It’s all about leadership. Inspirational leadership.

The horror of the circumstances leading to the Francis enquiry demand urgent action.  We understand the temptation to impose punitive controls on a system that demonstrably failed to understand its core purpose.  But the danger of such populist intervention is that it will exacerbate the very cultural flaws that created the hole into which Mid Staffordshire Hospitals Trust fell.  At its heart, there is only one sure-fire way forwards. 

The solution must lie in reinforcing the statutory duty Board directors already have.  Their duty is first to do no harm, but then to inspire everyone in their organisation to do great things using the resources available to them to maximum effect.  This is hard and difficult stuff.  We need people of courage to step forward and lead the way.  For too long, we have prevented leaders from making the right decisions at the right time, conditioning them to look over their shoulder to the heavy handed interference of the army of regulators, government departments and politicians.

There are three imperatives for anything that flows from the Francis report.  These are messages for all leaders and managers in the NHS, and potentially even wider for all organisations, whether they are public, private or not-for-profit sector:

  • the failings which occurred in Mid Staffordshire hospitals were horrific, unacceptable, inexcusable and must never be allowed to happen again;
  • the friends and relatives of those caught up in these failings were confronted with a system which was completely deaf to their pleading and complaints: a level of arrogance, complacency and closing of ranks which must never be allowed to be repeated;
  • the review has exposed a level of systemic failure of both leadership and governance in which accountability, priority-setting and decision-making are always someone else’s responsibility.

Francis produces 290 recommendations targeted liberally throughout the system.  The report condemns the system for allowing the target culture to supplant the core purpose of the NHS.  Francis rightly demands a new culture which is dominated by patient outcomes, and does not tolerate harm to anyone caused by failure to implement known practice.  It is astonishing that these recommendations then are designed to reinforce that purpose with an unprecedented level of micromanagement and imposition of a regime in which the centrality of that purpose is threatened by total emphasis on compliance.  Evidence points time and again to the fact that cultures built around compliance lose the spirit and passion that constantly strives for improvement.  CHE is proud to be a major partner of EIGA – the European Institute of Governance Awards – a body whose purpose is to encourage and celebrate organisations that have an approach to governance designed to demand more from continuous learning and improvement.  This is liberating, empowering stuff that encourages leaders to inspire and motivate their staff.  It treats clarity of purpose, insatiable curiosity and fearsome courage as bedfellows in leadership.

This report is entirely about leadership.  It is about Boards that have developed a subservient culture of seeking both direction and permission from multiple regulators and government departments: outsourcing their very duties to others.  It is about a system-wide style of management that focuses on centralised control of power rather than leadership capable of inspiring a whole workforce to align behind the great values of service on which the NHS was built.  It is about performance management that focuses irrepressibly on enforcement of process targets, rather than encouraging a relentless drive for improvement and learning at every level and by everyone.

In any and every organisation, it is the single-minded duty of the board of directors to act with integrity and commitment to ensure that they deploy the scarce resources of their organisation to achieve the very best outcomes for the groups of people whom they serve – customers, patients and relatives, staff, suppliers, community, shareholders.  Boards must ensure that they have an unequivocally clear purpose and that they drive towards this purpose working with a clearly exhibited set of values – the ethos they personally live and breath, and which they expect their staff to live and breath at all times.  Boards must put in place the mechanisms of accountability by which the directors personally and collectively know categorically that their teams are doing the best they can.  And they need to encourage the curiosity in leadership that is hungry for new learning, new insight and new experience, which will help them to shape a better future.

None of this can be imposed from outside by fiat or mandate, or strengthened under the watchful gaze of regulation by compliance but nor can it be delivered behind closed doors.  An external view from regulators and those who have direct experience of the services will stimulate the openness, without which hubris and complacency lurk.

Francis demands a populist response of the iron fist and a tightening of control, and even a little bit of vengeance.  But this is just a rewiring of the stuff that got us to this point.  The emasculation of real accountability by those whose job it is to guarantee the quality, safety and effectiveness of services that created the breeding ground within which compassion was replaced by soulless complacency.  We need to rebuild trust in the management and leadership provided by the Boards who understand that their duty is first to do no harm, but then to inspire everyone in their organisation to do great things using the resources available to them to maximum effect.  This is hard and difficult stuff.  We need people of courage to step forward and lead the way.

