Lean Organizations: A Novel Strategy in Health Care

Efficiency is arguably always worth striving for.  American industries of all sorts have been doing just that for the better part of the twentieth century, following the examples of their foreign counterparts.  However, only as of late have various health-related institutions been adopting such measures.

The health care industry is reorganizing in order to pursue a more efficient and higher quality model of care.  The cleverness of this lies in its adaptation of a particular manufacturing scheme known as “lean” organizatinowasteon.  Pioneered by the renowned Japanese automotive manufacturer, Toyota, in the years following the Second World War, the strategy was born out of pure necessity.  During the post-war period, Japanese manufacturers were faced with extraordinary deficits with respect to a variety of resources, subsequently leading them to change all facets of the manufacturing process itself.  What was situated at the center of this change was maximal efficiency; the removal and potential replacement of all practices which did not contribute to a product’s value.  Additionally, the model is extremely conscious of the consumer, basing all interpretations of value upon consumer demands.  According to the MAMTC, a more concise definition of “lean” manufacturing is as follows:

“A systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste (non-value-added activities) through continuous improvement by flowing the product at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection.”

Of course, the system entails a vast range of contingencies that theoretically lead a given enterprise to its ultimate goal of maximal efficiency and quality.  Such items include the elimination of overproduction, excessive inventory, motion, and space.  Given the nature of this analysis, the complexities of the matter will not be discussed.

This is all very exciting for the world’s manufacturers, but what of the health care industry? Naturally, when a model such as this is applied to the business of health care, similar results seem to occur. In fact, the phenomenon is so utterly profound that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is at the forefront of its research.

Simply expressed by the coordinator of the Lean program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Sabi Singh:

“In manufacturing, lean principles are about adding value to a product… In health care, the focus is on improving the patient’s experience, which leads to eliminating waste and non-value added steps, which in turn improves finances.”

However, these abstractions seem to only supply so much to one’s understanding of the “lean” system.  Perhaps an illustration of such concepts will be of greater benefit.  For example, at a hospital in Iowa, a nurse suggested that the location of particular chemotherapy supplies be moved from a distant storage room to carts located in greater proximity to certain patients.  Not only this, but these patients were also grouped into pods which were assigned to various nurses.  Consequently, “those two simple changes reduced the nurse’s walking time by 90 percent, reducing the patients’ waiting time and increasing the number of patients the clinic could care for in a day,” according to Singh.

In essence, “lean” methods are staggeringly logical.  It should be no surprise that the implementation of a system of this nature is improving the efficiency, quality, and cost of health care. 

Questions: Have you had personal experience working with a lean organization?  Do you feel there are benefits with working in this type of environment?

About the Author: Patricia Heise is a Staff Writer with the Clear Medical Solutions Communication Team.  Her work is regularly shared on the Clear Medical Agency newsletter and the ClearNursingMatters.com blog. 


“UI Helps Health Care Organizations Control Costs”, Ruzanna Harutyunyan. September 21, 2009. http://www.emaxhealth.com/2/10/33678/ui-helps-health-care-organizations-control-costs.html

“Intro to Lean”, MAMTC. http://mamtc.com/lean/intro_intro.asp

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