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July 30, 2014

No More Heroes?

“We like being heroes. But it is a problem to have 6,000 well-meaning heroes tackling problems in 6,000 different ways, often without regard to the needs of upstream, downstream or parallel processes”.

This quote is taken from the excellent book “Beyond Heroes: A Lean Management System for Healthcare” (a bargain at £4.50 in Kindle edition). By “heroes” the author means managers and supervisors who constantly jump in to solve problems and fight fires. The book makes the point that, to improve their processes, organisations need to move from a reactive fire-fighting/ knee-jerk-reaction mode, to a planned and structured process for identifying problems in the process before they become critical issues, and improving them.

That structured management process is, of course, a lean management system and the book describes how one busy healthcare organisation (Thedacare) implemented such a process. It is an excellent book and I thoroughly recommend it.

However, back to the main theme. In many (most?) organisations swooping into action to put out fires, like some superhero, is a behaviour with is rewarded and, therefore, encouraged. On top of that, it is an approach that many individuals relish. Not only is being dynamic and solving problems kind of fun (the “Red Adair” buzz and excitement of sealing the burning well), but it also gets us noticed by those above. And, in many organisations, getting noticed as a “fixer” brings promotion.

I might even argue that springing into action to deal with a problem is an evolutionary trait that has become built into the human DNA. I don’t have the biological evidence to support this (I’ll leave that to others) but it seems a reasonable hypothesis.

Of course, there’ll always be small groups of cooperative individuals who’ll get together to collaborate and work together as equals – perhaps these are the business equivalent of Hippies!. But my question is, “is mankind inherently driven to compete and to jump to solutions as quickly as possible”?.

Lean is not about heroes, it is about a stable, organised approach to identifying and addressing problems and planning and implementing improvements. I wonder if this is diametrically opposed to the way that most human brains are wired, meaning that lean can never be more than a minority activity limited to those few organisations that somehow manage to avoid being controlled and run by “heroes”?

Is lean incompatible with human evolution?