On Cowboys and Pit Crew Members

By on September 9, 2015
On Cowboys and Pit Crew Members Bert van Dijk

“We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right – one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.”
– Atul Gawande, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance”

In a really great talk on TED.com, Atul Gawande M.D., a leading proponent of Lean work processes in healthcare and author of “The Checklist Manifesto,” discusses his experiences in developing a checklist for surgeons to use that would cut down on the number of mistakes made in surgery. The checklist he developed, with very important contributions from Boeing, was tested in eight hospitals around the world.

Its impact? A 35% reduction in rates of infection and a 47% decrease in deaths during surgery.

Based on these dramatic improvements in surgical outcomes, it would be assumed that surgeons would quickly and enthusiastically adopt the checklist for their personal use.

They didn’t. As Dr. Gawande notes in his TED talk, large numbers of surgeons refused to use it. In reflecting on this obviously illogical behavior, Dr. Gawande observes that there are “far too many cowboys in healthcare and not nearly enough pit crew members.”

Within the context of Dr. Gawande’s use of the term, what’s the difference between a “cowboy” and a “pit crew member”? It’s simple. “Cowboys” are employees who believe that their way is the best way and “pit crew members” are employees who believe that the best way to do something comes as a result of collaborative thinking with others.

Cowboys are lone riders, pit crew members identify with teams.

As Dr. Gawande’s experience illustrates very dramatically, “cowboy thinking” can exert very potent and strange influences on behavior. 47% reduction in death rate during surgery. “No, I won’t use the checklist.” I believe we’d all agree that this is weird thinking.

I’ve personally seen over and over again the ways in which cowboy thinking causes seemingly rational people act in very illogical ways. I’ve seen first-hand the ways in which cowboy thinking blocks increases in productivity and product quality. I recall a fellow named Brian whose work cell was always exceptionally neat, clean, and orderly. The supplies he needed to do his work were always there in the quantity needed. His tools were in position and clearly marked. Brian had developed this very productive work cell in cooperation with other employees who worked in his area. Brian was definitely a pit crew thinker.

In an adjoining work cell was a fellow named Bill. Bill did the same kind of work in his work cell as Brian did in his. But that’s where similarities ended. Bill’s work cell was messy and dirty. Quite often, Bill would run out of supplies but rather than going to the warehouse to replenish them, he would go the Brian’s area, find what he needed and take it. The fact that doing this hurt Brian’s work didn’t even cross his mind. Bill didn’t go for neat, clean, and orderly. He was openly disdainful of the plant’s Lean transformation, its use of Lean tools like 5S and Visual Controls. His way was “the way” as far as he was concerned. Taking supplies out of Brian’s work cell? No problem. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my area producing. We’re all on our own. Bill was a typical cowboy thinker.

And then, gradually, over time, Bill’s thinking started to change.

Bill observed that Brian’s workday seemed much less hectic than his. No searching for tools. No running around trying to find supplies. No avoiding oil slicks on the floor. One small step at a time, Bill started to think like Brian. And this new way of thinking drove gradual improvements in his work area. In addition, Bill started talking with Brian about ways to make their work cells more productive. Bill was on his way to becoming a pit crew thinker.

It takes pit crew thinking to drive sustainable increases in productivity and product quality.

St. Louis Community College’s Corporate Services Group has a wide variety of training and consulting resources that you can put to work now in your organization to drive pit crew thinking. Our training and consulting resources are well-tested, very effective, and competitively priced.

I’d appreciate having the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. I think you’d find learning more about our Lean transformation resources to be time very well spent.

Image Credit: “Fernando Alonso’s Renault pit crew carry out a pit stop at the 2008 Chinese Grand Prix” by Bert van Dijk is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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