Home > The Lean Post> You Need More Smoke Detectors: Countering Firefighting with Leader Standard Work

You Need More Smoke Detectors: Countering Firefighting with Leader Standard Work

by Aaron Hunt
July 27, 2016

You Need More Smoke Detectors: Countering Firefighting with Leader Standard Work

by Aaron Hunt
July 27, 2016 | Comments (13)

Like many lean organizations, my company, Washington Health System, can at times spend way too much time on firefighting. Recently, our Transport Team was having a hard time with this. We had excessive amount of people reporting off for the day and long wait times for transporting patients, and these generally added an extra layer of stress to the organization during busy times. 

The manager of the transport team was very frustrated, and felt she had no control over what was going to happen on any given day. We were eventually able to inspire the manager as well as the team to take control of their performance by following a simple leader standard work (LSW) framework. We put daily metrics in place. We held daily huddles that were largely improvement-focused as opposed to only having monthly staff meetings that were focused on monthly performance metrics. And the team would often try several improvements in a given week because they could tell quickly whether an  experiment was working or not.

The value of this daily work became apparent one day about six weeks into our journey. On that day the manager noticed an anomaly on the dashboard we use to track trips and requests. She said, “Look at this; someone’s not following their standardized work!” She did a quick report and could see that times were getting longer and it looked like things were going to get worse since our busiest time of the day was approaching, so she took corrective action. I stopped her and said, “Do you smell that?”

 Looking at me like I was crazy, she said, “What? I don’t smell anything.”

“Smoke,” came my reply. “We’re smelling smoke before the fire starts.

That day was the turning point. Since then we’ve reduced average trip times by 30 percent, but more importantly we’ve reduced the overburdening on our transport staff. Unplanned absences have declined by 90 percent. The team is generally happier and the manager loves her job again.

LSW is now our go-to for stamping out firefighting. For the purposes of this article and the situation above, my interpretation of LSW is scheduling the actions that will drive the organization forward on your calendar so that the things that come up every day won’t take over your week.  LSW provides the framework for prioritizing what needs to get accomplished every day, and builds a rhythm into your schedule as a leader so others know what to expect from you and when to expect it. 

Stephen Covey wrote, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” That is the core premise of LSW as we use it at WHS: identifying time to spend on the priorities in order to avoid reactive management, aka firefighting. But to truly be effective, the correct priorities must be identified. What are the priorities of a lean leader?In the scenario above, we used five:

    • Go and See
    • Communication (via “Huddle Boards” for us)
    • Accountability
    • Mentoring
    • Response to Abnormality

With those in mind, we started creating LSW by creating a list of all the tasks the manager did daily, weekly, and monthly. We included the tasks that should have been getting done but weren’t –one-on-one meetings with staff, daily metrics reviews, process or standard work audits, etc. The next step was to truly prioritize the list into what was most important for the long-term success of the organization. Then, starting with a blank calendar, we started building a theoretical plan of how each day, week and month would look with no fires. We just scheduled the priorities.

With the LSW framework and daily metrics in place, the manager was then able to truly use the priorities to guide her leadership of the team. For example, when working to understand fluctuations in transport requests, the manager’s visual controls indicated certain departments were essentially “batch processing” requests. When this would occur, she would then Go and See, ask why, and understand what was happening.  Then she would discuss with her team at the afternoon huddle and ask, “How can we improve this situation?” The team then would test their ideas and evaluate the impact based on the daily metrics, often the very next day. The results spoke for themselves.

But of course, you also need a way to sustain those gains. Notice that the priorities above are largely conceptual. We keep the concepts as the reasons behind these five key actions, which let us continuously improve our system and organization simultaneously:

  1. Revise and/or improve your LSW. LSW is not static – it will evolve as the organization evolves, but more importantly early on it will evolve as your understanding changes.
  2. Identify what meetings are adding value to your week. Many organizations suffer from too many meetings that have few, if any, actionable outcomes.  Are the meetings you attend necessary?  Can someone else be there?  Can they be shorter?
  3.  Identify daily metrics that are easy to collect/use. Daily metrics provide context to almost all of our leadership priorities. It’s one thing to Go and See, but it’s much better if you can discuss near real-time performance.
  4. Become intentional about employee development. Once you start getting a handle on some daily metrics, now you have a foundation for building employee development into your LSW. Schedule the time for one-on-one meetings with your team, where you talk about their performance, their goals, and their aspirations. Evaluate if any of the meetings you identify as valuable could be delegated to a member of your team, giving them an opportunity to be exposed to more of the organization.
  5. Leverage daily improvement by engaging your team during huddles. Leveraging daily improvement is ultimately about developing your team and respecting them as well.  By encouraging  your team to drive the improvements, you build their capabilities and build stronger trust. Ultimately, when the time comes for you to find a replacement so you can pursue the next challenge in the organization you have a pool of proven candidates within your team.

What success stories or challenges have you experienced when using LSW?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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13 Comments | Post a Comment
Anonymous July 27, 2016

>>>On that day the manager noticed an anomaly on the dashboard we use to track trips and requests. She said, “Look at this; someone’s not following their standardized work!”

