Why Healthcare is Ripe for Lean

Why Does Lean Fail?

1. Flavor-of-the-Month Syndrome

Lean cannot be treated as a “flavor-of-the-month” type of thing that the organization is ‘trying’. True commitment to engaging employees, valuing their opinions, implementing the changes is necessary for it to work.

2. Strong Leadership

Having leadership committed to listening, being open minded and embracing an employee-suggestion improvement culture is essential. Leaders must make the time for their teams to clear their calendars to focus on the issue for the allotted time. Leaders must also improve the team’s chance of success by breaking down barriers that come from individuals within the team or in other departments. This is not to say that you implement every recommendation just because the team said so. A leader should have high expectations of Lean teams and pick projects that are tied to organizational goals and objectives. As a leader, you have to also trust and believe in the process and also you have to be willing to let go of some of the power traditionally instilled in you as the leader.

3. Lean as a Headcount Reduction Tool

Lean cannot be used as a means to reduce heads. If your workforce is too fat it should be trimmed before implementing Lean, not while or as a byproduct of doing so. Just think how you would feel and react if you were asked to improve a process and by doing so your job was eliminated. Nothing will kill your Lean program faster than the word of mouth and rumor mill that the method is just a means to cut heads. Headcount reduction may be needed in your organization as an economic reality, but don’t use Lean to try to get you to that solution.

4. You Need a Coach

If you have never used Lean before, a coach is essential. Someone that has used the tools and done Kaizen events is necessary. This person or people could be internal, external or a combination of both. In the end, you want to build the mindset, culture and understanding of the tools internally and any good outside person will have that goal in mind. Good consultants treat you like a partner and view their success through yours. They leave you with lasting approaches and are not just thinking about the repeat sale of more billable work. Good ones will help build a sustainability plan that will instill the skills in your team.

5. Lean Is Easily Overblown

Be careful not to hype Lean as the end-all and be-all. It is not the right solution for every issue, process or business problem under the sun. A good coach can help you determine when it is appropriate and when it is not, even if that means that coach will not end up helping you solve a certain business problem. Demand that coaching with anyone that comes in from the outside!

With so much attention being focused on the US Healthcare delivery system, the cost of that system and the improving the efficiencies of healthcare processes; now is the time to get on the Lean train. As healthcare organizations continue to consolidate and reimbursement margins continue to shrink, optimizing your processes and getting the most out of your resources, whether those resources are people, material, information systems or vendors, is essential. Have a look at Lean, even if you tried it and it did not work out. In today’s healthcare environment you cannot afford not to.

David Ridley is President and Managing Director of Denver, Colorado based Edge Process Consulting, LLC. He and his team have worked with several large academic medical practices and hospitals in implementing Lean and Six Sigma based process improvement methodologies. He is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt by both General Electric Company and the American Society for Quality and holds a Masters in Business Administration from Regis University in Denver, Colorado.


(1) “Reducing Waste and Inefficiency in Health Care Through Lean Process Redesign Literature Review.” Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. US Department of Health
and Human Services. May 2009. Retrieved May 6, 2010 from: http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/leanprocess.htm

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