“People are not cars”
This week I’ve had the privilege of being part of a team hosting colleagues from the Seattle-based, world renowned, healthcare provider Virginia Mason (VM). VM have earned their reputation through the development and implementation of the Virginia Mason Production System (VMPS), which has enabled them – in a relatively short period of time – to move from being a high cost, average quality provider that was losing money to becoming the US hospital of the decade, with the highest quality, lowest cost and best patient and staff experience. The holy grail for most healthcare providers. So how have they achieved this?
The VMPS has its roots firmly planted in the LEAN-based Toyota Production System, to the point that they even use the Japanese terms in their everyday language. So what has this to do with healthcare? People are not cars! This is true, but as one Virginia Mason senior surgeon observed, ‘if we treated our patients with as much love and respect as Toyota treat their cars, we could become the best health system in the world!’
So what is the VMPS and what can the NHS truly learn from it?
About 15 years ago, Virginia Mason were in financial difficulty. A new CEO, Gary Kaplan MD was voted in and he knew that if the hospital was going to still be there in 100 years time, they needed to ‘change or die’. The Board had also levied a challenge that said, ‘if you’re really patient focussed, why does care look the way it does at Virginia Mason?’ This was a reference to the long waiting times patients were experiencing both before, during and after treatment. The Executive Team knew they needed a systematic improvement methodology if they were going to make the wholesale change they required. After two years of careful study they identified the Toyota Production System as the one they felt would get them the results they wanted – truly patient focussed care.
The team went to Japan to witness this at first hand and were inspired by the Toyota way. With that, the Virginia Mason strategic plan was born – and to be honest, it is very hard to argue with.
Their strategic plan has remained the same for the last 15 years and as such forms the bedrock of the mindset and approach to everything that VM stand for and are trying to achieve.
The VMPS is not just a set of LEAN tools and techniques, it’s a mindset. It’s not an addition to the day job, it’s absolutely how everyone at VM does their work, it’s the management method and decision making framework. The most important factor is its consistency of application. It starts with the Board and flows through the organisation and is adhered to with rigour and discipline.
One of the first things that Virginia Mason did was to develop ‘compacts’ or agreed ways of working for their physicians, leaders and the Board. This defines what is expected of employees at VM and what they, in turn, can expect from the organisation. Showing Respect is a huge part of the culture at VM and they have found that this has gone a long way in supporting their staff to feel confident to speak up with concerns; have ideas and be creative; and bring their best to work every day. All of this has culminated in an improved patient experience at the same time as a reduction in their cost base, generating enviable profits to reinvest in patient care.
Everybody who works for VM is trained in the techniques and they are now starting to train their suppliers and partner organisations as well. All managers and supervisors (clinical and non-clinical) are required to have the more detailed training for leaders and run at least one 2-day improvement event (known as a Kaizen event) every year to remain at VM. All directors and senior clinicians must be certified and run a 5 day rapid improvement workshop every year to stay employed. This means, everyone speaks the same language, everyone knows what to expect including the Executive Team, who are also bound by the same expectation and run at least one 5 day event every year.
The whole system is underpinned by the principle that those than run the business, improve the business. Decision-making is devolved down to the lowest level and the staff that are on the frontline, doing the job, are empowered to make changes as long as they add value to the patient.
Part of this methodology includes a standardised approach to how everyone does their work called ‘the standard work’. This element is a very different way of thinking than we are used to in the NHS. The underlying principle is that the more work that is standardised, the more the time is freed up for creative thinking. Examples of this are: walking the wards and clinic areas (or the Genba as VM describe it) at 8am every morning so problems can be immediately resolved; every Wednesday, recognising and appreciating a staff member who has made an outstanding contribution to patient care or analysing the data regarding your service at 11am every day so you can spot trends early.
Supervisors generally have 75 – 90% of what they do standardised and they are freed up to spend the majority of their time on the frontline supporting and enabling the staff. They ask their staff every day, ‘what is the rock in their shoe’ and take a coach not tell approach by asking, ‘what ideas have you had and how can I best support you?’ The principle is to support staff to start working to solve live problems that may impact on patient experience rather than looking at retrospective data and taking many months worth of meetings to resolve it.
Even directors have 10% of their work standardised. Again, this is also about how often they walk the wards, recognise and appreciate their staff and how much time they spend prepping for meetings etc.
VM describe this as their World Class Management System and it includes the principle of daily management. The 5 principles of daily management are designed with the patient at the centre as set out in Fig 1.
Figure 1: The principles of daily management
This took VM 5 years to develop and they have subsequently realised that this has been their most important work and now recommend other organisations to implement this far sooner to get to the high impact changes much faster.
Their approach can be summarised into 6 words:
- Go See
- Ask Why
- Show Respect
The US healthcare system is very different to ours and although heavily regulated, they have the ability to take decisions about changes to healthcare more easily, so how would this even be accepted as a way of working? How do you manage the risk of not undermining the professional autonomy of your most senior clinicians?
Well, the basic VM approach is about putting the patient at the heart of everything you do and getting rid of the waste in the processes that support the patient experience so you can spend more time caring for patients. Not only is this hard to argue with, it’s also the reason many of the 1.4m people who work in the NHS get out of bed in the morning and continue to choose to work in healthcare.
Understanding how the principles apply in our legislative and regulatory regime is the next key stage, however it is clear that the Secretary of State is a big fan of Virginia Mason so the timing may be right for a change in the way we work.
What is clear to me is that having a cultural mindset of truly putting the patient first and explicitly showing respect for work colleagues is a must do. Our interpretation of what that means needs more careful definition, but starting with the end in mind, I find this a compelling vision of the future. There will be many who say we have this now, but having seen the achievements of VM, in reality we are just at the start of that journey.
It’s not necessary to be a slave to the VM Way but it is important that organisations do have a prescribed improvement methodology and decision making framework so it is clear how clinicians and managers take decisions and make change. Agility is the key. The NHS is not really fleet of foot and hasn’t always been clear about expectations. This has led to cumbersome change management often taking years; a large change programme and many committee meetings.
Having spent time with the Virginia Mason Faculty this week I can absolutely see why people are queuing up to work at VM and their patient satisfaction scores are so high. Today the NHS turns 67 and this is a compelling vision of the future to ensure the NHS is still delivering high quality healthcare for our population in another 67 years.
We’re at the start of that journey and I personally am looking forward to the day we treat our patients with as much care and attention as Toyota treat their cars.
With special thanks to:
Cathie Furman, RN – Member of the Faculty of the Virginia Mason Institute and former Senior Vice President for Quality and Compliance. Cathie was part of the original Executive Team who made the decision to adopt the VMPS
Henry Otero, MD – Medical Oncologist and Faculty member of the Virginia Mason Institute. Henry was the clinical lead for Cancer and an early adopter of the VMPS. He is a Kaizen Fellow.
About the author
Sarah Morgan is the Director of Organisational Development at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS FT. GSTT are currently developing an organisational development strategy to enable the transformation to a culture of continuous improvement.
Plesk P; Accelerating Healthcare Innovation with Lean and Innovation: The Virginia Mason Experience; 2014
Kenney C; Transforming Healthcare: Virginia Mason Medical Centre’s Pursuit of the Perfect Patient Experience; 2010
Web links for more information