Do we really understand lean deployment in health care?

by guest author Aravind Chandrasekaran, associate professor of management sciences, Fisher College of Business

Anyone who has taught lean principles grounded in the famous Toyota Production System (TPS) to organizations outside the manufacturing industry has – at least once – heard this common refrain: “(Insert industry here) isn’t cars on an assembly line. This doesn’t apply to my work.”

A. Chandrasekaran
A. Chandrasekaran

Leading lean thinkers, of course, have learned how to work with individuals and teams to move past this roadblock and garner buy-in – that’s why the practices and tools intrinsic to TPS have made their way into countless industries. Lean still can be a target for criticism, though, and one need look no further for proof than an article published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine – and the debate it ignited.

The January issue of NEJM featured an article called “Medical Taylorism” where authors and physicians Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman assert that lean principles “cannot be applied to many vital aspects of medicine. If patients were cars, we would all be used cars of different years and models …” This tipped off a flurry of rebuttals, including one from Lean Enterprise Institute CEO John Shook boldly titled “Malpractice in the New England Journal of Medicine.” In his piece, which itself attracted widespread attention, Shook writes that the foundational lean principles of continuous improvement and respect for people are critically important in the health-care system.

Shook is right, but I’d like to approach this discussion from a different angle, namely that this line of criticism has emerged elsewhere – and it’s rooted in a lack of understanding of lean deployment.

One of my initial research areas sought to understand how standardization and “smart application” of Six Sigma principles can aid R&D and innovation efforts. I pursued this as a number of business press publications and industry practitioner blogs lamented the damage Six Sigma does to creativity and praised the need for variation for innovation. Several years of research with my colleagues in Fortune 500 companies made us realize such sentiments don’t hold much water. We found, in fact, that principles of Six Sigma – when applied to the innovation process correctly (hence the “smart” in “smart application’) – can help reduce unnecessary variation and stop worthless innovation activities that consume R&D funding.

Credit: bostonmagazine.com
Credit: bostonmagazine.com

I’ve more recently collaborated with researchers and physicians to tackle similar questions in health care. Once again, the findings – published in several academic and practitioner outlets – are very similar: The smart application of lean and continuous improvement principles can help develop a safe and patient-centered health-care system.

In arguing that patients aren’t cars, the NEJM’s authors are absolutely right – but they’re dead-wrong in concluding there’s no place for lean in “many vital aspects of medicine.” As with our R&D research, we’ve found that lean deployment in hospital settings minimizes unnecessary variation that comes from care providers, not patients. In fact, it frees up time and effort to cater to the necessary variability in a population diverse in its illnesses, economic backgrounds, languages and more.

As an example, I spent years with other researchers – including some physicians – looking at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, specifically a lean deployment effort in its kidney transplant discharge process. Medical research has found that transplant recipients after discharge must drink at least three liters of fluid a day – failure to do so can spike creatine levels, elevating blood pressure and increasing the likelihood of readmission. In our study, we found variations in how nurses delivered these instructions to patients: One nurse, for example, recommended drinking “a lot of fluids” while another suggested 100 ounces. Interestingly, nurses varied their wording across patients, while one patient would receive different instructions from more than one nurse. This wasn’t a matter of intentional deception, but the inconsistencies confused patients as they took in a tremendous overload of instructions.

Overhauled through the lean deployment via standard work design, nurses in our medical center now clearly explain the specific volume of fluid, use a jug to visually illustrate, and discuss the consequences of not following the instructions. Preliminary findings show this approach soothes patients’ anxiety levels and has reduced the chances of readmissions in the first month after transplant.

This isn’t just a lean approach to a problem – it’s a smart lean approach. And in an environment that, yes, isn’t cars on an assembly line, that matters more than ever.

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