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Applying Manufacturing HR Tactics to Healthcare. Does this work?

September 8, 2011
We had an interesting meeting with a senior Vice President of Health System last week.  This is an experienced, respected and talented leader with a proven track record . . . in manufacturing.  He’s been in healthcare for four years and has made great strides in driving change, for the better, in what was a struggling system.

He was pretty frank, however, about the challenges of adapting to a culture that is vastly different than manufacturing.  He’s a big proponent of Lean and had lead his previous company’ Lean efforts, so he was excited to hear that his health system was “going Lean”.

In a manufacturing setting, when the company chooses a new direction or strategy, including Lean, he’d meet with the mid-level managers and give them their marching orders and off then went.  He tried that in the health system.  To his surprise, he had not only questions and resistance, but downright refusals, some passive, and some active, to comply with the new direction!  He quickly learned that change would require selling the idea, obtaining buy-in from key constituencies, and bringing people along slowly.

This is not an uncommon realization to those coming to healthcare from other industries.  It is rooted in the culture of medicine and hospitals.  Physicians, certainly, but also nurses and other healthcare professionals are trained and socialized in the culture of professional autonomy.  These groups have, traditionally, had great power to determine the direction of their respective departments, and even the hospital as a whole.

This is not necessarily a bad thing as some of it is grounded in knowing that a certain level of professional autonomy helps ensure that patients get the best care possible.  It can be a huge barrier to collaboration, however, when these groups only focus on what happens in their part of the healthcare universe.  It has also fostered a sometimes unhealthy does of resistance to change.  I’ve met many nurses, for instance, who resist change because in the past, they’ve outlasted the “flavor of the day” program, and the senior leadership team that championed it.

How do we maintain the appropriate level of professional autonomy but encourage collaboration and the ability to embrace change that improves care and decreases cost?  We need to re-think the non-technical skills required to succeed in this new world.  These skills and behaviors need to be developed in our education and training programs and built into the processes we use to select and develop the members of our healthcare team.

Bryan Warren Bryan Warren was the former Director of Healthcare Solutions at PSI. He was responsible for developing and promoting tools and services designed specifically for the unique challenges faced by healthcare organizations.