Archive for the ‘Metaphors’ Category

In medical training we have to learn about lots of things. That is one reason why it takes a long time to train a competent and confident clinician.

First, we learn the anatomy (structure) and physiology (function) of the normal, healthy human.

Then we learn about how this amazingly complex system can go wrong.  We learn pathology.  And we do that so that we understand the relationship between the cause (disease) and the effect (symptoms and signs).

Then we learn diagnostics – which is how to work backwards from the effects to the most likely cause(s).

And only then can we learn therapeutics – the design and delivery of a treatment plan that we are confident will relieve the symptoms by curing the disease.


The NHS is an amazingly complex system, and it too can go wrong.  It can exhibit a wide spectrum of symptoms and signs: medical errors, long delays, unhappy patients and staff, and overspent budgets.

But, there is no equivalent training in how to diagnose and treat a sick health care system.  And this is not acceptable, especially given that the knowledge of how to do this is already available.  It is called complex adaptive systems engineering (CASE).


Before the Renaissance, the understanding of how the body works was primitive and it was believed that illness was “God’s Will” so we had to just grin-and-bear.

The Scientific Revolution brought us profound theories, innovative techniques and capability extending tools.  And the impact has been dramatic – those who have access to this live better and longer than ever.  Those who don’t … don’t.

Our current understanding of how health care systems work is, to be blunt, medieval.  The current solutions amount to little more than rune reading, incantations and the prescription of purgatives and leeches.  And the impact is about as effective.

So we need to study the anatomy, physiology and pathology of complex adaptive systems like healthcare.

And just this week a prototype complex system pathology training system was tested …

… and it employed cutting-edge 21st Century technology: Pasta Twizzles.

The specific topic under scrutiny was variation.  A brain-bending concept that is usually relegated to the mystical smoke-and-mirrors world called Sadistics.

But no longer!

The Mists of Jargon and Fog of Formulae were blown away as we switched on the Light of Simulation and went exploring. Empirically. Pragmatically.


And what we discovered was jaw-dropping.

A disease called the “Flaw of Averages” and its malignant manifestation “Carveoutosis“.


And with our new knowledge we opened the door to a hidden world of opportunity and improvement.

Then we directed the Laser of Insight and evaporated the queues and chaos that, before our new understanding, we had accepted as inevitable and beyond our understanding or control.

They were neither. And never had been. We were deluding ourselves.

Welcome to the Primary Care Access One Day Workshop.

Validation Test: Passed.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Is that bad too?

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


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

proverb

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

hierarchy_of_competence

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

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

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

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


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

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

the_learning_curve

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pride and Joy are OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

se_vee_diagram

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

Diagnose, Design and Deliver

which is also known as …

Study, Plan, Do.


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

nuffield_report_01
Unfortunately, no evidence is provided in the report to support the validity of the statement and that omission should ring an alarm bell.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

We are now making progress in deepening our understanding.


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

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

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


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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.

traffic_flow_dynamics

<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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About a year ago we looked back at the previous 10 years of NHS unscheduled care performance …

click here to read

… and warned that a catastrophe was on the way because we had created a urgent care “pressure cooker”.

Did waving the red warning flag make any difference?

It seems not.

The catastrophe happened just as predicted … A&E performance slumped to an all-time low, and has not recovered.


A pressure cooker is an elegantly simple system – a strong metal box with a sealed lid and a pressure-sensitive valve.  Food cooks more quickly at a higher temperature, and we can increase the boiling point of water by increasing the ambient pressure, so all we need to do is put some water in the cooker, close the lid, set the pressure limit we want (i.e. the temperature we want) and apply some heat.  Simple.  As the water boils the steam increases the pressure inside, until the regulator valve opens and lets a bit of steam out. The more heat we apply – the faster the steam comes out – but the internal pressure and temperature remain constant. An elegant self-regulating system.


Our unscheduled care acute hospital pressure cooker design is very similar – but it has an additional feature – we can squeeze raw patients in through a one-way valve labelled “admissions” and the internal pressure will squeeze them out through another one-way pressure-sensitive valve called “discharges”.

But there is not much head-space inside our hospital (i.e. empty beds) so pushing patients in will increase the pressure inside, and it will trigger an internal reaction called “fire-fighting” that generates heat (but sadly no insight).  When the internal pressure reaches the critical level, patients are squeezed out; ready-or-not.

What emerges from the chaotic cauldron is a mixture of under-cooked, just-right, and over-cooked patients.  And we then conduct quality control audits and we label what we find as “quality variation”, but it looks random so it gives us no clues as to what to do next.

Equilibrium is eventually achieved – what goes in comes out – the pressure and temperature auto-regulate – the chaos becomes chronic – and the quality of the output is predictably unpredictable, with some of it badly but randomly spoiled (i.e. harmed).

And our auto-regulating pressure cooker is very resistant to external influences, which after all is one of its key design features.


Squeezing a bit less in (i.e. admissions avoidance) does not make any difference to the internal pressure and temperature.  It auto-regulates.  The reduced flow means longer cooking time and we just get less under-cooked and more over-cooked output.  Oh, and we go bust because our revenue has reduced but our costs have not.

Building a bigger pressure cooker (i.e. adding more beds) does not make any sustained difference either.  Again the system auto-regulates.  The extra space allows a longer cooking time – and again we get less under-cooked and more over-cooked output.  Oh, and we still go bust (same revenue but increased cost).

Turning down the heat (i.e. reducing the 4 hr A&E lead time target yield from 98% to 95%) does not make any difference. Our elegant auto-regulating design adjusts itself to sustain the internal pressure and temperature.  Output is still variable, but least we do not go bust.


