What is Lean?

Although originally developed for automotive manufacturing operations, an increasing number of healthcare, financial, engineering, consulting, and government organizations have adopted Lean to drive improvements and facilitate profound cultural change. Lean provides a robust framework to deliver the most value to patients, engage employees in a meaningful way, solve recurring process problems, improve quality and patient safety, and enhance overall organizational performance. Despite successful deployment across a wide range of industry sectors, there are still some lingering misconceptions about Lean. Lean is sometimes confused with the traditional cost-cutting measures and workforce reduction strategies. Lean may also be erroneously perceived as a barrier to creativity and innovation or as a quick fix requiring only minimal resources, time and effort. A number of books and articles have been written on Lean, however; there is no single, concise and universally acceptable definition of Lean. In the context of a healthcare organization, we define Lean as a management philosophy, business strategy, methodology, and integrated system of tools and techniques designed to continually improve efficiency and effectiveness of processes, optimize the use of resources and minimize wasteful activities while creating value from the viewpoint of patients and other stakeholders.

Lean transformation will be undermined if organizations use the rhetoric of Lean to eliminate jobs or implement reward systems that encourage functional leaders to optimize their own functions while ignoring the overall value stream. For example, rewarding procurement function for reducing the price of medical equipment, instruments and supplies may result in increased operating costs, equipment downtime and patient safety incidents. It has been unequivocally proven that Lean does lead to reduced operating costs, but these come as an end result of eliminating wasteful activities and improving systems and processes. Meticulously planned and executed Lean transformation and practical application of Lean principles result in a number of benefits to the patient as well as the healthcare organization.