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Try telling a friend you have come across some ‘magical thinking’? What reaction might you get? Will they ask, ‘You mean like in mushrooms?’ or ‘As in Elon Musk or Richard Branson?’

I first heard the term in a very different context, used by someone who was once herself a senior politician. She was referring to politicians and senior public servants! She felt they too often engage in grand visions and aspirations without thinking through, and putting in place, the planning and resources to give those aspirations a realistic chance of achievement.

I mentioned this use of the term ‘magical thinking’ to a friend of mine who, prior to retirement, spent much of his career as a very senior university office bearer. He laughed out loud. Then he recounted how he and his senior colleagues were once getting excited as they articulated visionary plans for the future of their institution. The university Registrar (the person presiding over the administration of the university) brought them back to earth by saying, ‘Gentleman (my friend conceded with some embarrassment that at the time the top office bearers were all men), that is simply not administrable.’

I don’t think our aspirations to lose weight/give up smoking/train for a marathon/build a wall, etc. count as examples of magical thinking. It has got to be on a grand scale. Like achieving functional numeracy for all children by the age of twelve, or reducing, nationwide, neonatal deaths by 50% within five years, or eliminating pit latrines in all public schools by 2021;or the National Development Plan.

The point of course is that stating the grand vision and set of goals achieves nothing in and of themselves. There has to be a plan of actions, with the resources to match the desired achievement date, and milestones along the way. As a minimum.

Grand scale plans need to address three imperatives: impact, sustainability, scaling up. There is little point, other than demonstrating short-term viability of the plan, in launching ‘pilots’ with minimal thought to sustaining and scaling up. At an international healthcare conference, I once heard the phrase ‘pilot-itis’; the speaker projected the map of a particular country with a dot for each pilot, making the country look like a case of measles (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I hope).

Sure, one needs to start by demonstrating, or at least testing, the effectiveness of one’s plan. You might even call it piloting the plan! Government officials need to see this. But, impact is just one thing. Sustaining is another altogether. And scaling up is yet another challenge. Government officials should have this in place even before the pilot begins – an A3 approach would of course oblige this.

My thoughts now? For any of us who harbor grand designs for our country or our company (I hope that covers all of us!): in a nutshell, plan your vision (which is to include plans for ongoing work – sustainability – and upscaling), start small, test and hone your ideas and actions to get impact, followed by actions to sustain the gains; then go big.

So, please don’t go to the mushrooms! Rather remember LIA’s theme for the Lean Healthcare Summit scheduled for 31st October: Start small. Go big, or go home.

Warm regards,

Norman Faull
Chairman, Lean Institute Africa



“…When strategy is seen as a hypothesis to be continually tested, encounters with customers provide valuable data of ongoing interest to senior executives…”

Amy C. Edmondson, published on the Lean Enterprise Institute’s Lean Post