Sunday, 12 April 2015

Observations from a Hospital Waiting Room: The Abilene Paradox



I was at the hospital with my wife on Tuesday. I'm not telling you that for sympathy, though. I'm telling you that so I can tell you a story from our visit. You should know that my wife was at the hospital for day surgery. Trust me, it's a key plot point.

If you haven't had surgery, there's something you should know to fully appreciate this tale. Are you ready? Here it is: you're not allowed to eat before surgery.

Our story begins Monday evening (the night before surgery). We had dinner around 7:00 PM. As you've probably figured out (because all my readers are above average), this was to be my wife's last meal before surgery.


Tuesday morning we hop in the car for the 3 hour drive to the hospital. Don't worry, this isn't a "Gilligan's Island" style 3 hour tour. We arrived at the hospital around 11:00 AM, at which point they had my wife change into a delightful hospital gown and whisked her away for a blood test.
After the blood test, they ushered us into a waiting room to wait (surprise!).


Photo credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


We waited in that room from 11:30 in the morning until just before 4:00 in the afternoon when they told us her surgery was cancelled and we'd have to go home and wait for another date. The cancellation isn't important to our tale. What happened before it is.

The television was on in the waiting room, playing a children's show. I should tell you at this point that every single person in the room was an adult. There were around 10 or 15 of us. 

Nobody changed the channel. Nobody. 

Think about that for a moment. A group of about a dozen adults was watching children's programming instead of changing the channel. What does it mean?
  • Did every adult in the room actually want to watch children's shows?
  • Was each person afraid to change the channel in case everybody else wanted to watch the children's shows?
  • Were people reluctant to change the channel for fear of having their choice of program criticized?
  • Was it because we're Canadian, and nobody wanted to risk offending someone else by changing from the fascinating plot aimed at 5-year-olds?
It was like living the Abilene paradox.

Eventually, the show changed to Caillou (a role model on par with Dennis the Menace). At this point, one woman did something wonderful. She stood up, said "I can't take this any more," and asked if anyone minded if she changed the channel. Even better, she found two options and polled the room to see which was a better fit. The point is, she acted instead of enduring the status quo.

Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves watching a cooking show. That's right. A room full people, most of whom hadn't eaten in about 18 hours watching a cooking show. Sounds like torture, doesn't it?

Yet nobody changed the channel. Nobody.

What's the lesson here?
Don't assume that a situation or process is perfect just because there are no complaints. If you have ideas for improvement, speak up. If you own a process or manage a team, get feedback. You have little to lose and much to gain.

Have you had a similar experience? Maybe a success story about process improvement? Please share in the comments.