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Lean Six Sigma’s Impact on Healthcare

Date: 05 February 2018

Every business wants to improve operational efficiency, but in healthcare, there is also a focus on improving patient safety.

Healthcare organizations are facing a growing pressure to increase the efficiency of care delivery, and quality improvement initiatives offer a solution. Promising to boost performance outcomes, these methodologies can help organizations meet expectations and deliver a quality service. 

The healthcare industry has seen many quality improvement programs over the years, including total quality management (TQM), continuous quality improvement (CQI), business process reengineering (BPR), and benchmarking. However, few have delivered sustained improvement in value to the patient. This is why Lean Six Sigma stands out from the crowd.

Rising to the challenge

According to a study by healthcare organization Johns Hopkins Medicine, 10% of all US deaths are caused by medical error.[1] That’s a total of 250,000 deaths every year at a cost of between $187.5 billion and $250 billion to the healthcare industry.[2] To put those figures into perspective, that’s equivalent to 32-42% of last year’s Medicare budget.

Legislation and regulations can only go so far in addressing this problem. As a result, healthcare professionals are dealing with these issues on a local level, employing the Lean Six Sigma principles to boost performance in their own organizations.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma principles have their roots in manufacturing. Lean production was originally used by the Japanese car manufacturing company Toyota. Since then, these principles have been adopted and developed by organizations from all industries, including healthcare, to streamline processes and reduce waste.

The method used to apply Lean Six Sigma principles in an organization is the same as the method used to diagnose and treat medical conditions. It is built on the idea that organizational issues should not be dealt with from the boardroom, but instead by frontline workers who are usually closer to and understand the problems.

In healthcare, rather than senior management making decisions, it is the nurses, doctors and technicians who are tasked with solving key issues.

Benefits of lean principles

The benefits of Lean Six Sigma are clear: helping prevent medical errors, reduce mortality rates, decrease time spent in hospital, improve patient care, and boost quality.

These principles are also used to help reduce departmental siloes, deliver better safety, and streamline practices. Not only do these methodologies help reduce healthcare costs by billions of dollars each year, but they can also be the difference between life and death.

Application of Lean Six Sigma has increased in healthcare settings over the past 10 years. However, they still remain largely under-utilized across the industry, particularly in areas such as triage and post-surgery.

Six Sigma in action

There is still a long way to go, but Six Sigma has found a lasting home within healthcare. Shields Health Care Group, a Boston-based MRI and ambulatory health chain, is one organization that is harnessing the potential of this process improvement method.

Shields was looking for new ways to tackle issues such as departmental silos and unreliable data, and to boost its revenue cycle. When technology did not solve the problems, the organization turned to the Six Sigma methodology. As a result, over the last five years it has increased patient collections by 622% and made almost $6 million in savings.[3]

Memorial Health System is another advocate of Lean Six Sigma. Not happy with ‘average’ outcomes, the hospital set about re-engineering its structures and processes to build a more sustainable path. Focusing on Lean Six Sigma, in six years the organization completed more than 300 improvement projects, saved more than $30 million, and transformed its excellence performance culture.[4]

Their approach is known as the ‘30/30/30 Solution’. Year-on-year they aim to train 30% more Six Sigma experts, complete 30% more projects, and achieve an average project improvement of at least 30% on those projects.

How to implement change

Healthcare managers looking to make a difference in their organizations need to know exactly what they want to achieve. Taking a targeted approach means understanding the current situation in an organization and identifying the issues to be tackled.

Communication is another key element to success, as well as fostering a culture that embraces change. Speaking at this year’s Revenue Cycle Solutions Summit, Shields Health Care Group’s chief information officer Chuck Spurr explained: “Change is driving healthcare, and either you are an organization that handles changes really well or you need a process to drive that change.”

He continued, “Six Sigma can really drive that change for you. You get buy-in from all parties, you get an instant process for handling conflicts, you get a methodology to test your experiments and you have the idea that data drives everything.”

Building a brighter future

Combining lean principles with machine learning and predictive analytics can drive dramatic improvements in operational efficiency. However, organizations first need access to the knowledge and expertise of Six Sigma.

DSJ Global can source top, often passive, talent in this niche space. Whether you want to build a team of yellow, green, black or master black belt experts, we have consultants, contributors and leaders ready to complete your team.

To learn more reach out to the DSJ Global team today.



[1] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/study_suggests_medical_errors_now_third_leading_cause_of_death_in_the_us

[2] https://www.hfma.org/Content.aspx?id=48695

[3] http://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/secret-shields-success-six-sigma

[4] https://www.hhnmag.com/articles/7762-illinois-health-systems-303030-solution-delivers-results