Stop the Chaos! Start Here: Replacing Your Non-Standardized Management System


In one of my recent posts, I argued that an organization’s most significant process variability lies in your management system, not in your production processes.

My first argument seemed to resonate with many of you who agree that standardizing a management system – the system of navigation, logic, decision-making and action-taking pathways that govern how you do what you do to deliver to your customer – is a necessary and first step to stabilizing your organization.

For years, lean and six sigma thinkers have guided those making improvement to drive variability out at the process level and remove waste.  Recently, those in the “lean” community have come around to the idea that you need “lean” tools and a reinvented management system, one that involves keeping track of performance and aligning daily cadences with the pdCA cycle. Some even now argue for using a standard approach to team problem solving. For example, in a 2016 interview, John Toussaint MD, CEO, ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value and CEO emeritus, ThedaCare, said this:

… just like with “traditional lean” we have seen a lot of tool-based approaches at first. Since those led nowhere, people hit a wall and started to call us to say, “lean doesn’t work,” when really they just hadn’t done it properly. You need to establish the principles that build the systems that change the behaviors, rather than simply rely on the lean toolbox. It’s all about the management system, which people are starting to understand a little better.

Gary Kaplan MD, CEO of the Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle similarly adds in a British Medical Journal | Quality and Safety article:

To successfully facilitate system transformation toward higher quality care at lower cost, Lean tools must be part of a comprehensive management system, within a supportive institutional culture, and with committed leadership.

Agreed:  we need to have tools and a management system (and integrated leadership culture).  However, I would (and have since I started doing this work in healthcare) reverse the order.  So, my second argument will probably rub some of you the wrong way: you have to standardize your management system and the leadership culture that uses it execute before you try to do any other improvement work, especially at the process level.  Here’s why:

1.   Workarounds Wreak Havoc and Cause Chaos. The standardized management system smooths the variability caused by team leaders who work around, rather than solve problems.  Working around a problem will perhaps give some temporary relief.  Carefully redesigning your management system, however, to “stop” to fix the problem – careful, I didn’t say stop your processes – will allow your team to apply both containment and countermeasures.  Deep lean thinkers and those who study Deming know that waste at the process level is a result of unevenness and overburdening, both of which originate in your management system. Workarounds create management process unevenness; let’s just call that chaos.

2.  Direction: Which Problems Need the Cross-Disciplinary Teams. As your problem-solving machine – your management system – spins up into action, problems that are unsolvable without study bubble up to the top, giving senior leaders direction for attacking your most significant systemic problems. They never set aside the problem-solving standard; they just add a few study steps to the front end to break these significant phenomena into smaller contributing problems.  A system of linked daily meetings  – a criticial component in a standardized, problem solving centric management system – creates the channels for that information to flow and find it’s home at the appropriate level in an organization, one that is best equipped to convene and resource solving complex problems.

3.  Human Change Takes the Most Time – Get Crackin’! Before they tackle complex issues, your leadership team needs to learn a new way of thinking about problems.  A unique and novel leadership culture has to emerge, one that changes mindsets by changing the daily experience around problems.  Heroes – once revered for their ability to swoop in and solve everyone’s problem (i.e., get a workaround in place, cause unevenness and never really solve a problem) – have to become a thing of the past, even frowned upon. Teams – the great human unit for winning – have to collaborate to solve problems, but everyone –  first – has to learn how to address them.  This very human endeavor requires time, leadership and much practice.  The day-after-day rhythm of pdCA – checking to see if we encountered a problem, acting (containing) and analyzing (finding the root cause), planning countermeasures, doing the actions to get the countermeasures in place –  cuts a new groove into your leadership team psyche and your team members’.  This social change is the more difficult transformation. Cutting a groove takes a sharp edge and some pressure.  Modifying a process is easy in comparison.  If you delay the human change, you just put off to tomorrow what is essential for today.  Better to get to work on the harder work as soon as possible.

Without centering all management activity and leadership thinking on the problems – the daily things that are eating your lunch –  you are merely crawling forward.  For many years those who follow what I call the Georgetown Pathway, put an all-out attack on the management system at the frontline of the battle plan and demand that leaders lead, keeping them accountable for execution.  Following what they learned from their Toyota mentors, who learned it from their mentor, Deming,  you must balance the human and the operational.  You must drive out variation to improve quality.  The quality of the output of your management machine depends on the quality of the management processes in your system.  At this point, the watchwords are patience and passion.  You are on the steepest climb, one that – even later – is at the highest risk for collapsing except for your constant, vigilant, pdCA.

Up next: Stopping (your management process) to fix the problem…