When Problems are Hidden in Kudos: From Celebrations to Root Cause Countermeasures


I want to give credit to my friend and colleague Tony Milian for the idea that prompted this blog post. Tony and I used to work together in a Lean healthcare consulting group that was part of Johnson & Johnson (more than a decade ago). We're also both affiliated now with the firm Value Capture.

I had a chance, last week, to visit a client that Tony has been coaching on Lean management practices. We observed some front-line team huddles (as part of a tiered huddle system that they are working on).

Tony made a very insightful observation — a pattern that appeared in a few huddles. These are departments that are relatively new to huddles and neither of us means to be critical… these are natural starting points and Tony provided some helpful coaching.

In the huddles, the manager and team talk about problems, issues, or opportunities for improvement.

In some huddles, the team might say, “We can't think of anything that came up yesterday.”

But, then, as the huddle progressed, the team was asked if anybody should get recognition or kudos for something they did.

A team member might say something like:

“Well, Mary did a great job of handling and calming down that upset patient yesterday.”

That indeed might be worth celebrating, but what else is going on there? As Tony pointed out, there's an underlying situation or problem that could (or should) be discussed and addressed.

We could ask questions like:

  • Why was the patient upset?
  • Did something unusual happen?
  • Were there process or system problems that created a situation that upset the patient?
  • Do we understand the root cause(s) of the issue?
  • What could we improve so that the situation doesn't occur again?

The team can celebrate what some might call the “service recovery.” But, we can also find the problem that's been uncovered by the kudos and praise discussion.

Is our goal to get better at service recovery? Or, should we be working to prevent the need for service recovery in the first place?

As teams start identifying waste and problems, it can be uncomfortable to some. It's good to be patient and understanding about that. Some people are afraid that pointing out problems is a bad thing.

They might feel more comfortable pointing out the positive things that people did. But, again, we can make sure we don't miss the opportunity to work on the underlying problem.

The same thing might occur in other situations, thinking back to my own experiences with other organizations. We can celebrate the staff member who came up with a clever workaround or short-term countermeasure. We can also dig deeper — starting an A3 that starts analyzing the need for the countermeasure, so we can better understand the situation and then work on a better long-term countermeasure.

Thanks again to Tony for articulating this so clearly last week. His coaching was really helpful to the team… helping them see what was possible and inspiring them to challenge their own thinking in a way that moved them forward.

What do you think? Have you seen similar situations?

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  1. Bob Emiliani says

    The same thing is true in Lean-world. There are huddles online (social media) and offline (conferences) wherein recognition, celebration, and agreement are much more highly valued than engaging the underlying problems that should be discussed. Is our goal to recognize, celebrate, and agree, or get better at understanding the problems associated with Lean transformation processes (and countermeasures)?

  2. Joe Picarelli says

    Mark, this is a very interesting idea. I completely agree with you as there are a vast number of people that do not take kindly to negative comments. Adding in some positivity could help keep employees moral up, and shows that employees will receive feedback whether it is negative or positive.

  3. Kathryn Correia says

    Thank you for posting. I think this is certainly true at the beginning of most lean transformation journeys. I personally have experienced it, and sometimes didn’t handle it as well as I could have. It’s delicate but worth it to acknowledge the intent of the accolade with the courage to get to root cause. Moving directly to root cause without exploring why in today’s environment the work around was good for the customer (and thank the employee for that effort) then move to imagining a future state— can result in the employee being embarrassed. Continuous improvement must coexist with respect for people.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for sharing your reflections and thoughts, Kathryn.

      I agree that we can acknowledge the kudos (without downplaying it)… “thank you for handling that in the moment.”

      But I think it’s a classic “Yes and” situation. Yes, give the kudos AND then also figure out where the underlying problem is…

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