This metaphor may go some way to explain why the intuitively obvious “initiatives” to improve unscheduled care performance have had no significant or sustained impact.

And what is more worrying is that they may even have made the situation worse.

Working inside an urgent care pressure cooker is dangerous.  People get emotionally damaged and scarred.


The good news is that a different approach is available … a health and social care systems engineering (HSCSE) approach … one that we could use to change the fundamental design from fire-fighter to flow-facilitator.

Using HSCSE theory, techniques and tools we could specify, design, build, verify, implement and validate a low-pressure, low-resistance, low-wait, low-latency, high-efficiency unscheduled care flow design that is safe, timely, effective and affordable.

An emergency care “Dyson” so to speak.

But we are not training our people how to do that.

Why is that?


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BloodSuckerThis is a magnified picture of a blood sucking bug called a Red Poultry Mite.

They go red after having gorged themselves on chicken blood.

Their life-cycle is only 7 days so, when conditions are just right, they can quickly cause an infestation – and one that is remarkably difficult to eradicate!  But if it is not dealt with then chicken coop productivity will plummet.


We use the term “bug” for something else … a design error … in a computer program for example.  If the conditions are just right, then software bugs can spread too and can infest a computer system.  They feed on the hardware resources – slurping up processor time and memory space until the whole system slows to a crawl.


And one especially pernicious type of system design error is called an Error of Omission.  These are the things we do not do that would prevent the bloodsucking bugs from breeding and spreading.

Prevention is better than cure.


In the world of health care improvement there are some blood suckers out there, ones who home in on a susceptible host looking for a safe place to establish a colony.  They are masters of the art of mimicry.  They look like and sound like something they are not … they claim to be symbiotic whereas in reality they are parasitic.

The clue to their true nature is that their impact does not match their intent … but by the time that gap is apparent they are entrenched and their spores have already spread.

Unlike the Red Poultry Mites, we do not want to eradicate them … we need to educate them. They only behave like parasites because they are missing a few essential bits of software.  And once those upgrades are installed they can achieve their potential and become symbiotic.

So, let me introduce them, they are called Len, Siggy and Tock and here is their story:

Six Ways Not To Improve Flow

CrashTestDummyThere are two complementary approaches to safety and quality improvement: desire and design.

In the improvement-by-desire world we use a suck-it-and-see approach to fix a problem.  It is called PDSA.

Sometimes this works and we pat ourselves on the back, and remember the learning for future use.

Sometimes it works for us but has a side effect: it creates a problem for someone else.  And we may not be aware of the unintended consequence unless someone shouts “Oi!” It may be too late by then of course.


The more parts in a system, and the more interconnected they are, the more likely it is that a well-intended suck-it-and-see change will create an unintended negative impact.

And in that situation our temptation is to … do nothing … and put up with the problems. It seems the safest option.


In the improvement-by-design world we choose to study first, and to find the causal roots of the system behaviour we are seeing.  Our first objective is a diagnosis.

With that we can propose rational design changes that we anticipate will deliver the improvement we seek without creating adverse effects.

But we have learned the hard way that our intuition can trick us … so we need a way to test our designs … a safe and controlled way.  We need a crash test dummy!


What they do is to deliberately experience our design in a controlled experiment, and what they generate for us is constructive feedback. What did work, and what did not.

A crash test dummy is tough and sensitive at the same time.  They do not break easily and yet they feel the pain and gain too.  They are resilient.


And with their feedback we can re-visit our design and improve it further, or we can use it to offer evidence-based assurance that our design is fit-for-purpose.

Safety and Quality Assurance is improvement-by-design. Diagnosis-and-treatment.

Safety and Quality Control is improvement-by-desire. Suck-and-see.

If you were a passenger or a patient … which option would you prefer?

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.

CapstanA capstan is a simple machine for combining the effort of many people and enabling them to achieve more than any of them could do alone.

The word appears to have come into English from the Portuguese and Spanish sailors at around the time of the Crusades.

Each sailor works independently of the others. There is no requirement them to be equally strong because the capstan will combine their efforts.  And the capstan also serves as a feedback loop because everyone can sense when someone else pushes harder or slackens off.  It is an example of simple, efficient, effective, elegant design.


In the world of improvement we also need simple, efficient, effective and elegant ways to combine the efforts of many in achieving a common purpose.  Such as raising the standards of excellence and weighing the anchors of resistance.

In health care improvement we have many simultaneous constraints and we have many stakeholders with specific perspectives and special expertise.

And if we are not careful they will tend to pull only in their preferred direction … like a multi-way tug-o-war.  The result?  No progress and exhausted protagonists.

There are those focused on improving productivity – Team Finance.

There are those focused on improving delivery – Team Operations.

There are those focused on improving safety – Team Governance.

And we are all tasked with improving quality – Team Everyone.

So we need a synergy machine that works like a capstan-of-old, and here is one design.

Engine_Of_ExcellenceIt has four poles and it always turns in a clockwise direction, so the direction of push is clear.

And when all the protagonists push in the same direction, they will get their own ‘win’ and also assist the others to make progress.

This is how the sails of success are hoisted to catch the wind of change; and how the anchors of anxiety are heaved free of the rocks of fear; and how the bureaucratic bilge is pumped overboard to lighten our load and improve our speed and agility.

And the more hands on the capstan the quicker we will achieve our common goal.

Collective excellence.

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

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

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


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

understanding variation.

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

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

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


This chance combination of apparently independent events got me thinking.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Or are there other forces at play as well?

