Please Help with Research Topics – Understanding Variation & Reducing Blame


OK, so it's not the kind of scientific research that involves lab coats and microscopes, but I'm doing some research that I'd like your help with.

I'm looking to do some research and some interviews for writing projects related to two different topics.

Understanding Variation

PACK (1)

I've been working with Mike Stoecklein from the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value to write an e-book that looks at topics that are based on ideas from W. Edwards Deming and, more recently, from Don Wheeler (author of Understanding Variation). Broad themes include knowing how to recognize and manage variation and the use of Statistical Process Control methods to make better decisions from data (something I've written about here on this blog) and how to manage variation when you don't have data.

Check out our book's very early landing page on The title is quirky, we realize that. The subtitle isn't set yet. More on the story behind the title some other time.

Update — this book became Measures of Success.

Do you have stories that others can learn from?

  • Situations where data was displayed or used “without context” as Wheeler described
  • Times when two-data point comparisons (current versus target, current versus last month, current versus last year) where used in a way that was dysfunctional
  • Stories about how managers or teams were wasting time or annoying people “chasing noise in the system” or data?

Or do you have positive stories about how you've used ideas from Wheeler's book (or Deming's ideas on understanding and managing variation) to improve how a team or system is managed? Please contact me if you do and if you're willing to be interviewed by me or Mike (he's already interviewed a number of people for a research paper he's written on this theme).

Hear Mark read this post (and subscribe to the “Lean Blog Audio” series):

Reducing Blame in Organizations

Another key theme from Dr. Deming is the idea of reducing fear and not blaming individuals for system problems.

I'm thinking about a separate writing project that would not just explore the idea that “naming, blaming, and shaming” is harmful and counterproductive to good performance… it would also explore what organizations are practically doing to rely less on blame.

These approaches include:

  • Lean
  • Deming
  • Lean Startup & Lean IT
  • Just Culture
  • Studer Group methodologies
  • Systems thinking
  • Crew Resource Management

If you're in healthcare (or other industries or settings) and your organization has specifically worked to reduce blame (replacing it with other managerial approaches), I would love to interview you and/or your senior leaders.

Again, please contact me if you would like to talk and contribute to my research.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • I see the reverse of this quite often. Executives Overtly and Covertly take credit for improvements that do not exist, and for claiming improvement trends where no trend exists. Most of them just never learned how to use control charts and how to differentiate between common cause and special cause variation. :o)

      • A lot of executives (and consultants) skate by because the broader population doesn’t ask to see the control chart, yet alone a basic run chart, when improvement is claimed. Two data points IS a trend to most people, which is why we need better education about statistics and basic SPC. Everybody can understand this if they’re exposed to it.

  1. Sounds great Mark! Does the first book run risk of converging on six sigma territory? How does one apply a powerful statistical method of reducing variation without losing the key managerial principles that leverage the full promise of this mindset?

    A book on blame sounds really cool. Just from experience, in non-hospital settings, I have found that one of the greatest sources of “blame” in workplaces comes from lack of Standard Work. Problems immediately default to existing assumptions that other people are idiots because things didn’t get done the “right” way….when in fact no one best way is not even established in the first place! And then, even when some type of SW exists, it is rarely captured in a way that is commonly understood and easy to follow. And finally, the last piece has to be folks who are willing to see divergence between what is and what should be (SW) is actually an opportunity for learning/coaching–to look together at what created the gap, and then problem-solve together to get to point of origin and then close the gap. Long-winded answer, sorry; just sharing what I’ve found to be lacking in orgs which then emerges as finger-pointing and general bad juju.

    • The first book won’t go anywhere near Six Sigma. It’s more along the lines of basic quality control methods, like run charts and SPC, that Toyota uses without them doing formal Six Sigma). But, it’s going to be a management book, not a statistics book. Mike Stoecklein does a good job of articulating ideas about managing variation when we don’t have data and charts.

      I agree with what you’re saying on blame. If there’s no standardized work, how can you blame the worker? It’s management’s responsibility to have good standardized work.

  2. Mark – As part of your research on blame, have a look at REAL LEAN Volume Six, Chapter 7, “Crazy Processes, Krazy Managers.” It shows the link between business processes and leadership behaviors.

  3. These are great topics for work, Mark. Regarding blame, I would also suggest the (sub-)field of psychological safety, as well; there’s been a fair bit of research that combines personal psychology, sociology and some anthropology to better understand the complex interplay between systems, organizational culture and people. I’m currently doing some similar work on the intersection of psychological safety and just culture.


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