Archive for the ‘SFQP’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are absolute,  eternal and are not negotiable.

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

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

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

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

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

It is the cultural constraint.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

H’mmmm ….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Chalk and cheese!


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Lesley> That sounds like an excellent plan!

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

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

<Bob> Good. And specifically?

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

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

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

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

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

<Bob> And what is the takt time?

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

<Bob> And the cycle time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Bob> Can you give me an example?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<Leslie> So how are they avoided?

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

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

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

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

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

<Leslie> Safety, Flow, Quality and Productivity.

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

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

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

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

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

We_Need_Small_HospitalsThis was an interesting headline to see on the front page of a newspaper yesterday!

The Top Man of the NHS is openly challenging the current Centralisation-is-The-Only-Way-Forward Mantra;  and for good reason.

Mass centralisation is poor system design – very poor.

Q: So what is driving the centralisation agenda?

A: Money.

Or to be more precise – rather simplistic thinking about money.

The misguided money logic goes like this:

1. Resources (such as highly trained doctors, nurses and AHPs) cost a lot of money to provide.
[Yes].

2. So we want all these resources to be fully-utilised to get value-for-money.
[No, not all – just the most expensive].

3. So we will gather all the most expensive resources into one place to get the Economy-of-Scale.
[No, not all the most expensive – just the most specialised]

4. And we will suck /push all the work through these super-hubs to keep our expensive specialist resources busy all the time.
[No, what about the growing population of older folks who just need a bit of expert healthcare support, quickly, and close to home?]

This flawed logic confuses two complementary ways to achieve higher system productivity/economy/value-for-money without  sacrificing safety:

Economies of Scale (EoS) and Economies of Flow (EoF).

Of the two the EoF is the more important because by using EoF principles we can increase productivity in huge leaps at almost no cost; and without causing harm and disappointment. EoS are always destructive.

But that is impossible. You are talking rubbish … because if it were possible we would be doing it!

It is not impossible and we are doing it … but not at scale and pace in healthcare … and the reason for that is we are not trained in Economy-of-Flow methods.

And those who are trained and who have have experienced the effects of EoF would not do it any other way.

Example:

In a recent EoF exercise an ISP (Improvement Science Practitioner) helped a surgical team to increase their operating theatre productivity by 30% overnight at no cost.  The productivity improvement was measured and sustained for most of the last year. [it did dip a bit when the waiting list evaporated because of the higher throughput, and again after some meddlesome middle management madness was triggered by end-of-financial-year target chasing].  The team achieved the improvement using Economy of Flow principles and by re-designing some historical scheduling policies. The new policies  were less antagonistic. They were designed to line the ducks up and as a result the flow improved.


So the specific issue of  Super Hospitals vs Small Hospitals is actually an Economy of Flow design challenge.

But there is another critical factor to take into account.

Specialisation.

Medicine has become super-specialised for a simple reason: it is believed that to get ‘good enough’ at something you have to have a lot of practice. And to get the practice you have to have high volumes of the same stuff – so you need to specialise and then to sort undifferentiated work into separate ‘speciologist’ streams or sequence the work through separate speciologist stages.

Generalists are relegated to second-class-citizen status; mere tripe-skimmers and sign-posters.

Specialisation is certainly one way to get ‘good enough’ at doing something … but it is not the only way.

Another way to learn the key-essentials from someone who already knows (and can teach) and then to continuously improve using feedback on what works and what does not – feedback from everywhere.

This second approach is actually a much more effective and efficient way to develop expertise – but we have not been taught this way.  We have only learned the scrape-the-burned-toast-by-suck-and-see method.

We need to experience another way.

We need to experience rapid acquisition of expertise!

And being able to gain expertise quickly means that we can become expert generalists.

There is good evidence that the broader our skill-set the more resilient we are to change, and the more innovative we are when faced with novel challenges.