Some deeper undiscussables perhaps?

figure_pointing_out_chart_data_150_clr_8005It was the time for Bob and Leslie’s regular Improvement Science coaching session.

<Leslie> Hi Bob, how are you today?

<Bob> I am getting over a winter cold but otherwise I am good.  And you?

<Leslie> I am OK and I need to talk something through with you because I suspect you will be able to help.

<Bob> OK. What is the context?

<Leslie> Well, one of the projects that I am involved with is looking at the elderly unplanned admission stream which accounts for less than half of our unplanned admissions but more than half of our bed days.

<Bob> OK. So what were you looking to improve?

<Leslie> We want to reduce the average length of stay so that we free up beds to provide resilient space-capacity to ease the 4-hour A&E admission delay niggle.

<Bob> That sounds like a very reasonable strategy.  So have you made any changes and measured any improvements?

<Leslie> We worked through the 6M Design® sequence. We studied the current system, diagnosed some time traps and bottlenecks, redesigned the ones we could influence, modified the system, and continued to measure to monitor the effect.

<Bob> And?

<Leslie> It feels better but the system behaviour charts do not show an improvement.

<Bob> Which charts, specifically?

<Leslie> The BaseLine XmR charts of average length of stay for each week of activity.

<Bob> And you locked the limits when you made the changes?

<Leslie> Yes. And there still were no red flags. So that means our changes have not had a significant effect. But it definitely feels better. Am I deluding myself?

<Bob> I do not believe so. Your subjective assessment is very likely to be accurate. Our Chimp OS 1.0 is very good at some things! I think the issue is with the tool you are using to measure the change.

<Leslie> The XmR chart?  But I thought that was THE tool to use?

<Bob> Like all tools it is designed for a specific purpose.  Are you familiar with the term Type II Error.

<Leslie> Doesn’t that come from research? I seem to remember that is the error we make when we have an under-powered study.  When our sample size is too small to confidently detect the change in the mean that we are looking for.

<Bob> A perfect definition!  The same error can happen when we are doing before and after studies too.  And when it does, we see the pattern you have just described: the process feels better but we do not see any red flags on our BaseLine© chart.

<Leslie> But if our changes only have a small effect how can it feel better?

<Bob> Because some changes have cumulative effects and we omit to measure them.

<Leslie> OMG!  That makes complete sense!  For example, if my bank balance is stable my average income and average expenses are balanced over time. So if I make a small-but-sustained improvement to my expenses, like using lower cost generic label products, then I will see a cumulative benefit over time to the balance, but not the monthly expenses; because the noise swamps the signal on that chart!

<Bob> An excellent analogy!

<Leslie> So the XmR chart is not the tool for this job. And if this is the only tool we have then we risk making a Type II error. Is that correct?

<Bob> Yes. We do still use an XmR chart first though, because if there is a big enough and fast enough shift then the XmR chart will reveal it.  If there is not then we do not give up just yet; we reach for our more sensitive shift detector tool.

<Leslie> Which is?

<Bob> I will leave you to ponder on that question.  You are a trained designer now so it is time to put your designer hat on and first consider the purpose of this new tool, and then create the outline a fit-for-purpose design.

<Leslie> OK, I am on the case!

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!

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?

business_race__PA_150_wht_3222There is a widely held belief that competition is the only way to achieve improvement.

This is a limiting belief.

But our experience tells us that competition is an essential part of improvement!

So which is correct?


When two athletes compete they both have to train hard to improve their individual performance. The winner of the race is the one who improves the most.  So by competing with each other they are forced to improve.

The goal of improvement is excellence and the test-of-excellence is performed in the present and is done by competing with others. The most excellent is labelled the “best” or “winner”. Everyone else is branded “second best” or “loser”.

This is where we start to see the limiting belief of competition.

It has a crippling effect.  Many competitive people will not even attempt the race if they do not feel they can win.  Their limiting belief makes them too fearful. They fear loss of self-esteem. Their ego is too fragile. They value hubris more than humility. And by not taking part they abdicate any opportunity to improve. They remain arrogantly mediocre and blissfully ignorant of it. They are the real losers.


So how can we keep the positive effect of competition and at the same time escape the limiting belief?

There are two ways:

First we drop the assumption that the only valid test of excellence is a comparison of us with others in the present.  And instead we adopt the assumption that it is equally valid to compare us with ourselves in the past.

We can all improve compared with what we used to be. We can all be winners of that race.

And as improvement happens our perspective shifts.  What becomes normal in the present would have been assumed to be impossible in the past.


This week I sat at my desk in a state of wonder.

I held in my hand a small plastic widget about the size of the end of my thumb.  It was a new USB data stick that had just arrived, courtesy of Amazon, and on one side in small white letters it proudly announced that it could hold 64 Gigabytes of data (that is 64 x 1024 x 1024 x 1024). And it cost less than a take-away curry.

About 30 years ago, when I first started to learn how to design, build and program computer system, a memory chip that was about the same size and same cost could hold 4 kilobytes (4 x 1024).  

So in just 30 years we have seen a 16-million-fold increase in data storage capacity. That is astounding! Our collective knowledge of how to design and build memory chips has improved so much. And yet we take it for granted.


The second way to side-step the limiting belief is even more powerful.

It is to drop the belief that individual improvement is enough.

Collective improvement is much, much, much more effective.


Cell_StructureEvidence:

The human body is made up of about 50 trillion (50 x 1000 x 1000 x 1000 x 1000) cells – about the same as the number of bytes could store on 1000 of my wonderful new 64 Gigabyte data sticks!

