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  • Susan Snedaker

Lean Leader #4 - Think Systematically

In this post, we’re exploring the fourth foundational element of Lean leadership – thinking systematically.

What is systematic thinking?

Let's start by defining systematic thinking from a Lean perspective. Systematic thinking means looking holistically at a process or a system and understanding it from end-to-end. For example, in may healthcare IT organizations, many systems are the result of years of a slow evolution. The organization's storage systems might ranges in age from 15 years old to brand new - from standard storage to SSD-based arrays. Each of these was likely purchased for a purpose then redeployed when newer storage was purchased. The result? A bit of a hodge-podge of storage that may meet the organization's needs (at least on the surface), but it's certainly not streamlined or optimized in any way. Now, it's entirely possible you HAVE optimized your storage through this classic waterfall approach and that's great. But many organizations have not. They may have lacked a systems approach. (As a side note, one could argue the very process of using the waterfall approach to re-deploying aging hardware is, itself, waste).

Let's look at any process improvement. I like to use the EHR as an example because it requires a systems approach. How often has an IT request come it to add a workflow, modify a value, or add functionality? Every day, multiple times per day. How often does that request get turned into a service request, task or ticket and get worked on by a competent IT analyst? Every day, multiple times per day. How often does that request get looked at in a more holistic manner to see if the workflow modification being requested makes sense against the larger backdrop of the workflow or context? How often does the analyst stop to look at the number of clicks it takes to get someplace or the location of the element to improve the overall usability? Maybe a lot less often than would be ideal, right?

Why does this matter? When we add on one piece at a time and we don't build into our standard work a process for reviewing the larger elements - the holistic view, the systematic view - we will most certainly build something less than optimal because it lacks systems thinking.

What does systematic thinking do for you?

Systematic thinking requires that you step back from the busy day-to-day operational work you and your teams do - and that is one of the hardest part of this problem. As leaders, we feel the pressure to get more done faster, often with fewer resources. So, purposefully stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, end-to-end, can be challenging. However, it's also where you end up finding extra time, extra resources and better results - because you are not building a rickety bridge plank by plank, but instead engineering the solution with the end in mind. Less rework. Fewer errors. Less waste (i.e. fewer clicks, fewer screens, less redundant data points, easier navigation, etc.). That's one of the results of systems thinking. And over time, that does yield savings of time and effort, which equates to more resources.

Systems thinking for management

Systems thinking also provides an opportunity to manage in a new way - where managers are solving problems by looking systematically at issues and leading the necessary change to improve both systems and the organization. In our IT world right now, we're using the phase "describe the WHAT" to help managers understand that their job is to lead the team by identifying what needs to be accomplished - what goals, what objectives, what improvements, etc. (For all you Lean experts out there, we also work closely with our teams to identify the WHAT....) In order for the manager to be successful, he or she must also think systematically. It's not useful if a manager comes back and says "we're going to improve X by 25%" without looking holistically at the problem and the objective. Without a more systematic view of the situation, you'll be what I call 'squeezing the balloon' (pressure HERE causes the balloon to simply shift shape and that pressure then comes out THERE, no meaningful change to the situation).

Without systems thinking, you'll simply be squeezing the balloon.

Take time on a weekly basis to review your tasks, your everyday activities at work and see if you can identify opportunities for more systematic thinking. While you may not always spot them or you may not always be able to take a more systematic approach (sometimes you really do just have to crank something out to achieve a very important short-term objective) - but your thinking will begin to shift. Once you can see, you can do.

How do you improve your systems thinking in your organization? Chime in.

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