In the Navy of the 1800’s sailors were “Jacks of All Trades and Master of One” because if only one person knew how to navigate and they got shot or died of scurvy the whole ship was doomed.  Survival required resilience and that meant multi-skilled teams who were good enough at everything to keep the ship afloat – literally.


Specialisation has another big drawback – it is very expensive and on many dimensions. Not just Finance.

Example:

Suppose we have six-step process and we have specialised to the point where an individual can only do one step to the required level of performance (safety/flow/quality/productivity).  The minimum number of people we need is six and the process only flows when we have all six people. Our minimum costs are high and they do not scale with flow.

If any one of the six are not there then the whole process stops. There is no flow.  So queues build up and smooth flow is sacrificed.

Out system behaves in an unstable and chaotic feast-or-famine manner and rapidly shifting priorities create what is technically called ‘thrashing’.

And the special-six do not like the constant battering.

And the special-six have the power to individually hold the whole system to ransom – they do not even need to agree.

And then we aggravate the problem by paying them the high salary that it is independent of how much they collectively achieve.

We now have the perfect recipe for a bigger problem!  A bunch of grumpy, highly-paid specialists who blame each other for the chaos and who incessantly clamour for ‘more resources’ at every step.

This is not financially viable and so creates the drive for economy-of-scale thinking in which to get us ‘flow resilience’ we need more than one specialist at each of the six steps so that if one is on holiday or off sick then the process can still flow.  Let us call these tribes of ‘speciologists’ there own names and budgets, and now we need to put all these departments somewhere – so we will need a big hospital to fit them in – along with the queues of waiting work that they need.

Now we make an even bigger design blunder.  We assume the ‘efficiency’ of our system is the same as the average utilisation of all the departments – so we trim budgets until everyone’s utilisation is high; and we suck any-old work in to ensure there is always something to do to keep everyone busy.

And in so doing we sacrifice all our Economy of Flow opportunities and we then scratch our heads and wonder why our total costs and queues are escalating,  safety and quality are falling, the chaos continues, and our tribes of highly-paid specialists are as grumpy as ever they were!   It must be an impossible-to-solve problem!


Now contrast that with having a pool of generalists – all of whom are multi-skilled and can do any of the six steps to the required level of expertise.  A pool of generalists is a much more resilient-flow design.

And the key phrase here is ‘to the required level of expertise‘.

That is how to achieve Economy-of-Flow on a small scale without compromising either safety or quality.

Yes, there is still a need for a super-level of expertise to tackle the small number of complex problems – but that expertise is better delivered as a collective-expertise to an individual problem-focused process.  That is a completely different design.

Designing and delivering a system that that can achieve the synergy of the pool-of-generalists and team-of-specialists model requires addressing a key error of omission first: we are not trained how to do this.

We are not trained in Complex-Adaptive-System Improvement-by-Design.

So that is where we must start.

 

hurry_with_the_SFQP_kit[Dring] Bob’s laptop signaled the arrival of Leslie for their regular ISP remote coaching session.

<Bob> Hi Leslie. Thanks for emailing me with a long list of things to choose from. It looks like you have been having some challenging conversations.

<Leslie> Hi Bob. Yes indeed! The deepening gloom and the last few blog topics seem to be polarising opinion. Some are claiming it is all hopeless and others, perhaps out of desperation, are trying the FISH stuff for themselves and discovering that it works.  The ‘What Ifs’ are engaged in war of words with the ‘Yes Buts’.

<Bob> I like your metaphor! Where would you like to start on the long list of topics?

<Leslie> That is my problem. I do not know where to start. They all look equally important.

<Bob> So, first we need a way to prioritise the topics to get the horse-before-the-cart.

<Leslie> Sounds like a good plan to me!

<Bob> One of the problems with the traditional improvement approaches is that they seem to start at the most difficult point. They focus on ‘quality’ first – and to be fair that has been the mantra from the gurus like W.E.Deming. ‘Quality Improvement’ is the Holy Grail.

<Leslie>But quality IS important … are you saying they are wrong?