And each cell is a microscopic living individual. A nano-engineered adaptive system of wondrous complexity and elegance.

Each cell breathes, eats, grows, moves, reproduces, senses, learns and remembers. These cells are really smart too! And they talk to each other, and they learn from each other.

And what makes the human possible is that its community of 50 trillion smart cells are a collaborative community … not a competitive community.

If all our cells started to compete with each other we would be very quickly reduced to soup (which is what the Earth was bathed in for about 2.7 billions years).

The first multi-celled organisms gained a massive survival advantage when they learned how to collaborate.

The rest is the Story of Evolution.  Even Charles Darwin missed the point – evolution is more about collaboration than competition – and we are only now beginning to learn that lesson. The hard way.  


come_join_the_team_150_wht_10876So survival is about learning and improving.

And survival of the fittest does not mean the fittest individual … it means the fittest group.

Collaborative improvement is the process through which we can all achieve win-win-win excellence.

And the understanding of how to do this collaborative improvement has a name … it is called Improvement Science.

Rogers_CurveThe early phases of a transformation are where most fall by the wayside.

And the failure rate is horrifying – an estimated 80% of improvement initiatives fail to achieve their goals.

The recent history of the NHS is littered with the rusting wreckage of a series of improvement bandwagons.  Many who survived the crashes are too scarred and too scared to try again.


Transformation and improvement imply change which implies innovation … new ways of thinking, new ways of behaving, new techniques, new tools, and new ways of working.

And it has been known for over 50 years that innovation spreads in a very characteristic way. This process was described by Everett Rogers in a book called ‘Diffusion of Innovations‘ and is described visually in the diagram above.

The horizontal axis is a measure of individual receptiveness to the specific innovation … and the labels are behaviours: ‘I exhibit early adopter behaviour‘ (i.e. not ‘I am an early adopter’).

What Roger’s discovered through empirical observation was that in all cases the innovation diffuses from left-to-right; from innovation through early adoption to the ‘silent’ majority.


Complete diffusion is not guaranteed though … there are barriers between the phases.

One barrier is between innovation and early adoption.

There are many innovations that we never hear about and very often the same innovation appears in many places and often around the same time.

This innovation-adoption barrier is caused by two things:
1) most are not even aware of the problem … they are blissfully ignorant;
2) news of the innovation is not shared widely enough.

Innovators are sensitive people.  They sense there is a problem long before others do. They feel the fear and the excitement of need for innovation. They challenge their own assumptions and they actively seek solutions. They swim against the tide of ignorance, disinterest, skepticism and often toxic cynicism.  So when they do discover a way forward they often feel nervous about sharing it. They have learned (the hard way) that the usual reaction is to be dismissed and discounted.  Most people do not like to learn about unknown problems and hazards; and they like it even less to learn that there are solutions that they neither recognise nor understand.


But not everyone.

There is a group called the early adopters who, like the innovators, are aware of the problem. They just do not share the innovator’s passion to find a solution … irrespective of the risks … so they wait … their antennae tuned for news that a solution has been found.

Then they act.

And they act in one of two ways:

1) Talkers … re-transmit the news of the problem and the discovery of a generic solution … which is essential in building awareness.

2) Walkers … try the innovative approach themselves and in so doing learn a lot about their specific problem and the new ways to solving it.

And it is the early adopters that do both of these actions that are the most effective and the most valuable to everyone else.  Those that talk-the-new-walk and walk-the-new-talk.

And we can identify who they are because they will be able to tell stories of how they have applied the innovation in their world; and the results that they have achieved; and how they achieved them; and what worked well; and what did not; and what they learned; and how they evolved and applied the innovation to meet their specific needs.

They are the leaders, the coaches and the teachers of improvement and transformation.

They See One, Do Some, and Teach Many.

The early adopters are the bridge across the Innovation and Transformation Chasm.

smack_head_in_disappointment_150_wht_16653One of the traps for the inexperienced Improvement Science Practitioner is to believe that applying the science in the real world is as easy as it is in the safety of the training environment.

It isn’t.

The real world is messier and more complicated and it is easy to get lost in the fog of confusion and chaos.


So how do we avoid losing our footing, slipping into the toxic emotional swamp of organisational culture and giving ourselves an unpleasant dunking!

We use safety equipment … to protect ourselves and others from unintended harm.

The Improvement-by-Design framework is like a scaffold.  It is there to provide structure and safety.  The techniques and tools are like the harnesses, shackles, ropes, crampons, and pitons.  They give us flexibility and security.

But we need to know how to use them. We need to be competent as well as confident.

We do not want to tie ourselves up in knots … and we do not want to discover that we have not tied ourselves to something strong enough to support us if we slip. Which we will.


So we need to learn an practice the basics skills to the point that they are second nature.

We need to learn how to tie secure knots, quickly and reliably.

We need to learn how to plan an ascent … identifying the potential hazards and designing around them.

We need to learn how to assemble and check what we will need before we start … not too much and not too little.

We need to learn how to monitor out progress against our planned milestones and be ready to change the plan as we go …and even to abandon the attempt if necessary.


We would not try to climb a real mountain without the necessary training, planning, equipment and support … even though it might look easy.

And we do not try to climb an improvement mountain without the necessary training, planning, tools and support … even though it might look easy.

It is not as easy as it looks.

business_race__PA_150_wht_3222When we start the process of learning to apply the Science of Improvement in practice we need to start within our circle of influence.

It is just easier, quicker and safer to begin there – and to build our capability, experience and confidence in steps.

And when we get the inevitable ‘amazing’ result it is natural and reasonable for us to want to share the good news with others.  We crossed the finish line first and we want to celebrate.   And that is exactly what we need to do.


