Can Continuous Improvement Be a Matter of Life or Death?

By October 20, 2015 No Comments

With lean and continuous improvement, it’s foundational to think in terms of a problem being related to a process rather than people.  But as much as we teach and reinforce this concept, it can be very hard to internalize and practice the concept of process focus vs. people focus.  I often hear clients express disbelief and frustration over co-workers’ actions, especially when the behavior seems unexplainable and contrary to their own best interests.  When we can’t understand why people act in a certain way, it is easy to blame them for the unexplained behavior and categorize that behavior as “dumb” or “lazy”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

I recently read an article on NPR.org that really drove this point home.  It was about the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and in the article, Dr. Boie Jalloh talks about a situation where doctors and nurses were forgetting to wash their hands between patients.  The wards in Sierra Leone contained 20 patients each and the handwashing station for the wards was across the hospital grounds, forcing healthcare workers to walk some distance in order to be able to wash hands between seeing each patient.  No matter how many times they were told to wash their hands, there was complacency in doing it, in part, because it was inconvenient.

It is incredible that even in the case of something that is life or death, like becoming infected with Ebola, and despite education level and understanding of the rules, people still were not routinely washing their hands when the act of hand washing was inconvenient.  I don’t believe these healthcare workers were lazy or uninformed.  If you imagine what these workers are going through, making rounds of 20 patients or more, cleaning up bodily fluids, listening to patients talk about their pain and suffering, and spending long hours doing this work, it is understandable how having to walk a distance to wash your hands after seeing each patient, might become a challenge.  It would be easy to say, “I’m going to skip the hand washing, just this once”.  And once could turn into four or five times.

How often as a manager, have we complained about our employees not following instructions, or not doing what we ask?  What we sometimes forget is how powerful a motivator it is to make the job easier and make the work more convenient.  If people in life or death situations are not able to follow instructions when the act of doing the work is difficult, what makes us think our employees will follow instructions in non-life threatening situations if the work itself is inconvenient?

Next time you are frustrated by a job that is not getting done, ask your employees the following questions:

– What is preventing you from getting the job done?

– What makes it hard?

– What would make it easier?

You might be surprised by what you hear, and you might learn that the solution is easy.

In the case of the health care workers in Sierra Leone, Dr. Jalloh reported that they were spending $20 per hand wash station to put at least one in each ward.

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