The idea of following five simple steps to solve a problem is very attractive. It’s something that sells in American culture - look at any bestseller list and you will probably find a few books promising that in some specified number of steps you will resolve whatever is plaguing you. When we have a problem, especially one that keeps recurring, we want to fix it and the idea of following a simple formula draws us in. The same can be seen in how people naturally gravitate toward lean tools when they are starting their improvement journey. Lean tools are useful and impactful, but they can also be misused.
Why is it so easy to focus on tools and what happens when improvement work is approached this way?
We need to fix this, fast
There is a lot at stake when problems affect patients, staff, outcomes, etc. Something would be remiss if we didn’t want to fix things as quickly as possible. This is where lean tools can be easy to turn to – it gives the sense that you can start doing something immediately to change the situation.
The flip side to this is that many recurring problems are complex and if you throw a lean tool at it, the problem may be solved in the short-term but you will be shortchanging yourself in the long-run. Without a system in place there is no staying power for the improvement.
Results, results, results
The draw of using lean tools is that they provide a lot of quick wins at first. People can see results and get excited about it. This produces a lot of energy around the tools.
But what often happens after these initial quick wins is that it creates a tool-result loop. The tool that worked three months ago is no longer working as well, so you have to find a new, shinier tool, only to end up in the same place three months later.
The people-side of the work is hard
Lean tools are easy to implement and teach because you can use a form or a template and coach people how to use it. But when using tools becomes a requirement, they can become weapons and create a culture of compliance and gaming the system to achieve results.
On the other hand, transforming a culture by coaching and practicing principles and behaviors is much harder work and the results will be less immediate. It takes longer, it’s messier, and it’s more challenging - but it is sustainable.
Lean tools in and of themselves are not a bad thing. If you put tools in their proper place, they can provide a lot of value and play a useful role in a culture of continuous improvement.
But how you present and teach tools is vitally important. They need to be introduced as part of an improvement system, within processes, and anchored to principles and behaviors. They are not the beginning or the end of the process, but an important piece that can help us see waste, process flows, data trends, etc.
How have you seen lean tools used in your organization? What ways have you seen them successfully integrated into systems and processes? Where have they fallen short? Please share in the comments below!
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