See how this has been reported in the Huffington Post, and the National Health Executive.

Watch my interview on the subject as part of the Cass Talks series of video recordings by Cass Experts on topical new stories.

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Just how do we define the priorities in health?

I’m not usually slow to understand, but I’ve just been forced to think hard about what I am missing.

I am under the impression that we are deeply in the economic mire, and that everyone is grasping at straws to try and find some savings from their budget simply to break even, let alone contribute to the £20bn savings required to offset the growing pressures of the demographic challenge, most of which comes from increasing demand of more people needing to manage their chronic condition for a longer time.

I am also still of a mind to think that the NHS remains firmly wedded to the aims of improving patient experience, improving quality outcomes, and helping people to enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing – that pithy little adage about years to life and life to years which still does it for me!

I keep seeing policy statements about localism, and devolved responsibility, and nudging closer to our partners in local authorities, and latching into their long-standing skills in commissioning.  I keep reading how desperately we need to engender a spirit which thrives on innovation, and that we absolutely must find and plant the magic beans which will automatically sprout into widespread adoption of proven ideas.  I keep hearing people talk about using technology more effectively.  I keep working with clinicians who are regularly patted on the shoulder and told how important it is that they take a stronger lead in decision making, because, after all, they are the experts.  I talk to experts on corporate governance and leadership, observing the profound wisdom that leaders need to balance effective processes, with good judgement and a dose of personal accountability.

But then, I read the topic headlines from the Department of Health, and I am confused.  The last week or so, has seen 41 pages of detail preparing the transfer of public health to local authorities, 86 pages of command to Aspirant Foundation Trusts to demonstrate that they are sufficiently on the ball to look after themselves, plus goodness knows how many memoranda instructing doctors precisely how to configure their CCGs.  Rank this alongside a staggering 4 pages of passing comment on the Whole System Demonstrator evidence of just what telecare and telehealth can achieve.  Evidence from 6000 patients, supported by 240 GP practices, showing a 45% reduction in mortality, a 15% reduction in visits to A&E, a 20% reduction in emergency admissions and an 8% reduction in bed days.  

These findings merely put substance behind the intuitively obvious: that technology is just as capable of changing our business models in healthcare as it has been for every other service industry.  They suggest that we don’t need to wait another three years, for any more studying.  We don’t need to have another document from the DH micromanaging innovation, or bemoaning lack of adoption.

I am sure I must have my priorities wrong somewhere.  I still can’t reconcile why policy is measured in kilograms of report, when some of the best evidence for policy change appears to be defined by improved outcomes, more stable health and some pretty impressive efficiency numbers.  Ah well!

Organisational Elasticity

As a physicist by inclination, I often gain useful insight through metaphors which draw on the science of “stuff”.  The experiment of loading a wire or spring with different weights (a pure physicist would insist on talking about “masses”) is one I am sure most people will recall from school days.  The heavier the load, the more the wire stretches.  Up to a certain point, most simple materials stretch in direct proportion to the load.  This property of stretching is called “elasticity”.  The force acting through the length of the spring when the weight is added is called “tension”.  But a fine wire is weaker than a heavier gauge wire.  This is because the tension acting in the spring is spread across the cross sectional of the wire in the spring.  The impact of this tension in the wire is “stress”: – the force per unit area.  The amount that the spring stretches compared with its original length is called “strain”.

Now, all this was discovered by Robert Hooke, a physicist who was a contemporary of Isaac Newton.  He gave his name to Hooke’s law which states that for a given material (none of the clever composite materials in his day – this was all about metals), the strain is directly proportional to the stress, so that the ratio between them is a constant property of the particular metal – the “coefficient of elasticity”.  If we get right down to detail, other parameters such as temperature play their part and will change this coefficient – the hotter the spring, the bigger the strain for a given stress.