We just need to be careful how we do it.

We need to be careful not to unintentionally broadcast an “I am Great (and You are Not)” message – because if we do that we will make further change even more difficult.


Competition can be healthy or unhealthy  … just as scepticism can be.

We want to foster healthy competition … and to do that we have to do something that can feel counter-intuitive … we have to listen to our competitors; and we have to learn from them; and we have to share our discoveries with them.

Eh?


Just picture these two scenarios in your mind’s eye:

Scenario One: The competition is a war. There can only be one winner … the strongest, most daring, most cunning, most ruthless, most feared competitor. So secrecy and ingenuity are needed. Information must be hoarded. Untruths and confusion must be spread.

Scenario Two: The competition is a race. There can only be one winner … the strongest, most resilient, hardest working, fastest learning, most innovative, most admired competitor.  So openness and humility are needed. Information must be shared. Truths and clarity must be spread.

Compare the likely outcomes of the two scenarios.

Which one sounds the more productive, more rewarding and more enjoyable?


So the challenge for the champions of improvement is to appreciate and to practice a different version of the “I’m Great … ” mantra …

I’m Great (And So Are You).

FISH_ISP_eggs_jumpingResistance-to-change is an oft quoted excuse for improvement torpor. The implied sub-message is more like “We would love to change but They are resisting“.

Notice the Us-and-Them language.  This is the observable evidence of an “We‘re OK and They’re Not OK” belief.  And in reality it is this unstated belief and the resulting self-justifying behaviour that is an effective barrier to systemic improvement.

This Us-and-Them language generates cultural friction, erodes trust and erects silos that are effective barriers to the flow of information, of innovation and of learning.  And the inevitable reactive solutions to this Us-versus-Them friction create self-amplifying positive feedback loops that ensure the counter-productive behaviour is sustained.

One tangible manifestation are DRATs: Delusional Ratios and Arbitrary Targets.


So when a plausible, rational and well-evidenced candidate for an alternative approach is discovered then it is a reasonable reaction to grab it and to desperately spray the ‘magic pixie dust’ at everything.

This a recipe for disappointment: because there is no such thing as ‘improvement magic pixie dust’.

The more uncomfortable reality is that the ‘magic’ is the result of a long period of investment in learning and the associated hard work in practising and polishing the techniques and tools.

It may look like magic but is isn’t. That is an illusion.

And some self-styled ‘magicians’ choose to keep their hard-won skills secret … because by sharing them know that they will lose their ‘magic powers’ in a flash of ‘blindingly obvious in hindsight’.

And so the chronic cycle of despair-hope-anger-and-disappointment continues.


System-wide improvement in safety, flow, quality and productivity requires that the benefits of synergism overcome the benefits of antagonism.  This requires two changes to the current hope-and-despair paradigm.  Both are necessary and neither are sufficient alone.

1) The ‘wizards’ (i.e. magic folk) share their secrets.
2) The ‘muggles’ (i.e. non-magic folk) invest the time and effort in learning ‘how-to-do-it’.


The transition to this awareness is uncomfortable so it needs to be managed pro-actively … by being open about the risk … and how to mitigate it.

That is what experienced Practitioners of Improvement Science (and ISP) will do. Be open about the challenged ahead.

And those who desperately want the significant and sustained SFQP improvements; and an end to the chronic chaos; and an end to the gaming; and an end to the hope-and-despair cycle …. just need to choose. Choose to invest and learn the ‘how to’ and be part of the future … or choose to be part of the past.


Improvement science is simple … but it is not intuitively obvious … and so it is not easy to learn.

If it were we would be all doing it.

And it is the behaviour of a wise leader of change to set realistic and mature expectations of the challenges that come with a transition to system-wide improvement.

That is demonstrating the OK-OK behaviour needed for synergy to grow.

Dr_Bob_ThumbnailBob and Leslie were already into the dialogue of their regular ISP coaching session when Bob saw an incoming text from one of his other ISPees. It was simply marked: “Very Urgent”.

<Bob> Leslie, I have just received an urgent SMS that I think I need to investigate immediately. Could we put this conversation on ice for 10 minutes and I will call you back?

<Leslie> Of course. I have lots to do. Please do not rush back if it requires more time.

<Bob> Thank you.

Ten minutes later Leslie saw that Bob was phoning and picked up.

<Leslie> Hi Bob.  I hope you were able to sort out the urgent problem. The fact that you are back suggests you did.

<Bob> Hi Leslie.  Thank you for your understanding and patience. The issue was urgent and the root cause is not yet solved, but lessons are being learned.  And this is one you are going to come up against too so it may be an opportune time to explore it.

<Leslie> H’mm. Now you have pricked my curiosity. But you can’t discuss someone else’s problem with me surely!

<Bob> No indeed.  Strict confidentiality is essential.  We can talk about the generic issue though, without disclosing any details.  Do you remember that project you were doing last year where you achieved an initial success and then it all seemed to go wobbly?

<Leslie> Yes. At the time you said that I needed to put that one on the shelf and to press on with other projects. I think the phrase you used was “it needs to stew for a while“.

<Bob> And what happened?

<Leslie> The hard won improvement in performance slipped back and I felt like a failure and started to lose confidence. You said not to blame myself but to learn and  move on.  The lesson was I did not appreciate the difference between circles of control and circles of influence. I was trying to influence others before I had mastered self-control.

<Bob> Yes. There was another factor too but I did not feel it was the time to explore it. Now feels like a better time.

<Leslie> OK … now my curiosity is really fired up.

