Health care in U.S. should have ‘lean’ future
by Bill Kinney
September 02, 2012 12:05 AM | 3606 views | 3 3 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bill Kinney
Bill Kinney
Believe it or not, but a big key to improving health care can be found in copying some of the techniques used by successful manufacturers. That’s what Marietta cardiologist and former WellStar Health System leader Gregory Simone, M.D., told members of the Marietta Kiwanis Club recently.

Simone noted that shortly after taking over at WellStar that retired Lockheed Martin president Micky Blackwell asked him if he used “lean thinking.”

“I said, ‘Well, I’m on a diet,’ but I really didn’t have any idea about what he was talking about.”

So Blackwell set up an opportunity for Simone to visit the C-130 manufacturing line at the Lockheed plant in Marietta.

“It was amazing,” Simone recalled. “I had never seen anything like it. There is no hospital that was as clean and well-equipped as what I saw on that assembly line. Everything had a place and it was marked on the floor, so you can see if things are there or missing. They’ve got packages for each unit that move as the plane moves down the assembly line. And in the package, in order, were the tools that you need. And there’s a projection on the fuselage of where each bolt and piece went. It is efficient and reduced the time of production and reduced the errors that they had. It was incredible.

“I said, ‘Wow! If we could get our health care system to work like that, then we’re bringing something to the community.”

“Lean thinking” was actually dreamed up by Edwards Deming in the 1950s. He argued that any manufacturing defect is not the problem of the workers but of the management. People here scoffed, but manufacturers in Japan, especially at Toyota, took his idea and ran with it, Simone said. The two pillars of the new philosophy were continuous quality improvement and getting rid of waste.

“If you translate that to the medical field, every time you have a complication or an infection, that is ‘rework.’ It’s unnecessary. And if you do too much work that’s not producing anything of value, that’s waste.”

“If we want to decrease the cost of health care, we don’t need to ration it, we need to get rid of waste. That’s the push of ‘lean.’ Do only what people want to have and what they’re willing to pay for. That is what they value. Everything else is waste,” he said.

So Simone hired experts from General Motors and elsewhere to try and adapt some of their procedures into the health-care field.

“They haven’t touted their horn enough yet, but they’re starting to,” he said. “There are tools they use for quality, for flow, for productivity, for human development.”

Waste consumes 40 percent of every health-care dollar in this country, Simone said.

The definition of ‘lean’ is producing more and more goods and services with better and better quality while costing less and less to produce, he said.

“So the genie’s out of the bottle,” Simone argues. “We must reform health care. We must transform health care. And every segment of society must do its part. We as individuals must do our part by taking care of our health and our lifestyle changes. We as individuals must oversee our government and our health care systems to make certain they’re going the right way for it.

“The ultimate solution lies in utilizing our existing American resources and organizational structures that we have in this country right now and drawing on American ingenuity to launch disruptive innovation and lean thinking.”

Those resources and that ingenuity have served us well in the past, and they can serve us well again in the years ahead as we improve what’s already a very good U.S. health-care system.

Bill Kinney is associate editor of The Marietta Daily Journal.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Friendly Web Editor
September 09, 2012
GT Grad,

Let me know the name you used to post...I can't find the post you are referring to.

GT Grad
September 07, 2012
Way to be objective and impartial, MDJ. I posted a critical but respectful comment on this editorial a week ago, but it was rejected.

I would appreciate you posting it now...
David Welden
September 05, 2012
Excellent piece, Mr. Kinney. A perfect discussion of the approach needed throughout the healthcare system. I hope many in the profession read it and take heed.
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