I would have coached the manager to not jump to conclusions. She might have a hypothesis that somebody's not following the S.W., but she really needs to go to gemba to confirm and ask questions.

If somebody's not following the S.W., the manager should ask why.

 

Reply »

Aaron July 27, 2016

Thanks for the comment.

The manager actually did verify by goign to gemba and asking questions, understanding why the anomaly was ocurring, verifying the Standard work would have prevented the situation, and communicated to her team.

 

Excellent point - thanks for highlighting it.

 

Aaron 

Reply »

Anonymous July 27, 2016

It's unclear in the chart exactly which day was the "smell smoke" day - can you please clarify?

Reply »

Aaron July 27, 2016

That point was the last day the chart crossed the 25 minute line.

 

Thanks for taking the time to question the data!

 

Aaron

Reply »

Anonymous July 27, 2016

Why didn't the previous 33-minute data point trigger such a reaction? Were either of those data points "out of control" statistically? It looks like noise in the system to me.

So what was the countermeasure?

Reply »

Aaron July 27, 2016

Thanks a lot for your question - I don't think this can be a quick answer – it’s almost another article.  J.  

Regarding the previous data points - this article discusses the beginning of one team's journey.  Because we hadn’t developed the knowledge and understanding of the manager and her team sufficiently enough to actually control the system - so yes it was unstable.  Learning by doing- including trying unsuccessful things if that's what the team wants to pursue, is very important in truly understanding lean principles in my opinion.  

As you are aware, one of the key reasons for putting standards in place is to form a stable foundation upon which we can build improvements.   Every other "bad day" as we have come to call them represented by a spike was reacted to with our typical firefighting; the jumping to conclusions the previous poster mentioned.  

The key to Standardized work is sustainment, so in the Accountability part of LSW, I have found it important to include the verification of Standardized Work for your team.  In this case, the manager had a clear visual from our call system that the current standard was not being followed.   

After understanding the situation by going to gemba and working with her team, the countermeasure was to follow the standardized work.  When we have ideas to test that deviate from the standard, we need to follow PDCA.  In this case, someone had not followed standard work because they thought doing it a different way might be better, but they jumped straight to the “Doing” without having a Plan, which by definition indicates we had no plan on how we would do the Check and Adjust parts critical to capture the learning from the change.  

Trying ideas is great, as long as we do it in a structured method - otherwise we will likely continue to have our unstable, out of control process. 

The manager communicated very respectfully to the team at huddle, and didn't disrespect the employee who deviated from the standard - she used it as a teaching moment which ultimately was the catalyst for their sustained improvement.  As of yesterday, they've actually improved another 1.5 minutes - or 6% from their baseline. 

It was the manager’s LSW that allowed her to see the abnormality, do a Go and See, hold her team accountable, mentor the staff as needed, and communicate to her team about what was learned.  Compared  to doing what we had done previously and working through a frustrating day that would have been destined to repeat in the near future, it was a big change in behavior - which when sustained becomes part of the culture.  She truly stopped firefighting and worked to eliminate a root cause.

Again - thank you for your question - hopefully the additional detail is meaningful to you and others as well.

Anonymous July 27, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thanks, that's helpful.

One other suggestion... I don't think the "linear trendline" is really indicative of what's happening in the process. it seems more like there was an old "stable system" with fluctuation around a mean and then a new stable system after the changes you described.

It seems more like a step-function, not a linear trend (the linear trend is misleading because it suggests it will continue going down). I'd suggest it's going to be stable (variation around the new average transport time) until another improvement is made.

See this chart, if the link works:

https://s31.postimg.org/ewcdd68y3/Screen_Shot_2016_07_27_at_8_49_44_AM.png

Aaron July 27, 2016

Completely agree about the step-change too.  I'm guessing you may also have some Six Sigma expertise, which pairs very well with Lean practices.    

We're below 16 minutes for the month of July, with individual days in the 12.XX, range, so the current slope isn't too far off - but I do expect it to stabilize around 15 minutes barring some other step-change going forward.  The team contunues to work on small improvements to get better each day, week, and month.

It's currently not a constraint, so we've started focusing on other areas of patient flow while monitoring the performance of this part of our system.   

Again - I really appreciate the discussion.

 

Anonymous July 27, 2016

Thanks... I'll quit pestering you for now :-)

No formal Six Sigma training, but I'm an engineer with training in statistics and SPC is often incorporated into Lean... I find that way of thinking very helpful when looking at management data.

Carl Watt July 27, 2016

Great economy of words.  If I can't get them to read a book, I can show them this inspiring article.  Thank you.

Reply »

Aaron July 27, 2016

Carl,

Thank you for your kind words.  If this articles inspires just one person on your team, it was well worth writing.

Reply »

Randy Siever July 27, 2016

Great post! It's really helpful to literally "see" the change you're describing via the graph, and love the smoke alarm analogy-very apt.

Reply »

Ray Wilson October 16, 2017

Great article! I was looking for a Case Study around Leader Standard Work to share with our sales team, and really like the write up. It is easy to read from the perspective of a relatively new supervisor/manager and get excited about.

Reply »

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