What Hooke’s law means is that when we remove the load, the wire or spring returns to its original length.  Take away the stress and the strain goes back to zero.  But, if we keep on piling on the load, the wire starts to stretch much more than we expect – Hooke’s law has run out of steam!  And now, when we remove the load, the wire no longer returns to its original length – it has a permanent distortion in it.  The stress applied was so great, that we changed the properties of the wire  in a way that cannot be changed back by the simple processes of changing the load.  The point at which permanent distortion starts to happen is called the “elastic limit”.  When we have applied stress greater than the elastic limit, physicists describe the behaviour as “plastic”.  Plastic strain is that change which happens to a material when we have loaded it up so much that its behaviour is no longer predictable according to Hooke’s law. 

In the plastic region, the relationship between the variables (the cross section, the length, the coefficient of elasticity and the total load applied) ceases to be linear, because very small effects (called second order effects) start to become too large to ignore.  In the case of the metal wire, the forces applied are sufficient to change the way the microcrystals relate to each other.  Typically, at one point in the wire, necking will occur where the rearrangement of the crystals in the direction of the force will cause the wire to narrow.  The friction of the crystals rubbing past each other will heat that part of the wire.  The smaller cross section means that the stress is higher, and the temperature increase means that the strain will increase for a given stress.  As more external load is applied now, more damage is done concentrated at this narrowing, until at some point the wire breaks.  We refer to this point as the breaking strain, reflecting the fact that any material can only be distorted so far from its natural state before the strain simply becomes too much, and instead of stretching further, it snaps.

As one final aside, there are some interesting things you can do to change the coefficient of elasticity, to change the elastic limit and the breaking strain.  Metallurgists will be familiar with work hardening (the black-smith hitting the hot metal repeatedly), or case hardening (treating the metal surface to change its composition slightly), or annealing or quenching – heat treatments that also change the surface and the crystalline composition. Interestingly, some of these treatments can strengthen the material so that the strain is reduced, but at the same time might reduce the elastic limit or breaking strain, so that it has a more limited range over which its behaviour remains predictable and elastic.

Now the fact that you are still reading, suggests to me that you are either a physicist, checking out my details, or you have latched onto my analogue.  The language of tension, stress, strain, elasticity, breaking point, all relate to experiences in other parts of your life.  You can see the parallel in mental or physical health, or the working environment – different people exhibit a different relationship between stress and strain, and this relationship can be strengthened by workout, so that the strain arising from a given stress can be reduced.  Some have an elastic limit much lower than others, so they start to behave out of normal character at a much lower threshold level, and others might appear strong for longer but break very quickly after passing their elastic limit. 

But the analogue I want to touch on is that of organisations.  Organisations are elastic – they respond to forces being applied to them, which in turn translates into stress acting within the organisation giving rise to strain – the changed shape arising as the organisation reacts to the stresses.  An organisation is more complex than the simple wire, nevertheless, if the stresses are applied within the elastic limit, the organisation will continue behaving exactly as before – take away the stresses and it will return to its original shape.  Increase the stresses and it will react predictably, until it has been pushed beyond its elastic limit.  The properties of the organisation can be changed by organisational development which can strengthen it against the stresses, to make it more resilient.  But the truth is, when you need to effect major change, it is essential to push it beyond the elastic limit, creating some permanent lasting change because the relationships between the atoms and the forces binding them together have been permanently changed.  And when you push something beyond the elastic limit to avoid it bouncing back unchanged, it is critical to be mindful of the breaking strain which leads to permanent, irrecoverable damage.

Now, everywhere I turn at the moment, people are talking about the need to create disruptive innovation in the health system.  But this is in real danger of becoming another fad, rather than a serious and fundamental approach to management science and understanding.  I even heard it said recently that we want disruptive innovation without the disruption.  And to understand what it is we need to disrupt, it is crucial to look at the “atoms” and “forces” which contribute to the resilience and elasticity.  We talk about these as the silos – the “microcrystals” of our wire.  These include the individual teams and 400 plus organisations within the NHS.  They include the professional silos designed to protect individual professional standards.  The financial forces designed to reward fragments of care.  The education processes that are grounded within current cultures.  The research processes.  The political processes, especially the Kidderminster effect!  The media frenzy which misleads the public into fighting any change!