<Bob> Not at all. I am saying that it is not the place to start … it is actually the third step.

<Leslie>So what is the first step?

<Bob> Safety. Eliminating avoidable harm. Primum Non Nocere. The NoNos. The Never Events. The stuff that generates the most fear for everyone. The fear of failure.

<Leslie> You mean having a service that we can trust not to harm us unnecessarily?

<Bob> Yes. It is not a good idea to make an unsafe design more efficient – it will deliver even more cumulative harm!

<Leslie> OK. That makes perfect sense to me. So how do we do that?

<Bob> It does not actually matter.  Well-designed and thoroughly field-tested checklists have been proven to be very effective in the ‘ultra-safe’ industries like aerospace and nuclear.

<Leslie> OK. Something like the WHO Safe Surgery Checklist?

<Bob> Yes, that is a good example – and it is well worth reading Atul Gawande’s book about how that happened – “The Checklist Manifesto“.  Gawande is a surgeon who had published a lot on improvement and even so was quite skeptical that something as simple as a checklist could possibly work in the complex world of surgery. In his book he describes a number of personal ‘Ah Ha!’ moments that illustrate a phenomenon that I call Jiggling.

<Leslie> OK. I have made a note to read Checklist Manifesto and I am curious to learn more about Jiggling – but can we stick to the point? Does quality come after safety?

<Bob> Yes, but not immediately after. As I said, Quality is the third step.

<Leslie> So what is the second one?

<Bob> Flow.

There was a long pause – and just as Bob was about to check that the connection had not been lost – Leslie spoke.

<Leslie> But none of the Improvement Schools teach basic flow science.  They all focus on quality, waste and variation!

<Bob> I know. And attempting to improve quality before improving flow is like papering the walls before doing the plastering.  Quality cannot grow in a chaotic context. The flow must be smooth before that. And the fear of harm must be removed first.

<Leslie> So the ‘Improving Quality through Leadership‘ bandwagon that everyone is jumping on will not work?

<Bob> Well that depends on what the ‘Leaders’ are doing. If they are leading the way to learning how to design-for-safety and then design-for-flow then the bandwagon might be a wise choice. If they are only facilitating collaborative agreement and group-think then they may be making an unsafe and ineffective system more efficient which will steer it over the edge into faster decline.

<Leslie>So, if we can stabilize safety using checklists do we focus on flow next?

<Bob>Yup.

<Leslie> OK. That makes a lot of sense to me. So what is Jiggling?

<Bob> This is Jiggling. This conversation.

<Leslie> Ah, I see. I am jiggling my understanding through a series of ‘nudges’ from you.

<Bob>Yes. And when the learning cogs are a bit rusty, some Improvement Science Oil and a bit of Jiggling is more effective and much safer than whacking the caveman wetware with a big emotional hammer.

<Leslie>Well the conversation has certainly jiggled Safety-Flow-Quality-and-Productivity into a sensible order for me. That has helped a lot. I will sort my to-do list into that order and start at the beginning. Let me see. I have a plan for safety, now I can focus on flow. Here is my top flow niggle. How do I design the resource capacity I need to ensure the flow is smooth and the waiting times are short enough to avoid ‘persecution’ by the Target Time Police?

<Bob> An excellent question! I will send you the first ISP Brainteaser that will nudge us towards an answer to that question.

<Leslie> I am ready and waiting to have my brain-teased and my niggles-nudged!


telephone_ringing_300_wht_14975[Ring Ring]

<Bob> Hi Leslie how are you to today?

<Leslie> I am good thanks Bob and looking forward to today’s session. What is the topic?

<Bob> We will use your Niggle-o-Gram® to choose something. What is top of the list?

<Leslie> Let me see.  We have done “Engagement” and “Productivity” so it looks like “Near-Misses” is next.

<Bob> OK. That is an excellent topic. What is the specific Niggle?

<Leslie> “We feel scared when we have a safety near-miss because we know that there is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

<Bob> OK so the Purpose is to have a system that we can trust not to generate avoidable harm. Is that OK?

