Lean leadership in healthcare: What does it take?

Alameda County (Calif.) Medical Center recently announced hiring Varsha Chauhan as executive director of its System Transformation Center, with its Lean initiative among her responsibilities.

It's an example of healthcare taking a page from the process-improvement strategy used in manufacturing to improve quality and cut costs. Lean is largely attributed to Toyota, which has supplies delivered just in time to be used rather than held in storage and other tactics to reduce expenses at its plants.

In healthcare, in addition to cutting costs, Lean initiatives improve patient safety and reimbursement rates, and create new standards around transparency, according to Healthcare Finance News. That's creating demand for professionals who can implement Lean initiatives, which examine processes from end to end.

Experience is a key job requirement, according to the article, which notes it's not only a matter of passing a test to be certified. "The most effective classroom is in the environment itself, trying the work hands-on and accumulating scars because of it," it says. Consequently, organizations look for professionals who have been through this before and know where potential pitfalls lie.

While healthcare organizations might take on experienced Lean professionals from manufacturing, there are key differences between the two industry sectors, notes Becker's Hospital Review. It calls for the need to slow down, listen and learn before making sweeping changes. Hospitals tend to be less hierarchical than manufacturing, requiring building consensus among stakeholders before taking action.

That speaks to another key skills for Lean leaders--exceptional relationship-building skills.

"Candidates in healthcare won't lead with results," Ted Stiles, director of Stiles Associates, a lean-focused executive search firm, told Healthcare Finance News. "[T]hey'll lead with relationship--and trust-building, which is really the only way to get physicians or high-ranking clinical leaders--even nurses on the frontline--to talk to you about what their hopes and fears are, or where they believe the biggest amount of improvement needs to be done."

Physicians tend to bristle at comparisons between healing the sick and manufacturing a car, so a FiercePracticeManagement post urges leaders to make it all about healthcare as they attempt to get docs on board.

In an independent study of 13 Lean projects, staff at all levels reported higher employee satisfaction at every institution, citing better front-line staff involvement in problem-solving and employee collaboration.

Lean also can be combined with Six Sigma, a process-improvement strategy that grew out of Motorola and General Electric that attempts to reduce variability in manufacturing and business processes. The combo has been hailed for not only improving the bottom line but also staff morale and buy-in.

Mercy St. Vincent's Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, reported that by using Lean Six Sigma, it improved outcomes and saved on costs by employing better care coordination and implementing a culture of efficiency, data-rich technology, and real-time operation performance measurement.

To learn more:
- read the Alameda announcement
- check out the Healthcare Finance News piece
- here's the Becker's H article