<Bob> Do you remember last week’s blog about the Improvement Gearbox?

<Leslie> Yes. I really liked the mechanical metaphor.  It resonated with so many things. I have used it several times this week in conversations.

<Bob> Well, there is a close relationship between the level of challenge and the gearbox.  As complexity increases we need to be able to use more of the gears, and to change up and down with ease and according to need.

<Leslie> Change down? I sort of assumed that once you got to fourth gear you stay there.

<Bob> That is true if the terrain is level and everyone is on board the bus with the same destination in mind.  In reality the terrain goes up and down and as we learn we need to stop and let some people get off and take others on board.

<Leslie> So we need to change down gears on the uphill bits, change up gears on the downhill, and go through the whole gear sequence when we deliberately slow to a halt, and then get on our way again.

<Bob> Yes. Well put. The world is changing all the time and the team on board is in dynamic flux. Some arrive, some leave and others stay on the bus but change seats as we move along.  Not all seats suit all people. What is comfortable for one may be painful for another.

<Leslie> So how come the urgent call?

<Bob> A fight had broken out on their bus, the tribes were arguing because the improvements they have made have blown away some of the fog and exposed some deeper cultural cracks. Cracks that had been there all the time but were concealed by the fog of the daily chaos and the smoke of the burning martyrs. They had taken their eye off the road and were heading for a blind bend unaware of what was around the corner.

<Leslie> So your intervention was to shout “Pay attention to the road and make a decision … steer or stop!

<Bob> Yes, that about sums it up.  A co-labor-ation call.

<Leslie> Eh? Dis you just say collaboration in a weird way?

<Bob> Yes. I chopped it up into concepts … “co” means together, “labor” means work and “ation” means action or process.  If they do not learn to co-labor-ate then they will come off the road, crash, and burn. And join the graveyard of improvement train wrecks that litter the verges of the rocky road of change.

<Leslie> Fourth gear stuff?

<Bob> Whole gearbox stuff. All gears between first and fourth because they are all necessary at different times.  Each gear builds on those which go before. There are no good or bad gears just fit-for-current-purpose or not.  Bad driving is ineptitude. Not using the vehicle’s gearbox effectively and efficiently and risking the safety and comfort of the passengers and other road users. Poor leadership is analogous to poor driving. Dangerous.

<Leslie> So an effective leader of change needs to be able to use all the gears competently and to know when to use which and when to change. And in doing so demonstrate what a safe pair of leadership hands looks like and what it can achieve … through collaborative effort.

<Bob> Perfect!  It is time for you to tear up your L plates.

GearboxOne of the most rewarding experiences for an improvement science coach is to sense when an individual or team shift up a gear and start to accelerate up their learning curve.

It is like there is a mental gearbox hidden inside them somewhere.  Before they were thrashing themselves by trying to go too fast in a low gear. Noisy, ineffective, inefficient and at high risk of blowing a gasket!

Then, they discover that there is a higher gear … and that to get to it they have to take a risk … depress the emotional clutch, ease back on the gas, slip into neutral, and trust themselves to find the new groove and … click … into the higher gear, and then ease up the power while letting out the clutch.  And then accelerate up the learning  curve.  More effective, more efficient. More productive. More fun.


Organisations appear to behave in much the same way.

Some scream along in the slow-lane … thrashing their employee engine. The majority chug complacently in the middle-lane of mediocrity. A few accelerate past in the fast-lane to excellence.

And they are all driving exactly the same model of car.

So it is not the car that is making the difference … it is the driving.


Those who have studied organisations have observed five cultural “gears”; and which gear an organisation is in most of the time can be diagnosed by listening to the sound of the engine – the conversations of the employees.

If they are muttering “work sucks” then they are in first gear.  The sense of hopelessness, futility, despair and anger consumes all their emotional fuel. Fortunately this is uncommon.

If we mainly hear “my work sucks” then they are in second gear.  The feeling is of helplessness and apathy and the behaviour is Victim-like.  They believe that they cannot solve their own problems … someone else must do it for them or tell them what to do. They grumble a lot.

If the dominant voice is “I’m great but you lot suck” then we are hearing third gear attitudes. The selfishly competitive behaviour of the individualist achiever. The “keep your cards close to your chest” style of dyadic leadership.  The advocate of “it is OK to screw others to get ahead”. They grumble a lot too – about the apathetic bunch.

And those who have studied organisations suggest that about 80% of healthcare organisations are stuck in first, second or third cultural gear.  And we can tell who they are … the lower 80% of the league tables. The ones clamouring for more … of everything.


So how come so many organisations are so stuck? Unable to find fourth gear?

One cause is the design of their feedback loops. Their learning loops.

If an organisation only uses failure as a feedback loop then it is destined to get no more than mediocrity.  Third gear at best, and usually only second.

Example.
We all feel disappointment when our experience does not live up to our expectation.  But only the most angry of us will actually do something and complain.  Especially when we have no other choice of provider!

Suppose we are commissioners of healthcare services and we are seeing a rising tide of patient and staff complaints. We want to improve the safety and quality of the services that we are paying for; so we draw up a league table using complaints as feedback fodder and we focus on the worst performing providers … threatening them with dire consequences for being in the bottom 20%.  What happens? Fear of failure motivates them to ‘pull up their socks’ and the number of complaints falls.

Job done?

Unfortunately not.

All we have done is to bully those stuck in first or second gear into thrashing their over-burdened employee engine even harder.  We have not helped anyone find their higher gear. We have hit the target, missed the point, and increased the risk of system failure!

So what about those organisations stuck in third gear?

