When I teach about Kaizen and continuous improvement, I try to use scenarios and cases to help people think through how they would respond to, coach, and collaborate on employee ideas.
One key point is that leaders have to thank employees for pointing out problems or opportunities for improvement. They need to do so even if they think the idea or proposed solution isn't ideal or might not work.
Here is a “Kaizen card” that I usually show in my training and coaching sessions, a real scenario:
The problem is a legitimate one, with two components to be recognized
- We need to provide warm blankets to patients when they are needed
- We shouldn't make staff run around too much
When the blanket warmer is empty, bad things happen:
- Patients have to wait for blankets, which reduces their comfort and patient satisfaction
- Staff, who are already busy if not overloaded with work, waste time and motion looking for blankets and delaying other patient care activities
- This might make staff grumbly or short with people, further hurting patient satisfaction
- Staff might start hiding or hoarding blankets, which might further throw off the system
When I ask workshop participants how they would react to the idea of “add a second blanket warmer,” a number of people usually scoff and make a noise or shake their heads.
I ask them why, and they usually say something like, “We'd just have two empty blanket warmers!“
That might very well be true. So how do we respond? What comes next in this workplace scenario. I see two options when the manager thinks an idea like “adding the second blanket warmer” won't work or isn't the best solution.
- Let people try and learn experientially
- Ask questions and try to better understand the cause of the empty blanket warmer
I've been taught to have a “bias for action” but also to “look for the root cause.” That's conflicting advice, eh? So what do we do?
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Option 1: Let people try – PDSA
There are circumstances where we should let people try their idea, even if we think it will fail. Of course, if the manager thinks an idea would be unsafe, you would not want to try this approach of “just try it and see.”
In my scenario, let's say these situations exist:If you say “no” to people's ideas, you might demoralize them, even if you're right. It's possible that the manager is WRONG about what will work or not work, because they're not as close to the work as the person with the idea.
- There's a spare blanket warmer somewhere in the hospital
- There's space in your unit for a second blanket warmer
You might want to err on the side of “let people try.”
Why? It's not like you're having to spend money on a blanket warmer. To install the second one in your unit probably just requires a bit of time and effort. You'd have to get materials management to deliver more blankets (doubling the “par level” perhaps).
It's possible that doubling the par level is exactly what's needed. It might not be the ONLY way to solve the problem, but it might work.
Or, it's possible that you'd just end up with two empty blanket warmers.
If that happens… what's the worst that would happen? You didn't spend any money. You maybe extended the problem a bit, delaying it being solved. But, the people who suggested the idea and tested it… hopefully they would learn.
You'd have to react well to this as a manager – do NOT say “I told you so” or make them feel bad for trying something that didn't work. Hopefully, you could guide people to look for an underlying root cause.
Option 2: Push back, challenge them to look for root cause
You could skip “let them try” and, as a manager, push back… respectfully and constructively challenge people by asking questions that prompt a better understanding of the current state instead of jumping to a solution.
Questions that often come up in my classes, include:
- Do we know why the warmer is empty?
- Do we understand the current process for restocking the blankets?
- Is the par level wrong?
- What's the delivery frequency? Does that need adjusting?
- Who is responsible for restocking (is it a standard process)?
- Are blankets being used inappropriately?
- Are blankets going home with people?
Instead of jumping to add a second blanket warmer, there's a lot we could understand about the current state.
If we did NOT have a spare blanket warmer sitting around or if we didn't have space in our unit. I'd probably err on the side of trying creativity and process improvement before adding more equipment.
Even if we tried Option 1, to try the spare blanket warmer, we might STILL want to try option 2. Option 1 might be quick and might “solve” the problem temporarily… but we might still get a better solution by getting to root cause.
I understand the appeal of Option 2, but if employees are sensitive and easily discouraged, our constructive pushback might just be viewed as negativity and people might disengage.
There's no easy answer. Option 2 is logically ideal, but people can be complex, emotional creatures. We want people to try things and learn. Does that trump the need to get the “right solution” as soon as possible?
It's interesting to me that Toyota will say that the priorities in process improvement are:
- Developing people and learning
- Solving the problem
So that would mean Option 1 is the right approach? Or, can they learn through Option 2?
What would you do?
Assuming you DID have the spare blanket warmer and the space for it… would you choose Option 1 or Option 2? Please share your answer and your reasons why as a comment on this post.
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