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Last Friday I had a chance to participate in the North East Ohio Operational Excellence Leadership Summit, largely focused on the Healthcare industry. It was a well-attended event at the Cleveland Foundation hosted by Centric Consulting which engaged physicians, clinical operations staff, operational excellence professionals and several other consulting firms.

My reaction to the lively panel discussions and other exchanges was: “Healthcare is where Manufacturing was 25 years ago”. But perhaps only on the surface. After all, there was acknowledgement that Lean Six Sigma is not sufficient to drive sustainable transformations in organizations. Systems thinking was definitely in the room. Some of the issues raised resonated with my experience as an operational excellence professional in manufacturing systems and even as a user of healthcare services.

I thought of the last time I had to go to ER and repeat my symptoms 4 different times to 4 different people, but still had to wait 6 hours for care due to lack of active protocols to handle my ailment at the time. Or when I was recently caring for a hospitalized family member after 15 fortunate years of not having to do so, and my impression was that the most noticeable changes were HIPAA, hospital security and greater use of IT.

I obviously need more data than my own stories, not to mention that I’m just starting to learn about Healthcare as an industry. But the forum got me thinking: What’s the case for accelerating attainment of operational excellence in Healthcare? Dr. Rehan Waheed talked about MetroHealth’s success in reducing the variability in successfully treating hypertension between Caucasian, African American and Hispanic patients by standardizing patient care. This is only one example of why the question of accelerating the path to excellence is important. Nothing less than our lives are at stake.

Roy Bivens from Orion Advisory shared some of the approaches his firm has successfully used supporting Healthcare organizations. “Healthcare is different. Don’t go in talking about savings when their focus is improving the health of patients. Assessments are very important to balance the need for short term improvements and the culture changes needed for sustainability.” He added that “employees live chaotically, and practitioners must find ways to have them quickly experience improvements to engage them progressively”.

The discussion around whether medicine is “science or art”, and the challenge this poses on actively engaging physicians was interesting, though in my view, not unique to Healthcare. I have experienced similar issues working with organizations that greatly value creativity and innovation or have a culture of rewarding heroics to meet sales and production targets. Standardization may simply be at odds with professions where intellectual and execution autonomy are considered valuable assets.

Like in any other industry, the impactful operational excellence practitioner in Healthcare will need to discern what are the most critical processes, determine whether a process can be incrementally improved or needs to be completely redesigned, aim for simplification because simpler is always better, and standardize where it counts. As a user of the Healthcare system, I hope that the pursuit of excellence flourishes on the genuine caring for fellow human beings that prompts so many good people to enter professions in this field.

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