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Lean and Six Sigma Are Transforming Healthcare

Maybe you’ve heard of Lean.  It’s the name we give the philosophies, tools, and systems originally developed by Toyota to build highly reliable and consistent cars.  Lean isn’t just for cars, though.  It’s been adopted by thousands of companies worldwide and is a proven catalyst for improving quality, reducing costs, and boosting employee morale.  It’s sister discipline, Six Sigma, developed at Motorola in the 1980s and popularized at General Electric in the 1990s, leverages statistical tools to understand and improve business processes.  Together, Lean and Six Sigma (typically called “Lean Six Sigma”) have proven to be a powerful driving force for improvement in healthcare.

In his book “Lean Hospitals,” author Mark Graban quotes a senior leader at a prestigious university hospital as lamenting, “we have world-class doctors, world-class treatment, and completely broken processes.”  That senior leader is not alone.  Hospital leaders across America struggle every day with operational challenges like adjusting staffing to varying volumes, finding equipment and supplies when needed, and even starting surgical cases on time.  Moreover, hospital administrators are challenged to improve both employee engagement and patient satisfaction in this very challenging environment.  Practically none of those challenges are caused by bad or uncaring people, though.  Instead, the root cause is almost always ineffective or wasteful processes that sap employee energy and deliver sub-par experiences for patients.  Lean Six Sigma can change that.

Lean is primarily focused on eliminating waste.  That is to say, it aims to get rid of things that take employee time and energy, but don’t add value to patients.  It offers not just tools to find and eliminate waste, but a philosophy that respects and empowers the people who care for patients.

Six Sigma is primarily focused on reducing variability.  That is to say, it aims to deliver consistent, repeatable, and reliable results within certain statistical limits.  It offers powerful statistical tools that get beyond simple graphs and intuition to quantify what kind of results processes are really capable of producing.

Together, Lean Six Sigma combines the insights of front-line staff members, the voice of the customer, and rigorous statistical analysis to deliver consistent patient experiences with efficient processes performed by engaged employees.  And that’s not just hyperbole.  ThedaCare in Appleton, Wisconsin and Virginia Mason in Seattle, Washington have been practicing Lean Six Sigma for more than a decade and can cite innumerable improvements.  For instance, Virginia Mason credits their Lean-based VPMS (Virginia Mason Production System) with increasing the amount of time nurses spend in direct patient care from 35% to 90%.  Hospitals across the country are adopting Lean Six Sigma and seeing results from reduced patient walk-outs in the Emergency Room to improved lab result turnaround times to shorter response times for patient transports with no additional staff required.

As simple as it may sound, one of the most powerful and important Lean concepts is: Respect for People.  At Soriant, we firmly believe that people like working with kind, caring, and competent people.  That’s why our Consultants are trained in Lean and take the time to listen to the people who do the work.  No one knows the real way your hospital runs better than your employees.  And while we’d like to say we have all the answers, the reality is your employees often already know how to fix many of your biggest problems.  They’re just not engaged enough to tell you.  At Soriant, we use a Lean Six Sigma process known as a Rapid Improvement Event (RIE) to reengage staff and develop solutions that unlock the power and creativity of your workforce.  We spend time in the “gemba,” the place where work is done, and involve those who do the work in designing, testing, and implementing solutions in a rapid, iterative learning environment.  You might be surprised; a day on the work floor might provide more fresh ideas than ten days in a conference room.

If you want to learn more about how Soriant uses Lean Six Sigma in its engagements, please contact us.  We’re excited to help you discover the innovativeness of your employees and reach your organization’s potential.

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