Well they are ticking their performance boxes, meeting our targets, keeping their noses clean.  Some are just below, and some just above the collective mean of barely acceptable mediocrity.

But expectation is changing.

The 20% who have discovered fourth gear are accelerating ahead and are demonstrating what is possible. And they are raising expectation, increasing the variation of service quality … for the better.

And the other 80% are falling further and further behind; thrashing their tired and demoralised staff harder and harder to keep up.  Complaining increasingly that life is unfair and that they need more, time, money and staff engagement. Eventually their executive head gaskets go “pop” and they fall by the wayside.


Finding cultural fourth gear is possible but it is not easy. There are no short cuts.  We have to work our way up the gears and we have to learn when and how to make smooth transitions from first to second, second to third and then third to fourth.

And when we do that the loudest voice we hear is “We are OK“.

We need to learn how to do a smooth cultural hill start on the steep slope from apathy to excellence.

And we need to constantly listen to the sound of our improvement engine; to learn to understand what it is saying; and learn how and when to change to the next cultural gear.

SFQP_enter_circle_middle_15576For a system to be both effective and efficient the parts need to work in synergy. This requires both alignment and collaboration.

Systems that involve people and processes can exhibit complex behaviour. The rules of engagement also change as individuals learn and evolve their beliefs and their behaviours.

The values and the vision should be more fixed. If the goalposts are obscure or oscillate then confusion and chaos is inevitable.


So why is collaborative alignment so difficult to achieve?

One factor has been mentioned. Lack of a common vision and a constant purpose.

Another factor is distrust of others. Our fear of exploitation, bullying, blame, and ridicule.

Distrust is a learned behaviour. Our natural inclination is trust. We have to learn distrust. We do this by copying trust-eroding behaviours that are displayed by our role models. So when leaders display these behaviours then we assume it is OK to behave that way too.  And we dutifully emulate.

The most common trust eroding behaviour is called discounting.  It is a passive-aggressive habit characterised by repeated acts of omission:  Such as not replying to emails, not sharing information, not offering constructive feedback, not asking for other perspectives, and not challenging disrespectful behaviour.


There are many causal factors that lead to distrust … so there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dissolving it.

One factor is ineptitude.

This is the unwillingness to learn and to use available knowledge for improvement.

It is one of the many manifestations of incompetence.  And it is an error of omission.


Whenever we are unable to solve a problem then we must always consider the possibility that we are inept.  We do not tend to do that.  Instead we prefer to jump to the conclusion that there is no solution or that the solution requires someone else doing something different. Not us.

The impossibility hypothesis is easy to disprove.  If anyone has solved the problem, or a very similar one, and if they can provide evidence of what and how then the problem cannot be impossible to solve.

The someone-else’s-fault hypothesis is trickier because proving it requires us to influence others effectively.  And that is not easy.  So we tend to resort to easier but less effective methods … manipulation, blame, bullying and so on.


A useful way to view this dynamic is as a set of four concentric circles – with us at the centre.

The outermost circle is called the ‘Circle of Ignorance‘. The collection of all the things that we do not know we do not know.

Just inside that is the ‘Circle of Concern‘.  These are things we know about but feel completely powerless to change. Such as the fact that the world turns and the sun rises and falls with predictable regularity.

Inside that is the ‘Circle of Influence‘ and it is a broad and continuous band – the further away the less influence we have; the nearer in the more we can do. This is the zone where most of the conflict and chaos arises.

The innermost is the ‘Circle of Control‘.  This is where we can make changes if we so choose to. And this is where change starts and from where it spreads.


SFQP_enter_circle_middle_15576So if we want system-level improvements in safety, flow, quality and productivity (or cost) then we need to align these four circles. Or rather the gaps in them.

We start with the gaps in our circle of control. The things that we believe we cannot do … but when we try … we discover that we can (and always could).

With this new foundation of conscious competence we can start to build new relationships, develop trust and to better influence others in a win-win-win conversation.

And then we can collaborate to address our common concerns – the ones that require coherent effort. We can agree and achieve our common purpose, vision and goals.

And from there we will be able to explore the unknown opportunities that lie beyond. The ones we cannot see yet.

Troublemaker_vs_RebelSystem-wide, significant, and sustained improvement implies system-wide change.

And system-wide change implies more than 20% of the people commit to action. This is the cultural tipping point.

These critical 20% have a badge … they call themselves rebels … and they are perceived as troublemakers by those who profit most from the status quo.

But troublemakers and rebels are radically different … as shown in the summary by Lois Kelly.


Rebels share a common, future-focussed purpose.  A mission.  They are passionate, optimistic and creative.  They understand synergy and how to release and align the stored emotional energy of both themselves and others.  And most importantly they are value-led and that makes them attractive.  Values such as honesty, integrity and industry are what make leaders together-effective.

SHCR_logoAnd as we speak there is school for rebels in healthcare gaining momentum …  and their programme is current, open to all and free to access. And the change agent development materials are excellent!

Click here to download their study guide.


Converting possibilities into realities is the essence of design … so our merry band of rebels will also need to learn how to convert their positive rhetoric into practical reality. And that is more physics than psychology.

Streams flow because of physics not because of passion.SFQP_Compass

And this is why the science of improvement is important because it is the synthesis of the people dimension and the process dimension – into a system that delivers significant and sustained improvement.

On all dimensions. Safety, Flow, Quality and Productivity.

The lighthouse is our purpose; the whale represents the magnitude of our challenge; the blue sky is the creative thinking we need … to avoid trying to boil the ocean.

And the noisy, greedy, s****y seagulls are the troublemakers who always will plague us.