<Leslie> Yes – well put. When I ask myself the purpose question I got a “do” answer rather than a “have” one. The word trust is key too.

<Bob> OK – what is the current safety design used in your organisation?

<Leslie> We have a computer system for reporting near misses – but it does not deliver the purpose above. If the issue is ranked as low harm it is just counted, if medium harm then it may be mentioned in a report, and if serious harm then all hell breaks loose and there is a root cause investigation conducted by a committee that usually results in a new “you must do this extra check” policy.

<Bob> Ah! The Burn-and-Scrape model.

<Leslie>Pardon? What was that? Our Governance Department call it the Swiss Cheese model.

<Bob> Burn-and-Scrape is where we wait for something to go wrong – we burn the toast – and then we attempt to fix it – we scrape the burnt toast to make it look better. It still tastes burnt though and badly burnt toast is not salvageable.

<Leslie>Yes! That is exactly what happens all the time – most issues never get reported – we just “scrape the burnt toast” at all levels.

fire_blaze_s_150_clr_618 fire_blaze_h_150_clr_671 fire_blaze_n_150_clr_674<Bob> One flaw with the Burn-and-Scrape design is that harm has to happen for the design to work.

It is all reactive.

Another design flaw is that it focuses attention on the serious harm first – avoidable mortality for example.  Counting the extra body bags completely misses the purpose.  Avoidable death means avoidably shortened lifetime.  Avoidable non-fatal will also shorten lifetime – and it is even harder to measure.  Just consider the cumulative effect of all that non-fatal life-shortening avoidable-but-ignored harm?

Most of the reasons that we live longer today is because we have removed a lot of lifetime shortening hazards – like infectious disease and severe malnutrition.

Take health care as an example – accurately measuring avoidable mortality in an inherently high-risk system is rather difficult.  And to conclude “no action needed” from “no statistically significant difference in mortality between us and the global average” is invalid and it leads to a complacent delusion that what we have is good enough.  When it comes to harm it is never “good enough”.

<Leslie> But we do not have the resources to investigate the thousands of cases of minor harm – we have to concentrate on the biggies.

<Bob> And do the near misses keep happening?

<Leslie> Yes – that is why they are top rank  on the Niggle-o-Gram®.

<Bob> So the Burn-and-Scrape design is not fit-for-purpose.

<Leslie> So it seems. But what is the alternative? If there was one we would be using it – surely?

<Bob> Look back Leslie. How many of the Improvement Science methods that you have already learned are business-as-usual?

<Leslie> Good point. Almost none.

<Bob> And do they work?

<Leslie> You betcha!

<Bob> This is another example.  It is possible to design systems to be safe – so the frequent near misses become rare events.

<Leslie> Is it?  Wow! That know-how would be really useful to have. Can you teach me?

<Bob> Yes. First we need to explore what the benefits would be.

<Leslie> OK – well first there would be no avoidable serious harm and we could trust in the safety of our system – which is the purpose.

<Bob> Yes …. and?

<Leslie> And … all the effort, time and cost spent “scraping the burnt toast” would be released.

<Bob> Yes …. and?

<Leslie> The safer-by-design processes would be quicker and smoother, a more enjoyable experience for both customers and suppliers, and probably less expensive as well!

<Bob> Yes. So what does that all add up to?

<Leslie> A win-win-win-win outcome!

<Bob> Indeed. So a one-off investment of effort, time and money in learning Safety-by-Design methods would appear to be a wise business decision.

<Leslie> Yes indeed!  When do we start?

<Bob> We have already started.


For a real-world example of this approach delivering a significant and sustained improvement in safety click here.

There are two broad approaches to improvement. One is to start with what we have got now and tinker with it in the hope it will get better.  When this is done well it is effective albeit slow. When it is done badly it amounts to dangerous meddling. The more interconnected the system we are trying to improve the more likely our well intentioned tinkering will create a bigger problem in the future than we have now.

