They engage in “magical thinking” she said.  They think something is true, or becomes true, just because they say so.  She was describing the leadership approach of her hospital.  She has been a nurse for years.  And now, after decades of helping the sick, she hates her job.  Don’t get me wrong, she still loves taking care of patients, but she hates her job.

Her workplace has been infected with management that tells her how many FTEs are required; she doesn’t even know what a FTE is.  She is exasperated, disenfranchised and done.  Her strategy now is to try to keep her head down until retirement.

There were many difficult aspects to this conversion, the worst part being that she is a friend.  Her pain and frustration is palpable.  I was not surprised to hear of magical thinking.  It is an apt description of something I have seen in many organizations, in many different industries.  But, I was surprised to learn that it has invaded health care.

In magical thinking, management teams set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), often reductions in staff or increases in workload, that are unrealistic, unsustainable, or unachievable.  They may look good on paper, but without the tools, people, resources, infrastructure, and leadership needed to achieve them – they are folly.  They often leave employees, like my friend, tired and dispirited, with justifiably diminished confidence in their leadership.

I have seen “magical thinking” in the private and the public sectors.  In my experience, the most pervasive form lately is “lower cost at any price.”   These are initiatives that solely focus on cutting cost, often at the expense of quality, safety, and customer satisfaction.   One particularly egregious example that I recently encountered, is an organization, that in the interest of costs, switched from instructor/hands-on training to solely computer based training.  While this may be appropriate for some positions,  I doubt it served the diesel engine mechanic  well , who,  on their first day on job said of the 16 valve 30 ton engine that they were responsible for –  “I didn’t think it would be so big, or so hot.”

In defense of magical thinking it can occasionally work.  There can be some fantastic wins – perhaps accidentally when the directed action (a.k.a. “countermeasure(s)”) happen to address the root cause(s) of the barrier between the current condition and the target condition. But in the long run, the results are unsustainable.  Like any gambling strategy, the laws of probability describe the long-term behavior and unfortunately the odds are not in the magical thinker’s favor.  Fortunately, there are better ways.  There are tools, systems, and philosophies that give better and more consistent returns.

Hard work, coupled with sound principles is a better approach.  Nothing can re-align magical thinking like going to the gemba and challenging one’s assumptions with fact.  Continuous improvement can only be accomplished  and sustained through humble leadership, not through arrogance and hubris.  Indeed, PDCA presumes that there is a check with reality and the openness to consider and make the necessary adjustments. In hoshin planning, this same spirit is applied within the catchball process – another means of immunizing the organization against magical thinking.

Lean thinking’s magic is about people, learning, science, value creation, the seeking of perfection and the like. Magical thinking, well…that’s for people who really dig the emperor’s new clothes.

Related post: Easier, Better, Faster, Cheaper…in that Order

This post was authored by Michael O’Connor, PhD. “Dr. Mike,” as Mark Hamel refers to him, is a lean six sigma implementation consultant and a passionate learner, educator, and communicator. He was recently bestowed with the Master Black Belt of the Year award by the International Quality and Productivity Center.