[Image by Malaika Art].


stick_figure_balance_mind_heart_150_wht_9344A recurring theme this week has been the interplay between the cultural and the technical dimensions of system improvement.

The hearts and the minds.  The people and the process.  The psychology and the physics.

Reflecting on the many conversations what became clear was that both are required but not always in the same amount and in the same sequence.

The context is critical.

In some cases we can start with some technical stuff. Some flow physics and a Gantt and Run chart or two.

In other cases we have to start with some cultural stuff. Some conversations about values, beliefs and behaviours.

And they are both tricky but in different ways.


The technical stuff is counter-intuitive.  We have to engage our logical, rational thinking brains and work it through step-by-step, making every assumption explicit and every definition clear.

If we go with our gut we get it wrong (although we feel it is right) and then we fail, and then we blame others or ourselves. Either way we lose confidence.  The logical thinking is hard work. It makes our heads ache. So we cut corners.

But once we have understood then it gets much easier because we can then translate our hard won understanding into a trusted heuristic.  We do not need to work it out every time. We can just look up the correct recipe.

And there lurks a trap … the problem that was at first unrecognised, then impossible, then difficult, and then doable … becomes easy and even obvious … but only after we have worked out a solution. And that obvious-in-hindsight effect is a source of many dangers …

… we can become complacent, over-confident, and even dismissive of others who have not been through the ‘pain’ of learning. We may be tempted to elevate our status and to inflate our importance by hoarding our hard-won understanding. We risk losing our humility … and when we do that we stop being curious and we stop learning. And then we are part of the problem again.

So to avoid those traps we need to hold ourselves in the role of the teacher and coach. We need to actively share what we have learned and explain how we came to know it.  One step at a time … the blood, the sweat and the tears … the confusion and eureka moments. Not one giant leap from where we started to where we got to.  And when we have the generosity to share our knowledge … it is surprising how much we learn!  We learn more from teaching than by being taught.


The cultural stuff is counter-intuitive too.  We have to engage our emotional, irrational, feeling brains and step back from the objective fine-print to look at the subjective full-picture. We have to become curious. We have to look at the problem from as many perspectives as we can. We have to practice humble inquiry by asking others what they see.

If we go with our gut  and rely only on our learned and habitual beliefs, our untested assumptions and our prejudices … we get it wrong. When we filter reality to match our rhetoric, we leap to invalid conclusions, and we make unwise decisions, and they lead to counter-productive actions.

Our language and behaviour gives the game away … we cannot help it … because all this is happening unconsciously and out of our awareness.

So we need to solicit unfiltered feedback from trusted others who will describe what they see.  And that is tough to do.


So how do we know where to act first? Cultural or technical?

The conclusion I have come to is to use a check-list … the Safe System Improvement check-list so to speak.

Check cultural first – Is there a need to do some people stuff? If so then do it.

Check technical second – Is there a need to do some process stuff? If so then do it.

If neither are needed then we need to get out of the way and let the people redesign the processes. Only they can.

butterfly_flying_around_465Some animals undergo a remarkable transformation on their journey to becoming an adult.

This metamorphosis is most obvious with a butterfly: the caterpillar enters the stage and a butterfly emerges.

The capabilities and behaviours of these development stages are very different.  A baby caterpillar crawls and feeds on leaves;  an adult butterfly flies and feeds on nectar.


There are many similarities to the transformation of an organisation from chaotic to calm; from depressed to enthused; and from struggling to flying.

It is the metamorphosis of individuals within organisations that drives the system change – the transformation from inept sceptics to capable advocates.


metamorphosis_1The journey starts with the tiny, hungry, baby caterpillar emerging from the egg.

This like a curious new sceptic emerging from denial and tentatively engaging the the process of learning. Usually triggered by seeing or hearing of a significant and sustained success that disproves their ‘impossibility hypothesis’.


metamorphosis_2A caterpillar is an eating machine. As it grows it sheds its skin and becomes larger. It also changes its appearance and eventually its behaviour.

Our curious improvement sceptic is devouring new information and is visibly growing in knowledge, understanding and confidence. 


metamorphosis_3When the caterpillar sheds the last skin a new form emerges. A pupa. It has a different appearance and behaviour. It is now stationary and it does not move or eat.

This is the contemplative sceptic who appears to have become dormant but is not … they are planning to change. This stage is very variable: it may be minutes or years.


metamorphosis_5Inside the pupa the solid body of the caterpillar is converted to ‘cellular soup’ and the cells are reassembled into a completely new structure called an adult butterfly.

Our healthy sceptic is dissolving their self-limiting beliefs and restructuring their mental model. It is stage of apparent confusion and success is not guaranteed.


metamorphosis_7And suddenly the adult butterfly emerges: fully formed but not yet able to fly. Its wings are not yet ready – they need to be inflated, to dry and be flexed.

So it is with our newly hatched improvement practitioner. They need to pause, prepare, and practice before they feel safe to fly solo.  They start small but are thinking big.


metamorphosis_8After a short rest the new wings are fully expanded and able to lift the butterfly aloft to explore the new opportunities that await. A whole new and exciting world full of flowers and nectar.

Our improvement practitioner can also feel when they are ready to explore. And then they fly – right first time.


An active improvement practitioner will inspire others to emerge, and many of those will hatch into improvement caterpillars who will busily munch on the new knowledge and grow in understanding and confidence. Then it goes quiet and, as if by magic, a new generation of improvement butterflies appear. And they continue to spread the word and the knowledge.

That is how Improvement Science grows and spreads – by metamorphosis.