Another approach is to start with what-we-want-to-have in the future and then design-to-deliver it. Our starting point is not an aspirational dream vision, also known as an hallucination, it is a clear performance specification with four dimensions: safety, delivery, quality and affordability. This is called a SFQP specification.

The first one to focus on is safety … and what we usually find is that risk of harm is usually a knock-on effect of delivery and quality design problems.

The easiest one is delivery – because it is the application of process physics. The next easiest one is affordability because that is the application of value system accounting.

The tricky one is quality because that implies subjectivity, people, psychology, behaviour and politics. When we add quality to our design challenge we rack up the wickedness score!

So, how do we create a clear and realistic output quality performance specification?

If we draw up a chart with Subjective Quality on the Y-axis and Objective Performance on the X-axis, we can plot all the characteristics of our current and future design on this chart.  And when we do that we discover some surprising things.

First – some factors go unnoticed until the performance drops. Said another way we do not notice when it is working – we only only notice when it is not.  These factors are called Disappointers.  We take for granted that things work 99% of the time – the sun comes up every morning; there is 21% of oxygen in the atmosphere; the air temperature is OK; the electricity is on; the milk, paper and post gets delivered; the car starts and so on. We take it all for granted and we complain when it unexpectedly does not.

So if we ask our customers what they want from an improved service they do not spontaneously volunteer what is currently working well and that they take for granted – because it is out of their awareness.  This is what Henry Ford implied when he said “If I asked the customer what they wanted I would have got a faster horse“. It is also the reason why a Three Wins design starts with The 4N Chart® – and specifically the Nuggets corner. We need to make conscious what works well because when we plan improvement we do not want to unintentionally discard the baby with the bath water!

Second – some factors go unnoticed until performance exceeds a minimum threshold. They are not expected so we do not mind if they are not provided – but if they are unexpectedly provided then we are surprised and Delighted.  The first time. Once we know what is possible we come to expect it again, and eventually every time.


A common design error is to try to use a Delighter to compensate for a Disappointer.

Suppose we walked into our hotel room and found a complimentary bottle of wine that we were not expecting and then we discovered that there was no toilet paper and the shower was cold. The bottle of wine would not compensate for our disappointment and it might even irritate us because we conclude that the management does not care about our basic needs. Our trust is eroded and our feedback reflects that.


Effective design for trusted quality starts by eliminating the possibility of disappointment. We design it so the expected essentials are “right first time and every time“.  Our measure of success is not praise – it is absence of complaints. A deafening silence. It is what does not happen that is important. Good expected essential design is invisible – because it never intrudes on our awareness.  And for this reason it is surprisingly difficult to do. It requires pro-action not re-action.


The third type of factor is the Satisfier – and these are the ones that our customers will volunteer because they are aware of them. Lower performance giving lower perceived quality scores and higher performance giving higher.  These are the “you get what you pay for” factors. A better designed car is expected to be more comfortable, quieter, easier to drive, safer, more reliable, more effort-saving gadgets and so on. Price is a satisfier. Cost is not. Cost is an output of the design process. So the better the design the greater the gap can be between cost and price.


This method is called Kano Analysis and an understanding of it is essential for effective quality improvement. And like so much of Improvement Science it appears counter-intuitive at first,  common-sense when explained, and blindingly obvious when experienced.


One tangible output of process or system design exercise is a blueprint.

This is the set of Policies that define how the design is built and how it is operated so that it delivers the specified performance.

These are just like the blueprints for an architectural design, the latter being the tangible structure, the former being the intangible function.

A computer system has the same two interdependent components that must be co-designed at the same time: the hardware and the software.


The functional design of a system is manifest as the Seven Flows and one of these is Cash Flow, because if the cash does not flow to the right place at the right time in the right amount then the whole system can fail to meet its design requirement. That is one reason why we need accountants – to manage the money flow – so a critical component of the system design is the Budget Policy.

