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Process Improvements Cut Fat, Beef Up Quality

Karen Minich-Pourshadi, for HealthLeaders Media, April 18, 2011

"[Six Sigma] is so relevant today because we have to reduce variations and costs. Healthcare leaders have to think about tools that can change the paradigm. If you're not thinking about the different tool kits you need to move forward, that survival will be difficult," says Miller.

Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA

Virginia Mason Medical Center has literally written a book—Transforming Health Care—on how to apply process improvement in a healthcare setting. Virginia Mason operates a system of integrated health services including a large, multi-specialty group practice of more than 480 physicians, a network of neighborhood clinics, an acute care hospital; and a research institute.

Having started the transformational journey in 2002, it began using Toyota's Lean Process improvement approach and then eventually created its own specialized process improvement model, dubbed the Virginia Mason Program System (VMPS). Virginia Mason was the first to integrate the Toyota philosophy throughout its entire system, and a few years after working through many of its own process flaws found VMMC had become an industry model for how to apply this system.

Virginia Mason's CEO Dr. Gary Kaplan and his senior management team moved its facility from a Lean approach into VPMS, a system-wide program that changes the way it delivers healthcare by improving processes as well as patient safety and quality.

"It's important to differentiate that this is a way to manage and lead—it's a management system—not a program," says Kaplan.

It's a key distinction, he notes, because Virginia Mason found that many in healthcare are keen to use Lean or Six Sigma tenets to target areas of the business for process improvement with some limited success, but often fail to roll it out on a broader scale to reap the full reward.

"Healthcare is known for following the fad of the month or year to save money … but we look at this as comprehensive management system that's also about quality, safety and patient and staff satisfaction," he says.

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