Stuff I’m Reading September 2015: Urgency, Problems, and Lemmings


As is often the case, I have too many open browser tabs full of articles that I was going to potentially blog about. This slows down my Mac (thanks, Chrome!) and it's mental overhead…

So, it's time for me to clear out my backlog and to share some articles I've been reading with some quick notes, instead of full blog posts. Well, I'll get my backlog down a little.

A Sense of Urgency About Misplaced Urgency

Here's a nice article by Liz Ryan on LinkedIn: Here's Where to Stick Your “Sense of Urgency.”

It's a story about her son who had a nice first job working at a store… until this guy Nick became the manager. Nick thought everybody needed to develop more of a “sense of urgency” (which is a phrase I used to hear at GM 20 years ago… a phrase and slogan that never really helped).

Liz asked Nick about this:

Since Nick was in his glory I pushed the envelope with one more question. “Why's that?” I asked.

“Because it's a business!” crowed Nick. “Faster, faster, faster – that's the name of the game!”

“Awesome,” I said, wondering when Jack would tell me that he was planning to quit his job.

Jack, her son, did indeed quit his job. Many of us learn, even at that age, not to “suffer the fool” (or it's in our nature). In one high school summer job, I worked for a business where the owner liked to huff and puff and his idiot son liked bossing people around… I had an instinctual bad reaction to “leaders” like that and I've tried to avoid them ever since.

Not Knowing Your Problem is a Problem

Here's a great post from the pithy and thoughtful Seth Godin: Agreeing on the problem.

Seth is the king of the short high-value, thought-provoking blog post. This one is a big longer (and full of even more value).

Seth states something that we'd recognize as Lean thinking… before jumping to solutions, we need to first understand the problem:

“Organizations, scientists and individuals always do better in solving problems that are clearly stated. The solution might be complicated, the system might be complex, but if we don't agree on the problem, it's hard to find the resources and the will to seek out a solution.”

John Shook, from LEI, articulates this well in discussion of the LEI “Lean Transformation Model” – first ask, “what problem are we trying to solve?” Toyota's Taiichi Ohno wrote we should “start from need.” And, of course, Toyota folks always say, “No problems is a problem.”

When training and coaching, I've seen organizations (and especially senior leaders) struggle with the shift from “jumping to solutions” to “understanding and clarifying the problem.” It feels good to have solutions (or to think we do).

Seth writes:

“Often, the reason people don't want to agree on a problem is that it's frightening to acknowledge a problem if we don't know that there's a solution…”

Lean isn't about knowing the right answer. Lean is about having a process we can go through to figure out the answer (or an answer). This requires humility, investigation, reflection, observation, testing… not just declaring a problem solved.

If we have a good problem solving methodology, we can feel more confident about our ability to solve problems, therefore it might be easier to speak up about them.

The Lemming Effect Kills Industries

Robert X. (Bob) Cringely is a well-known tech commentator and writer. I was able to speak to him on the phone a few years ago after I commented on his article about IBM's approach to Lean (an approach that was really L.A.M.E.).

This article (it's long) caught my eye and held my attention: The U.S. computer industry is dying and I'll tell you exactly who is killing it and why.

One culprit:

“First is the lemming effect where several businesses in an industry all follow the same bad management plan and collectively kill themselves.  We saw it in the airline industry in the 1980s and 90s.  They all wanted to blame regulation, then deregulation, then something else. The result was decimation and consolidation of America's storied airlines and the services of those consolidated companies generally sucks today as a result. Their failings made necessary Southwest, Jet Blue, Virgin America and other lower-cost yet better-service airlines.”

Does the same thing happen (or is it happening in healthcare?)… with the exception of the equivalents of Southwest, Jet Blue, and Virgin America generally not entering the hospital and health system market?

Do hospitals always have some outside factor to blame for their poor performance? Are they all mostly following the same old cost-cutting strategies? Will merging and getting bigger be the solution to every problem? It wasn't for Compaq and HP.

He adds:

“When you treat and pay people poorly you lose their ambition and desire to excel, you lose the performance of your work force.”

Better leadership and more employee engagement are the key. We see pockets of that in healthcare… but we need more of it, desperately.

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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.


  1. On Problem Solving:

    “Prudens quaestio dimidium scientiae”

    To ask the proper question is half of knowing.

    It is failure to have a robust questioning process that often prevents discovery of the root cause to be solved (or “problem”.) At the Creative Problem Solving Institute they use a questioning sequence such as:

    Why-What: Why do we do what we do?
    Why-When: Why does it happen “then” (in a sequence sometimes)
    Why-Where: Why does it happen “there” (in a specific place)
    Why-Who: Why does it occur in this persons process.
    Why-How: Why does it manifest in this manner.

    There are other questioning processes, such as the “five why’s”, as you all know already. So, asking “What is the problem” doesn’t drill down firmly enough, imho.


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