Disruptive innovation means pushing each of these areas beyond their own elastic limits – some areas will distort plastically, but others will undoubtedly exceed the breaking strain.  If this is not happening, painful though it might be, the organisational elasticity will ensure that the current system lives to fight another day, on precisely the same basis as we are losing the battles today.  Ultimately, it is the business model which needs to be disrupted, because this defines the architecture within which all the ingredients are held and work together.  The need for competition, and innovation, and new forms of professionalism and regulation are all part of the new business model(s).  Disruption, and the painful stresses and strains are essential.  Bring them on!

Can we learn about health reform from the US experience?

Within the NHS, there are always some antibodies to the idea that we might learn something about health from the US system, which costs twice as much and delivers poorer outcomes.  But the reality is more complex.  Almost certainly the poorer US mortality figures are caused by the institutionalised inequity, and when you look to the best of the best, there is clearly much to admire and seek to emulate.

Having spent my early career in engineering and materials science, I understand integration as a necessity to reduce boundary and hand-off effects which in turn are sources of risk and failure.  So the current mounting pressure to achieve meaningful integrated processes for care is a great encouragement.  

One of the most promising approaches is the Accountable Care Organisation model.  It is important to understand that the term “Organisation” refers to the alignment of processes, not a physical entity.  I’m hoping that a paper I have co-authored on ACO will appear soon in the BMJ – there is real potential for breakthrough with ACO, simply because the defining characteristic is that it aligns incentives throughout the system, directed towards the desired outcomes.

Well, the Americans have been putting considerable emphasis on the wonder of ACO, since their reform bill recognised its potential.  An ACO approach is also one of the few hopes that Christensen has for overcoming inertia of health systems and truly disrupting the health system so that it can tap into the order of magnitude improvements which have happened in almost all other industry sectors but healthcare.

So here is the rub!  Some of the thinking about the power of the ACO model comes from looking at the most successful health systems – Mayo clinic, Intermountain, Geisinger, Cleveland Clinic.  Federal policy being made after taking a good look around, finding the best and seeking to stimulate an environment in which the very best can be built on and replicated.  Sound familiar?  Well, it appears that the programme to stimulate such adoption of the best has wrapped the very best in so much centralised bureaucracy, that the best are declining to party.  The federal approach appears to be stifling the very stuff which has made it the best!

Let’s hope this is one lesson that Sir David N will choose to learn from the USA!  The best are best, because they have worked at it, understood it and given a real sense of ownership to the front line people who make it the best.  The very thing which makes it the best, is the very thing which no centralised administration can replicate or, heaven forbid, succeed in imposing.

What of the Bill?

As the Health Bill returns to the House of Lords for its second reading, what are peers expected to make of the increasingly vociferous messages directed at them? 

I have written before about how most of the reporting sits at one or other end of a polarised debate, often showing limited understanding of either the NHS or this entire sector of our economy.

Andy Burnham, the new shadow secretary, says scrap the bill and we will work with you.  But this is to deny the fact that the fabric of decision-making structures has already been dismantled beyond the point of no return.  Going back is not an option.  Too much has already changed for that to happen.  Stopping mid change, leaving a vacuum within which confusion and indecision reigns is arguably even worse – possibly the surest way to seal the very demise of the NHS that people are clamouring to avoid. 

It is therefore incumbent on the Lords to avoid the temptation for filibustering, scoring points from each other, and other parliamentary devices, so that the debate can be shifted onto a more worthy plane.  Such a debate would pivot around what it takes to secure a sustainable future for health services:

  • that are better at adopting innovation,
  • in which all elements of the system drive together towards best possible outcomes for available resources,
  • that ensure we continue to drive up the health of the nation, whilst also reducing the unacceptable inequity – both in terms of health (mortality /morbidity), but also in access to quality care when needed.

Many improvements have been made to the Bill through its previous readings, the Pause and revision, but uncertainty remains.  The Bill continues to focus too heavily on structural issues, leaving unanswered those more important questions dealing with roles, responsibilities and effective governance.  Such ambiguities include:

  • detail of how Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) will be held to account;
  • how Monitor will promote the integration of services whilst deterring anti-competitive behaviours;
  • how the NHS Commissioning Board (NCB) process will work to evaluate and strengthen CCG Boards. 

