When an Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Billion Pounds of Global GDP

By Jon Miller Updated on February 3rd, 2020

This simple chart gets to the heart how Lean processes, systems and behaviors keep costs low. In brief, the earlier we detect and address problems, the less it costs. This is a broad, common sense principle. It applies to safety incidents, quality defects, delivery delays, design flaws, poor morale or any off-target metric. To quote Benjamin Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

This principle is behind the Lean prescription to design processes for laminar flow. In discrete manufacturing or transactional business processes this is accomplished by working one piece at a time. Each process checks incoming quality as well as their own work. Through these self- and successive checks, we can detect the first deviation rather than deal with a bad batch. Where processes are continuous or batch in nature, the principle still applies; the point of detection simply shifts to the real-time process conditions and process parameters which affect what comes out of the pipe. In all cases, we must design our technical and human systems to note and address deviations at the point of least harm, which often equates to the earliest point in time.

A case in point is the species-hopping virus of the moment. Regional travel is grinding to a halt. Millions of lives have been disrupted, tens of thousands sickened, hundreds killed. The cost to the world economy will be in the billions of dollars before all is said and done.

We may never have the facts to judge whether efforts to detect, contain, escalate and correct were fast enough. What we do know is that live and exotic animal markets were the point of cause. A few ounces of animal flesh caused similar novel and deadly virus outbreaks in recent decades. Yet these animal markets remain open, with inadequate sanitation controls, as known health risks. Without long-term root cause corrective action, swift and splashy incident response only buys us a decade or two of false peace of mind.

Often, such cost-escalating delays in detection, containment and correction are not due to technical or even a system challenges. They are due to human issues. When local managers or bureaucrats are bullied to meet their targets, they learn to hide deviations from their targets. Leaders within a blame culture underreport problems, hoping they can fix them before their superiors take notice. Even when people on the front lines report problems quickly, intermediate level bureaucrats and managers may sit on the information to protect themselves from their higher-ups. This delays containment and corrective action, allowing the problem to worsen.

In contrast, a Lean culture results when process artifacts, behavior-driving incentives, and mindset-altering communication are all aligned to minimize overall cost via early detection. This begins by setting clear standards, making truth-telling safe, and building abnormality detection into daily routines. This must be supported by robust disciplines for containment, communication, escalation, cause-finding, countermeasure-taking, and the updating and auditing of standards. Needless to say, such a Lean culture must start at the top.

  1. Nancy Alvarez

    February 3, 2020 - 7:46 pm

    Hi Jon,
    My name is Nancy Alvarez and I’m currently a senior Industrial & Systems Engineering student at the University of Rhode Island. This semester, I enrolled in a Lean Six Sigma, Green Belt Certification Class. We were encouraged to read blogs pertaining to Lean and came across your page! I really enjoyed reading this article and it is clear to see how company culture can play a role in minimizing costs. It seems as if many companies are always driving the point of maximizing profits without realizing that preventing issues through open and honest communication about current processes will only aid them with their goal. With my internship experience, much of the staff was getting drained because problems would often arise and no help was offered and no one would make the problems a priority. Lean culture is something I appreciate because it is transparent and based on facts through analysis and observation which allows companies to succeed both internally and externally.

    • Jon Miller

      February 3, 2020 - 8:49 pm

      Hello Nancy
      Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed it. You’re right. The way leaders treat people, how organizations set incentives, and the overall behavior this generates has a huge impact on customer satisfaction, profitability and long-term viability of a business. It’s great that you are able to reflect on this as you gain exposure during internships. Finding a company with a good culture, or one that is open to improving it, will have a big impact on how happy you are there.

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