Does your organization have a person on staff who everyone can go to in order to get a problem solved? For example, someone who knows how to obtain guest Wi-Fi access for a visiting contractor? Who is the same person who can always find that hidden file on the network, and knows how to correct the mistake in your EMR or MRP system?
Perhaps your organization is a customer-facing business and this person also goes above and beyond to follow up with a customer who has a special request and double-checks every item before your product goes out the door.
Picture a person on your team who matches this description.
Or, are you that person on your team?
People who save the day and rescue a team from disaster again and again are priceless. We want to honor and thank them here. But having people fill this role can also signal a problem and lead to the masking of deep inefficiencies in your organization that are long past due for addressing. In our experience working to improve healthcare and other processes, we have come to identify this character as a “Super Nurse” – a symbol for the person who deploys heroic measures time and again, masking the root cause for why process issues are not addressed and fixed.
Why having a Super Nurse can be a problem
There are several problems your organization needs to understand when you have a super nurse on your staff:
1. Super Nurses “save the day”… and also cover up process issues
One goal of Lean thinking is to move towards continuous flow in a process. Perfect flow is rarely achieved, even with the best-designed processes in the world. Out-of-balance conditions such as excessive Work in Progress (WIP), defects, and other processes wastes indicate issues with process flow.
Having process wastes visible – so the wastes can be recognized, addressed and improved, helps a team respond to their processes issues and continuously improve.
The problem with a “Super Nurse” is that they continually fill the role of hero, preventing a poor process from certain failure, and thus make process issues and issues with flow invisible.
We worked on an improvement project in healthcare in which an employee who stocked the parts for an operating room developed their own back-up plan for when a part was not pulled from stock for a procedure. This stockroom employee was keeping a separate inventory of parts on-hand so she would be ready for these emergencies that far too often came up. Because she “saved the day,” the fundamental root cause issues of insufficient parts stocking for surgical procedures did not get addressed, and thus persisted.
On her days off, there was no hero to save the day and patients suffered.
One person shouldn’t be expected to rescue a bad process continuously. The team needs to step back and see the issue and lead to a process re-work to correct the underlying problem.
2. Super Nurse superpowers do not address the root causes of issues
The Super Nurses’ efforts to address the process issues with their hard work is never enough to solve the underlying cause of the problem.
These excellent employees are often the most driven team members, dedicated and willing to sacrifice their lunch breaks and dinners at home with the family for the team to succeed.
Identifying and addressing root cause issues will prevent problems from reoccurring. No employee should become accustomed to dealing with the same issues again and again. This is equivalent to treating symptoms vs curing the underlying disease. It is necessary for a real leader to take a larger view of the system and the root causes of failure so that Super Nurses and all staff members can return to doing their jobs in a reasonable manner and delivering to customer value.
3. Super Nurses can burn out and leave
Super Nurses are dedicated to their work and committed to results. But after a while, all of that running and fire-fighting will get to anyone. Super Nurses can, and do, burn out and leave.
Sometimes its from retirement, but often it is because of frustration or total burnout, leaving their position feeling unrecognized for their extra efforts that they often hoped were necessary only for a short period, (that they were “taking one for the team, to bridge the department through a tough time or a constraint”) a constraint or temporary emergency that never ever went away.
This leads the remaining team in an even more vulnerable position than they were in before. Can any of your existing staff absorb the duties vacated by this super employee, many of which were on a volunteer / informal basis? Will you be able to hire any one person into your organization who will keep up at that same pace?
Another issue we observe is Super Nurses setting unrealistic performance expectations for the entire team. Other workers feel frustrated that they look lazy or less dedicated next to the Super Nurse. They drew their line in the sand for work-life balance or what they thought was reasonable deliverable for their position, and dislike the feeling of someone on the team demonstrating that a person can always do more.
How to utilize a Super Nurse in a Lean organization
Super Nurses are extremely dedicated and talented employees who work hard to prevent process failures. They are also confident in their knowledge and abilities. This makes them important members of any Lean process improvement project team.
Lean East loves to work with Super Nurses in organizations. Once we demonstrate that we respect their knowledge and skills and are aligned with their improvement goals, they begin to trust our contributions to their operations. We involve them in the current state process review and root cause analysis exercises and teach them that learning to see process wastes is a big goal of Lean. Even better if the improvement project team has more than one such committed person involved in an improvement effort.
The Super Nurses soon learn to refocus on addressing root cause solutions rather than fighting fires. As they stop acting as a buffer and covering up the problems (exposing the process wastes ) we coach them on how to apply their strong work ethic to the Lean improvement process. They will be instrumental in implementing tests of change and collecting data and implementation support.
In our work with New England companies, we have found exceptional employees going above and beyond again and again.
Lean East has been proud to coach multiple Super Nurses and help them undergo their personal transformations.
If you have Super Nurses in your organization, or you are a Super Nurse yourself, please reach out to a member of our team and we can help you transform as well.