Current indications are that the NCB will continue conflating its important role to determine what needs to be done, with interference in how things should be done.  If CCGs are to drive innovation, improvement and best possible outcomes, then they must feel a real sense of ownership.

Much commentary focuses on these individual issues, but the real risk lies in the unknown cumulative effect of how these interact.  Current debates tend towards passionate defence of both ingrained vested interests and the proliferation of silo working.  These have proven time and again to prevent progress, always keeping internal issues in the spotlight, instead of giving real attention to transforming the way customers (patients, carers, relatives, service users) are meaningfully engaged.  “No decision about me, without me” will never become more than a collection of words until these internal issues are relegated to the back seat.  What we need is an open-minded focus on how to achieve successful transition to a new shape.  The health system is too big and complex, to be susceptible to management by central diktat.  We need more emphasis on applying the best management science to understand how such a complex beast can be steered to achieve the desired outcomes, by using the right incentives. 

We welcome the increased attention on integration, but success in tackling quality and efficiency, requires incentives to be aligned with outcomes throughout the whole system.  GPs manage 90% of patient encounters, and need to retain identity as primary care providers, properly integrated with all other aspects of community and hospital care.  There is a real danger that concentrating on developing their role as commissioners will prevent opportunity for better integration of provision.  That GPs will be subject to conflicts is clear in recent stories, and the solution to place commissioning responsibility for primary care in the NCB makes a mockery of localism – surely primary care is the area which most needs and deserves to be given a local commissioning flavour. 

Achieving the right balance here demands that Health and Wellbeing Boards are strong enough to direct the NCB and robust enough to hold them to account.  Health and Wellbeing Boards bring the different cultures of NHS and local authorities directly together.  Success of these boards is pivotal to the future.  It is essential that they are rapidly gain maturity to deal with difficult issues robustly, demanding significant organisational development to face up to and overcome these often ingrained cultural differences and tensions.  We see no attempts being made to nurture the new relationships on which success can be assured.

The Lord’s second reading has much to discuss and shape, but its biggest challenge will be to avoid the polarisation and misunderstanding which has shaped debate to date.  There are important matters to be understood, which will make a real and important difference.

David & Rob

The perils of squeezing out judgement

Our recent past is littered with large scale systemic failures, each of which has led to probing reviews, a myriad reports and the inevitable rewriting of regulation, each time marking a new dawning of governance and protection for innocent casualties.  Maxwell!  Enron!  Clapham!  Barings!  Baby P! Bristol!  Alder Hey!  MidStafford!

In some ways the review findings are predictable.  Technology has enabled practice to outstrip and outsmart the regulator.  The regulator caught napping!  Regulators essentially caught colluding with the deceit – Enron was the first of these to reach my consciousness. 

When you peel the layers away, every one of these is a failure of risk management process.  Inadequate consideration of, and planning for, the risk that things might not work out as we want them to.  Insufficient integrity in those controls which should have been starting to glow red as the likelihood of impending failure rose.  Insufficient emphasis on assurance – that triangulation process which seeks independent confidence that all is well. 

But then, risk management is too easily relegated to the “process nerds” who interfere with innovation and shun entrepreneurial flair, demand that proper time is allocated to consider complex issues in depth. 

An opportune moment perhaps to rewrite that perception?

In 2009, Sir David Walker’s report on the failure of banking recorded some of the most memorable words from a governance review:

“……improvement in corporate governance will require behavioural change in an array of closely related areas in which prescribed standards and processes play a necessary but insufficient part. Board conformity with laid down procedures such as those for enhanced risk oversight will not alone provide better corporate governance overall if the chairman is weak, if the composition and dynamic of the board is inadequate and if there is unsatisfactory or no engagement with major owners. The behavioural changes that may be needed are unlikely to be fostered by regulatory fiat, which in any event risks provoking unintended consequences. Behavioural improvement is more likely to be achieved through clearer identification of best practice and more effective but, in most areas, non-statutory routes to implementation so that boards and their major owners feel “ownership” of good corporate governance.”

