is unstable and unsafe.


Are Mondays always like this?

<StE> Usually, yes. Tuesday feels less painful and the agony eases up to Friday then it builds up again.  It is worse than Groundhog Day … it is more like Groundhog Week!  The chaos and firefighting is continuous though, particularly in the late afternoon and evenings.      

<Dr Bob> So now we are gaining some understanding.  The uncomfortable discovery when we look in the mirror is that: part of the cause is our own policies that create the symptoms and obscure the disease. We have looked in the mirror and “we have seen the enemy and the enemy is us“. This is an iatrogenic disease and in my experience a common root cause is something called carveoutosis.  Understanding the pathogenesis of carveoutosis is the path to understanding what is needed to treat it.  Are you up for that?

<StE> You bet we are!

<Dr Bob> OK. First we need to establish a new habit. You need to start plotting your A&E data just like this. Every day. Every week. Forever. This is your primary feedback loop. This chart will tell you when real improvement is happening. Your quarterly average 4-hour breach percentage will not. The Paymasters, Inspectors and Government will still ask for that quarterly aggregated target failure data but you will use these diagnostic and prognostic system behaviour charts for all your internal diagnosis, decisions and actions.  And next week we will explore carveoutosis.

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