Lean Healthcare

Improving Healthcare Delivery by Studying Toyota

By Jon Miller Updated on September 23rd, 2022

The Seattle Post Intelligencer has a good article giving an update on the lean journey at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, titled To build a better hospital, Virginia Mason takes lessons from Toyota plants

When you think of a hospital, what comes to mind? Patients, emergency rooms, technology and medical advancements. Making the sick and injured well again. When officials at Virginia Mason think of hospitals, they think of cars. A car manufacturing plant, to be exact.

Virginia Mason stands out from the rest of the hospitals implementing lean healthcare not only in the fact that since starting in 2000 they have been an early adopter and leader but also in the fact that they unabashedly call their lean management system the Virginia Mason Production System, giving more than a nod to the Toyota Production System which they are copying. As part of this, they have taken hundreds of physicians and hospital administrators to Japan to learn kaizen on the shop floor. Their approach was radical surgery in the minds of some, but it has absolutely turned VMMC around in terms of profitability and speed of positive change.

” ‘People are not cars’ is very common for me to hear,” Kaplan said. “We get so wrapped up in the seriousness and specialness of health care, but we also have to open our eyes to other industries — we’re way behind in information specialists and taking waste out of our process. Toyota is obsessed with the customer and customer satisfaction … all those things Toyota was about was what we wanted.”

Lean Tools in Healthcare

The article gives specific examples of how kanban systems, standardization, and other lean tools are being used to eliminate the 7 types of waste to improve the quality of care and reduce the patients’ waiting time. Their adaptation of the jidoka concept of stop and fix is particularly inspiring.

Another adaptation taken from the Toyota model is a patient safety alert system. At the manufacturing plant, if there’s a problem, the whole line is stopped and the problem is fixed immediately. Virginia Mason’s practice had been to identify and fix problems after the fact, perhaps leading to mistakes recurring many times before a solution was found. The alert system allows nurses and physicians to signal a problem when it happens and fix it immediately. Virginia Mason’s Kirkland site has about 10 alerts each day.

$1.5 Million Saved So Far

Although lean was not to everyone’s liking and some decided to leave VMMC rather than cope with the new way of working, Virginia Mason cites:

  • An 85% reduction in patient wait time to get lab results back
  • Lowered inventory costs of $1 million
  • Reduced overtime and temporary labor expenses by $500,000 per year
  • Increased productivity by 93%

The Future State Hospital

The CEO has a vision. Kaplan’s vision is to have patients start their appointment in the parking garage with a smart card that triggers their entire appointment process. No more waiting rooms, just move directly from the garage to an examination room.

That’s the kind of service that I want if I need to visit a hospital.

“We have more than enough resources in health care,” Kaplan said. “We just need to stop wasting it and only do what’s appropriate and value-added and we’d save billions.”

Now if only our government could adopt Dr. Kaplan’s philosophy…

  1. Matt

    March 17, 2008 - 9:30 am

    you should read the comments posted to that PI article.

  2. Jon Miller

    March 17, 2008 - 9:42 am

    The comments to the P-I article can be found at the bottom of the article under Sound Off.

  3. Jackson

    April 10, 2008 - 10:16 pm

    In any lean transformation there will be casualties who don’t get on board. The fact that Virginia Mason has created so many critics indicates to me that they are serious.

  4. Danie Vermeulen

    October 16, 2009 - 12:59 pm

    The Sound off comments are interesting … and sad. For me these comments highlight again the absolute need to “respect people”. Unless we convince and empower everyone to understand and support Kaizene / Lean transformation it will not be sustainable. I’m convinced that any industry / organisation / process will benefit form implementing Lean … provided it is implemented correctly, responsibly and with full respect for and engagement off everyone every step of the journey.
    Best wishes for the VM team!
    I wanted to comment on the P-I article but unfortunately the ability to add further comments has been disabled?

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