Earlier this year, Professor Eileen Munro reported on the circumstances of the Baby P tragedy, concluding that the child protection system had been built up of layer after layer of so-called assurance, which ultimately diverted attention away from the very purpose for which the processes existed, recommending that energy in safeguarding needed to be brought back to its core aims:

“These forces have come together to create a defensive system that puts so much emphasis on procedures and recording that insufficient attention is given to developing and supporting the expertise to work effectively with children, young people and families”;  and:

“instead of ‘doing things right’ (i.e. following procedures) the system needed to be focused on doing the right thing (i.e. checking whether children and young people are being helped)”

Can the combination of Walker and Munro mark a sea change in thinking about risk management and governance?  Yes, process is an important part of the story, but it can never be seen as more than just a part. 

I have a few simple mantras which, if applied in a few more places could improve effectiveness.  One of these applies here.  Information rarely gives you answers – it simply helps you understand and formulate the important questions to ask! 

Put simply, it is the duty of management to use the best available information and evidence, combine it with experience and professional judgement, and subject it to peer review from as wide a cross section of perspectives as practical.  That for me is a statement of good governance and the duty of both individual managers and whole boards.

So, when we read the litany of misfortune and the apparent disarray within CQC, we have to be worried, even after stripping out the undoubted misreporting, exaggeration and sensationalising of the telling. 

Easy to make a transcription error that puts the wrong number down for the number of inspections carried out last year, but impossible to misjudge your core business by a factor of two!  Valuable for board members to be setting aspirational plans for how they want to see processes becoming more consistent and controls being tightened, but unacceptable to then misjudge the gap between today’s reality and that future goal.  Commendable to see an internal review conducted when staff properly raise concerns about process quality, and easy to understand why sharing such a review publicly would need careful handling, but impossible to see how an organisation whose very raison’d etre is to provide public assurance, could misjudge the importance of transparency and consider disciplinary action as a first resort.

And the biggest question of all!  What can be done to enable the CQC board to achieve Walker’s sense of “ownership of good governance”, to generate an effective balance between process and culture, when the government imposes increasing demands, expands the scope and reduces resources at the drop of a hat?  Where is the meaningful consideration of risks, the integrity of the controls and the confident, independent assurance and exercise of professional judgement.  Surely, at the very heart of this governance minefield, it is ironic indeed to see the Department of Health acting almost in the role of Shadow Directors of CQC, removing the very ownership the board should have in determining how to square this shrinking circle! 

This feels to me to be the very antithesis of the assurance process for which CQC exists.

Bring back reason

You will be aware of the importance of the vote through the Commons this week on the health and social care bill.  You will also be aware of the many vested interest groups which are lining up their forces to deepen the degree of polarisation of the debate.  The 38 degree pressure group is emailing widely about the “crunch NHS vote”, painting a single all-or-nothing picture.  As I’ve previously pointed out, the biggest demand from experienced and engaged NHS managers of all professional backgrounds over the last few years has been to remove the fickle hand of influence of the politicians from the tiller, so that the care service can be run as an effective business sector in which the diversity of players is a valued asset.

We are desperately worried that, yet again, the real debate is being derailed by emotional arguments which completely ignore the challenges which need to be addressed.  Please help us find the middle ground.  A ground in which the discussion can separate the challenge of understanding the changing needs for care, from the very different challenge of finding the solutions.

To help avoid the usual polemic, I’d like to suggest that the need should be expressed in terms of guaranteeing equality of access to a high quality service of care.  That service must be designed to achieve the maximum wellbeing and independence of the whole population at an affordable cost to the public.  

Similarly, the solutions should be defined in as neutral a language as possible.  The solutions are perhaps best described as comprising a range of services offering appropriate, patient-centred care and support, able to take full advantage of advances in both medical science and other relevant innovations and new developments which can be used to advantage in the whole care process.  Such advances may be in terms of leadership, business management, entrepreneurial ventures, organisational behaviours, partnership working and social engagement to select just a small range of domains which are fundamentally important to achievement of the care vision we have.

The biggest threat to the health of our nation, the fabric of the NHS and all other partners in the delivery of care, is to entrench them in business models and compartmentalised structures because the real issues to be debated have been lost in the partisan emotions of polarised rhetoric.

Please help join our demand for a reasoned debate which seeks to focus on really understanding and defining what the scale of health needs are, and seeks to encourage solutions to this need which are available equally to everyone who needs then and achieve the very best outcomes we can afford.