Skip to main content

LeanOperationsSystems Leadership

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

28 August 2022
Woman thoughtfully trying to decide something surrounded by question marks

My first job in the Lean Enterprise Research Centre was to understand how to apply an operations management methodology, which had originated in manufacturing, to that of a service environment.   I shadowed my colleague Ann Esain on different healthcare projects and Ann helped to open my eyes to the potential for Lean Thinking within the NHS.  We worked on one project looking at Lab Services and, following Lean Principle number 1 ‘Who are your customers and what do they value?’ I went to interview lots of the internal customers of Lab Services – GPs, Doctors and Consultants.

Everywhere I went I asked ‘if you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you’d change about this service’ (great question by the way when on an improvement mission) and everyone said ‘please stop printing out the test results – the computer system works fine and it costs us money to destroy the paper results / file them etc.’.  Indeed, some of the people I interviewed were literally surrounded by piles of printed lab results waiting to be ‘dealt’ with.  This was an early project for me so it brought me some delight that I had found out something useful – I could feedback to Ann and the project team something that could be easily improved.  Result!

However, it was not so easy to turn the printing off. We certainly didn’t achieve it in the duration of the project, and as I understood it, it took many years for that printing to finally stop – even though it sucked up people’s time, energy and money to do the printing and the posting …. plus the time, energy and money to deal with the printed results at the ‘delivered end’.

It was my first major lesson in how hard improvement actually is.

Why was it so hard to stop doing something that no one needed or wanted?

First it was nearly impossible to work out who had the final say on whether this part of the service could be stopped. Which person? which group? which board? No-one knew. This might be a scenario where some kind of ‘ask for forgiveness not permission’ situation might come into play, but with something as serious as medical results, it felt far too dangerous to ‘experiment’ … no one wanted to be ultimately responsible for ‘turning something off’ and then getting in trouble or worse, something terrible happening as a consequence.

Frustrating when you can see that things can be better but you don’t know how to get the permission and, critically, the aircover from senior management, to try new things.

I have spent many years working in both public and private organisations and to me, there are just as many talented, hard-working people in both contexts – the biggest difference I’ve seen is how easy it is to find the people who can make decisions – how willing they are to make them, and how encouraged you are (and enabled you are) to make decisions yourself. This ability tends to come easier to private organisations as opposed to public, I suppose because of the extra responsibilities that public sector organisations tend to have. (I know that there are some private organisations who are very cautious about making decisions and some public organisations that are fab at making them – I generalize here in an attempt to make a point!)

I think that the ability to make decisions quickly, and learn from those decisions, is one of the most important ingredients of successful organisations.  And it’s not just me who thinks this… this is an abridged extract from successful entrepreneur Steven Bartlett’s interview as part of the How To Fail With Elizabeth Day Podcast  …

“there are some decisions which you have to make and make them as quick as you can and be at peace with it because most of the time in life the greatest cost isn’t the outcome of the decision, it’s the procrastination of the decision” … “Obama said this to me …  “I get to 51% certainty and then I’m at peace with that” … “you know in life generally whether its relationship decisions or business decisions you’re never gonna get to 100% and the endeavour to get to 100% is going to potentially cost you in more significant ways than being wrong at 51%… so … you get to 51% and then you are a peace that you made the best decision with the information you had at that time and you move on”.

“Working with clients you see very, very clearly, from a birds eye view, the cost of dithering and procrastination. I’ve got two clients in mind, both part of the same family business, one of the clients, I’m going to call them Client A, they make decisions so unbelievably quickly, sometimes they’re wrong but they at least find out if they are wrong or right so fast that they can at least make another decision and I’ve seen their business just absolutely explode….probably the fastest growing business in their category. Another business within the same family, I also work with them and if I approached them with the same idea, it could potentially take 9 months, of trying to get it through 12 different people and all of the red tape, blah blah blah, and their business is dying and I know why because they are just procrastinating on these decisions and it’s the procrastination, and the lost opportunity that comes with that, that’s costing them”.

Love them or loathe them, butchocktothebrimFULLOFLEAN Amazon have a penchant for excellent decision making too.  Here’s an extract from the Inside the Brain of Jeff Bezos – BBC Sound podcast where former senior employees talked about how valued “having healthy debates, then making a decision, then committing to do it” are within the company and that “that’s the opposite of what happens in most organisations” …

“(in) most organisations people don’t actively debate… they kinda hold back what their real position is, they don’t lead with customer obsession with data, they don’t respect the decision maker and when a decision is made they’re typically kind of passive aggressive if they didn’t agree to the decision …  they don’t wholeheartedly by-in to making the decisions successful …..and so those simple notions of how we work together I think are really a big part of the secret of how Amazon works”

So another powerful part of successful organisational decision making is how you make decisions, but critically how you empower employees to be able to make decisions themselves. I really like the way that Steven Bartlett achieves this with his team. He asks them to run things by him so he knows what’s happening, trusting that he’ll intervene and say something if he disagrees with their decision. He does this via Whatsapp conversation so his team will text him and say:

“Steve I’m going to buy this unless I hear”, “I’m going to do this unless I hear” “I’m going to book this unless I hear” so I can just look at my WhatsApp and just see what’s happening without having to do or say anything … so I’m trying to limit the amount decisions I have to make (he’s enabling his team to be able to make decisions themselves) (so) obviously you need to have good people and set parameters so that they can make as many decisions as they possibly can”.

Perfection would be that his team didn’t need to run things past him, they could just ‘do’ I suppose, but his system is still streets ahead that what happens in lots of organisations – construction of business cases, submission to panels, boards, inevitable ‘asking for more information’ pushback response….. and repeat.

So ask yourself the following questions:

To what extent are you encouraging your team to make decisions? Does more scope exist to empower them? Have you set parameters so that they know when to escalate a decision and when they can make the decision themselves?

Does the organisation have clear lines of ownership for decision making? How easy is it for people to ask for things and for change?

How do you make decisions robustly, but critically, quickly? How fast are you able to move when the decision is the wrong one to make a different decision?

Create a living, breathing and learning system of decision making in your organisation and you’ll very quickly see the benefits.