We employ accountants to police the Cash Flow Policies because that is what they are trained to do and that is what they are good at doing – they are the Guardians of the Cash.

Providing flow-capacity requires providing resource-capacity, which requires providing resource-time; and because resource-time-costs-money then the flow-capacity design is intimately linked to the budget design.

This raises some important questions:
Q: Who designs the budget policy?
Q: Is the budget design done as part of the system design?
Q: Are our accountants trained in system design?

The challenge for all organisations is to find ways to improve productivity, to provide more for the same in a not-for-profit organisation, or to deliver a healthy return on investment in the for-profit arena (and remember our pensions are dependent on our future collective productivity).

To achieve the maximum cash flow (i.e. revenue) at the minimum cash cost (i.e. expense) then both the flow scheduling policy and the resource capacity policy must be co-designed to deliver the maximum productivity performance.


If we have a single-step process it is relatively easy to estimate both the costs and the budget to generate the required activity and revenue; but how do we scale this up to the more realistic situation when the flow of work crosses many departments – each of which does different work and has different skills, resources and budgets?

Q: Does it matter that these departments and budgets are managed independently?
Q: If we optimise the performance of each department separately will we get the optimum overall system performance?

Our intuition suggests that to maximise the productivity of the whole system we need to maximise the productivity of the parts.  Yes – that is clearly necessary – but is it sufficient?


To answer this question we will consider a process where the stream flows though several separate steps – separate in the sense that that they have separate budgets – but not separate in that they are linked by the same flow.

The separate budgets are allocated from the total revenue generated by the outflow of the process. For the purposes of this exercise we will assume the goal is zero profit and we just need to calculate the price that needs to be charged the “customer” for us to break even.

The internal reports produced for each of our departments for each time period are:
1. Activity – the amount of work completed in the period.
2. Expenses – the cost of the resources made available in the period – the budget.
3. Utilisation – the ratio of the time spent using resources to the total time the resources were available.

We know that the theoretical maximum utilisation of resources is 100% and this can only be achieved when there is zero-variation. This is impossible in the real world but we will assume it is achievable for the purpose of this example.

There are three questions we need answers to:
Q1: What is the lowest price we can achieve and meet the required demand?
Q2: Will optimising each step independently step give us this lowest price?
Q3: How do we design our budgets to deliver maximum productivity?


To explore these questions let us play with a real example.

Let us assume we have a single stream of work that crosses six separate departments labelled A-F in that sequence. The department budgets have been allocated based on historical activity and utilisation and our required activity of 50 jobs per time period. We have already worked hard to remove all the errors, variation and “waste” within each department and we have achieved 100% observed utilisation of all our resources. We are very proud of our high effectiveness and our high efficiency.

Our current not-for-profit price is £202,000/50 = £4,040 and because our observed utilisation of resources at each step is 100% we conclude this is the most efficient design and that this is the lowest possible price.

Unfortunately our celebration is short-lived because the market for our product is growing bigger and more competitive and our market research department reports that to retain our market share we need to deliver 20% more activity at 80% of the current price!

A quick calculation shows that our productivity must increase by 50% (New Activity/New Price = 120%/80% = 150%) but as we already have a utilisation of 100% then this challenge looks hopelessly impossible.  To increase activity by 20% will require increasing flow-capacity by 20% which will imply a 20% increase in costs so a 20% increase in budget – just to maintain the current price.  If we no longer have customers who want to pay our current price then we are in trouble.

Fortunately our conclusion is incorrect – and it is incorrect because we are not using the data available to co-design the system such that cash flow and work flow are aligned.  And we do not do that because we have not learned how to design-for-productivity.  We are not even aware that this is possible.  It is, and it is called Value Stream Accounting.

The blacked out boxes in the table above hid the data that we need to do this – an we do not know what they are. Yet.

But if we apply the theory, techniques and tools of system design, and we use the data that is already available then we get this result …

 We can see that the total budget is less, the budget allocations are different, the activity is 20% up and the zero-profit price is 34% less – which is a 83% increase in productivity!

