Bringing Lean Healthcare to Life

Starting Blocks

Without a doubt, Lean is set to make a big impact on the Healthcare sector over the next few years and many Healthcare organisations in both the public and private sector are already exploring how they could apply it to their patient pathways and administrative processes.

Whilst many of the tools of Lean are familiar to the people in the Healthcare sector, particularly aspects of Process Analysis, the real difference that Lean will bring is a change in the way that improvements activities are implemented rather than the use of the tools themselves.

Many people in the Healthcare sector are looking to people with Lean skills gained in manufacturing to help guide them through the maze of implementing Lean, including helping the organisation to prepare for Lean as well as undertake the specific improvement activities, including Value Stream Events, Rapid Improvement Events etc. Running alongside this is the need to develop the internal capacity of organisations to lead improvements themselves, which is achieved by developing internal Lean facilitators (or Change Agents).

However, as we already know, not every problem in Healthcare can be related to a problem encountered in Manufacturing and there are some significant differences in approach required to make for a successful improvement programme for people more familiar with leading Lean improvements in Manufacturing.

In this article we review some of the key differences that we have found in pioneering Lean transformation in Healthcare and share the structure to Lean activities that we have been developing to ensure that the organisations make sustained improvements rather than isolated Lean ‘ram raids’.

Interestingly, our work to date is also providing some useful learning that can be applied in reverse – from Healthcare back into Manufacturing!

The Same, But Different

As we have already said, Lean will make a big difference to Healthcare and will help them achieve their operational and financial targets but it needs to be applied sensitively within organisations that have been ‘pummelled’ by initiatives and legislation and have a not unreasonable cynicism towards ‘this new initiative called Lean’.

Like in many manufacturing businesses first embarking on an improvement journey, Healthcare employees are concerned about Lean being a vehicle to cut jobs. This feeling has not been helped by the recent NHS guide issued about Lean Healthcare which has chosen to use a Chainsaw as their main logo and was referred to by a Service Improvement Lead within an SHA (Strategic Health Authority) as the ‘Slash & Burn’ guide to Healthcare.

Issues such as this, along with the use of manufacturing focused terminology, photos and case studies when working with employees in Healthcare, has the effect of building up internal resistance and leads to comments such as “My patients are not cars” made by a Renal Consultant we encountered recently.

Additional differences can be seen in the attitude towards risk in Healthcare. In Manufacturing, if you make a mistake with Lean you may increase the risk of accidents but it is more likely it will just reduce productivity or profits. In Healthcare, similar mistakes can impact on Patient Safety (including increasing Morbidity or even Mortality) and can attract significant media attention.

Making this scenario even more complex is the fact that the ‘care pathways’ that patients experience often interact and overlap in a way that Manufacturing value streams do not, with patients switching between pathways and specialities dependent on their specific needs and treatment plans.

Management of these processes and pathways is complicated by the need to balance clinical concerns (such as patient safety and medical best practice) with ‘business’ concerns (availability of resources and finance), and the often uneasy balance that has to be struck between senior clinicians and organisational managers on these issues.

Whilst this sort of complexity is not alien to manufacturing, where there is a constant need to balance cashflow against sales (for example), the fact that this balancing and the resulting management of risk in Healthcare is so prevalent leads to a very different style of management – being more consultative and inclusive than Manufacturing, which slows decision making and involves a lot more analysis than many Manufacturing decisions, and the need to prove things first to sceptical clinicians.

This constant need for balance between clinical and operational concerns leads to one of the biggest differences we encounter, namely the difficulty in engaging the right people for the right amount time to make the improvements sustainable. This is not a new problem in Healthcare with many improvement initiatives having fallen foul of changing priorities, the allocation of insufficient people to an improvement process or simply having failed to move from discussion into action quickly enough.