Lean Six Sigma’s application to healthcare has been slow at best. One reason for this is that healthcare professionals view manufacturing as an industry that deals with the simple process of making inanimate objects. Healthcare, on the other hand, deals with complex processes that improve and prolong the functionality of the human anatomy. Consequently, healthcare professionals believe that the methods used in manufacturing, such as Lean Six Sigma, are inappropriate for healthcare. The concept of “muda” (Japanese for waste) is a hard concept for many in the healthcare industry to grasp. In a system where the workflow is aimed at treating an ailment, waste can be hard to spot. With the frame of mind, eliminating this waste can seem like a disservice to clients and customers.

However, healthcare has some parallels to the manufacturing industry. The irony is that the patient can actually be thought of as a custom tool. Because of the uniqueness of each individual, the healthcare service must be appropriately tailored. Each person has to be treated differently, and healthcare workers must contend with differing procedures for patient-specific payers (insurance companies). In many cases, patients make multiple visits when their problem has not been resolved. In manufacturing, this typically referred to as “rework.” This is where the analogy of manufacturing to healthcare falls short. A manufacturer is never compensated for rework, whereas healthcare providers are paid for incorrect diagnosis or botched surgeries. With the exception of malpractice lawsuits, the healthcare industry is typically reimbursed for rework. So, it is not surprising that there is little incentive to apply manufacturing methodology like Lean Six Sigma to the healthcare industry in order to reduce errors. In reality, it is estimated that the total cost of error or rework in healthcare is greater than ten percent of the total system cost.

The industry must take a fundamental look at the way it provides care, ultimately acknowledging that the system is flawed. Using the techniques of Lean Six Sigma allows for periodic updates to reflect the ever-changing delivery and technology of healthcare. In an industry where expectations are a moving target, the principles of Lean Six Sigma can help to reach the highest possible performance. This may be the best reason of all to consider a proven manufacturing technique.

About the Author