More than enough to stay in business.

Yet the observed resource utilisation is still 100%  and that is counter-intuitive and is a very surprising discovery for many. It is however the reality.

And it is important to be reminded that the work itself has not changed – the ONLY change here is the budget policy design – in other words the resource capacity available at each stage.  A zero-cost policy change.

The example answers our first two questions:
A1. We now have a price that meets our customers needs, offers worthwhile work, and we stay in business.
A2. We have disproved our assumption that 100% utilisation at each step implies maximum productivity.

Our third question “How to do it?” requires learning the tools, techniques and theory of System Engineering and Design.  It is not difficult and it is not intuitively obvious – if it were we would all be doing it.

Want to satisfy your curiosity?
Want to see how this was done?
Want to learn how to do it yourself?

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Improvement Science is the knowledge and experience required to improve … but to improve what?

Improve safety, delivery, quality, and productivity?

Yes – ultimately – but they are the outputs. What has to be improved to achieve these improved outputs? That is a much more interesting question.

The simple answer is “flow”. But flow of what? That is an even better question!

Let us consider a real example. Suppose we want to improve the safety, quality, delivery and productivity of our healthcare system – which we do – what “flows” do we need to consider?

The flow of patients is the obvious one – the observable, tangible flow of people with health issues who arrive and leave healthcare facilities such as GP practices, outpatient departments, wards, theatres, accident units, nursing homes, chemists, etc.

What other flows?

Healthcare is a service with an intangible product that is produced and consumed at the same time – and in for those reasons it is very different from manufacturing. The interaction between the patients and the carers is where the value is added and this implies that “flow of carers” is critical too. Carers are people – no one had yet invented a machine that cares.

As soon as we have two flows that interact we have a new consideration – how do we ensure that they are coordinated so that they are able to interact at the same place, same time, in the right way and is the right amount?

The flows are linked – they are interdependent – we have a system of flows and we cannot just focus on one flow or ignore the inter-dependencies. OK, so far so good. What other flows do we need to consider?

Healthcare is a problem-solving process and it is reliant on data – so the flow of data is essential – some of this is clinical data and related to the practice of care, and some of it is operational data and related to the process of care. Data flow supports the patient and carer flows.

What else?

Solving problems has two stages – making decisions and taking actions – in healthcare the decision is called diagnosis and the action is called treatment. Both may involve the use of materials (e.g. consumables, paper, sheets, drugs, dressings, food, etc) and equipment (e.g. beds, CT scanners, instruments, waste bins etc). The provision of materials and equipment are flows that require data and people to support and coordinate as well.

So far we have flows of patients, people, data, materials and equipment and all the flows are interconnected. This is getting complicated!

Anything else?

The work has to be done in a suitable environment so the buildings and estate need to be provided. This may not seem like a flow but it is – it just has a longer time scale and is more jerky than the other flows – planning-building-using a new hospital has a time span of decades.

Are we finished yet? Is anything needed to support the these flows?

Yes – the flow that links them all is money. Money flowing in is called revenue and investment and money flowing out is called costs and dividends and so long as revenue equals or exceeds costs over the long term the system can function. Money is like energy – work only happens when it is flowing – and if the money doesn’t flow to the right part at the right time and in the right amount then the performance of the whole system can suffer – because all the parts and flows are interdependent.

So, we have Seven Flows – Patients, People, Data, Materials, Equipment, Estate and Money – and when considering any process or system improvement we must remain mindful of all Seven because they are interdependent.

And that is a challenge for us because our caveman brains are not designed to solve seven-dimensional time-dependent problems! We are OK with one dimension, struggle with two, really struggle with three and that is about it. We have to face the reality that we cannot do this in our heads – we need assistance – we need tools to help us handle the Seven Flows simultaneously.

Fortunately these tools exist – so we just need to learn how to use them – and that is what Improvement Science is all about.