Guest Post: Technology, Value, and the Human Touch


Mark's note: Today's post is by a good friend in the lean healthcare world, Mark Welch (no relation to Jack). Today's post is thought-provoking in terms of finding the balance between efficiency and building relationships in today's workplace. He also brings up interesting points about the difference between our assumptions about customer (patient) needs and what the patients actually value.

Many of us believe, and rightfully so, that lean is 80% about the philosophy and 20% about the tools. That's just one of the many aspects I like about lean thinking.   A big part – or rather, HUGE part of the philosophy is the way we connect with people: respectfully, listening to their ideas, helping them to learn and learning from them in turn, forgiving and not judging, working together to make work easier and for value to flow to patients/customers.   Building relationships is critical.

We stand so close together, but we are so far apartI also appreciate today's technology.   Especially more recently since I've become an empty nester and I can Skype, text, do Face Time, or just talk on my cell phone with my kids most any time that's appropriate – well, as long as I don't annoy them too much.   I don't care what anyone says – the concept of the truly “cool” parent doesn't exist – not completely, anyway.   And if one is a “cool” parent, he or she would have to wonder to what extent that parenting is truly effective.

A recent CBS News Sunday Morning segment  explored what is happening to us socially as technology has found its way to supposedly enhance our connectedness.   Essentially, it's great for long distance connections, but it seems we're sometimes ignoring those sitting next to us at home or when out to dinner.   Similarly, in the workplace these days it has become too easy to shoot off the email or make the quick call, even if the receiver of the message is a hallway, or even a floor or two away.   Yes, in many cases doing this is fine, but at what point do we realize that our work relationships are deteriorating?   If   we're trying to build and/or keep a lean culture, how will we do that with minimal face to face contact, without seeing and reading a person's body language and facial expressions – the things that make them who they are and help us truly and deeply understand them?   What do we need to do to keep them alive and thriving?   Is it sometimes too easy to use technology and let our relationships slide?

So, following lean thinking, when is it better to walk away from the phone or the computer and just go see someone?   What should be the rule of thumb?   Should there be a rule of thumb?   How important is it that the message is unambiguously understood?   Thinking purely along the lines of waste, one might think it's more often than not better just to call or drop the quick email.   Maybe so.   Maybe not.

Let me illustrate my point.   I once did a few projects with an oncology unit and we brought some patients in for a Voice of the Patient session.   Traditional lean thinking would have it that patients abhor waiting for treatment, and if it was excessive, they did (we let them decide what was excessive).   But what they told us was that the time they spent waiting together with others who were going through the same experiences they were – the time they spent building those relationships – was truly of value to them.   Not in the way we traditionally understand value in the lean sense:   they certainly didn't pay for the waiting and socializing, it wasn't necessarily transforming their condition physically, etc.) but it meant something to them.   To be able to connect with a fellow cancer patient – make a new friend, get that emotional support they craved – was HUGE to them.   Yes, we improved our flow, and we didn't get complaints that it was too good, if you get my drift, but to people dealing with a life-threatening disease, having too good of flow wasn't quite what they wanted.   Yes, they wanted their treatment, but they also wanted people to know them and understand what they were experiencing.   They wanted that connection.

No, I'm not anti-technology.   I think it's great.   But when improvement, be it with technology, work flow, or whatever it may be, seems like the right move from a purely lean standpoint, it sometimes pays to step back and think about what is truly most important.   In fact, what seemingly “isn't lean” in some special cases actually is.

WelchAbout Mark Welch: Mark is a Lean Coach from Spirit Lake, Iowa.   He is a 20-year veteran of continuous improvement, having helped launch lean journeys in manufacturing and healthcare.   Several of his healthcare improvement team projects have been recognized by the Iowa Healthcare Collaborative (IHC) Success Stories.   He is a frequent presenter on lean topics at the IHC Annual Conference and will present again this year on Launching Lean in Rural Hospitals.   His past certifications include Lean Healthcare from the University of Michigan, Certified Quality Auditor through the ASQ, Professional in Human Resources, and Senior Professional in Human Resources through SHRM.   He is also known for his contributions on exploring the relationship between the lean philosophy and religious faith.

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  1. I think Mark caught one of the catch 22s in life today even though we can and often do use the fastest way to get things done, we need to occasionally slow down and make sure we stay in human touch as well. Just like most things in life there are gray areas and sometimes we need to apply common sense and take the time to see the whole picture, not just the focal point of the picture.

  2. I’m a big fan of email, but only because it’s easy for me. I think most people think the same way. An email will take 1 minute of my time, while a face to face conversation might take 15 minutes.

    Unfortunately, email’s not always the most efficient method when a response is required. Even though an email is easy, it will add lead time to the process. Emails are inventory! Most of the time a simple go-and-see will move things along a lot quicker, plus add that human touch.

    • Email is often faster and more efficient, but is it always more effective?

      Email has its time and its place — for example, when a mass message to a team is required, when you want something documented, when people can’t talk live.

      I’ve been in offices where people emailed instead of talking face to face (and I was guilty of that too). I grew to appreciate “higher fidelity” communication methods — preferring face to face when possible over phone calls over email when possible.

  3. When I think about the definition of value, one of the criteria is, “Done right the first time.” If walking to someone’s office will enable me to influence someone appropriately, or help me gauge their understanding of them more accurately, yet it takes me longer than the email that may not work, I’ll get more value out of going to see them. I’ll spend 15 minutes to make something work rather than 2 minutes on something that won’t, or stands significantly less of a chance of working. What’s the John Wooden quote? “If you don’t have time to do something right, then you must have time to do it over.”

    Over the years, those I’ve coached will sometimes tease me about a process and ask, “Is that lean, Mark?” Like a good little coach I’ll ask back, “Does it work for you?” Bottom line with me, lean is “what works.” In the least wasteful way, of course.


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