A Great LEI Podcast with Dan Heath on “Upstream”


I was really excited to learn about the new book by Dan Heath, so I pre-ordered it at the start of March. The new book is Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

You might know of Dan Heath from the books he co-authored with his brother Chip, including Switch and Made to Stick.

I started reading the book and was really enjoying it… and then came the realizations that the pandemic was upon us. The book seemed really prescient in that better “upstream” preventive problem solving would have helped the world a lot.

Without mentioning Lean (or Toyota), Dan Heath lays out a great case that will resonate with a Lean thinker — it's better to solve problems upstream instead of just reacting after they occur.

But, psychology and human nature gets in the way… it's hard to get excited about problems that haven't (or might not occur). It's hard to find the time to work on upstream problems when we're super busy reacting to fires all day long.

“In this book, I'm defining upstream efforts as those intended to prevent problems before they happen or, alternatively, to systematically reduce the harm caused by those problems.”

Surely we'd all prefer to live in the upstream world where problems are prevented rather than reacted to. What holds us back?”

Heath writes that downstream reactions can turn into upstream solutions for the future, he also adds:

“…while upstream solutions are generally more desirable, they're also more complex and ambiguous.”

I was hoping to connect with Dan to do a podcast. But, I had the chance to listen to the WLEI Podcast episode where my friend Tom Ehrenfeld interviewed Dan.

You can (and should) just listen to that podcast (or read the transcript that's on the LEI website).

I'd love to hear what you think of the podcast and/or the book.

Dan uses examples from many companies, but Toyota did not appear (and I searched the Kindle version). If I did a podcast with Dan, I might ask about that omission, as Toyota provides many great examples of (and frameworks for) upstream problem solving.

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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. This is a good, thought-provoking topic. I also wonder if there is some meat on the bone in considering how leadership transitions can impact upstream plans that are developed, when new leadership moves in and has to decide what to do with that prior planning. This is something that I think most entities face to some degree with every new leader who takes their seat.

  2. Get podcast! Thanks for sharing it with us. I love how Dan Heath puts Lean and Systems Thinking into plain language and every day examples that are familiar and acceptable to those who get turned off by the jargon.

  3. Their other book “The Power of Moments” is great as well. Really illustrates the folly of most organizations’ approach to customer satisfaction and how focusing on small key steps of their journey can be transformational.


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