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ExampleLeanHealthcareCommunicationIn Lean Healthcare, we frequently use the word sustainability.  In the Lean training sessions I lead at hospitals, I stress time and again how important it is to think in sustainability terms and how difficult it is to sustain a Lean Healthcare initiative unless and until it becomes part of the culture.  Even then it requires work to ensure continued sustainability.

The concept of sustainability intrigues and fascinates me. I find myself thinking about it and using it regularly in conversation.  My colleagues and I talk about the importance of it.  When I am with a client or a colleague, we often talk about how it requires great commitment and diligence from anyone seeking to build a Lean culture.

We have to constantly articulate a clear definition of what sustainability means to the organization of which we are a part.  It is dangerous to assume that employees share a common definition.

Here is an illustration about the difficulty of sustaining something we start.  It’s an example many can relate to: losing weight.

I just dropped to 189 pounds for the first time in a year. I generally carry 10 extra pounds around.  I start on a diet every day – well, practically every day.  By the evening, I am telling myself that I will start again tomorrow.

My challenge lies in the fact that I can lose seven to eight pounds very easily.  I am a weight-loss Yo-yo.  I will lose it and gain it, lose it and gain it, never getting to that 10 pound goal.  Why does this happen?  Why can’t I lose it and maintain it over a long period of time?  Why am I not sustaining?

In evaluating my behavior, I find that my tendency is to relax once I reach a certain point. Instead, I need to learn to sustain the momentum and use the accomplishment of one goal to move to the next one.

The apostle Paul had some very descriptive comments about sustainability that I find helpful. He didn’t call it that, but it fits so well here.  From the letter to the Romans, we find the following:

“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.  Instead, I do what I hate.”

What a powerful sentiment. This applies to losing weight as well as other aspects of daily life.

It seems to me that sustainability in our Lean journey is much like that.  When we achieve a goal or a certain level, we tend to relax and take it easy for a while, which inevitably causes us to lose the momentum which we have built.

Bulletin:  You cannot both relax and sustain Lean.

It must become no different than keeping the books for your company or brushing your teeth.  You have to make it a part of how you live your life.  What company do you know that keeps its books for a year and then decides to take a year off? A company that adopted that behavior probably wouldn’t be around for long. Have you ever knocked it out of the park while cleaning your teeth in the morning, and rewarded yourself by skipping a few days?  Highly doubtful.

I certainly do not mean that we should not enjoy the gains that we make and the victories that we achieve.  But, we must use those victories and the ensuing celebrations to move us further toward our Lean Healthcare goals.

So, following my meanderings about this most interesting word, what can we do to sustain those things that we want to sustain?  How can we achieve and maintain ever more powerful levels of Lean in our hospitals and clinics?

Within the context of the illustrations above, perhaps the following thoughts will inspire you to think deeply about how you can sustain Lean in your organization.  Consider putting some of these things to work or, if they are already in place, renew your commitment to them.

  1. Set goals on a regular basis and share the goals – more than once.  Keep them alive throughout the year.
  2. Communicate, communicate, and communicate!  Communication is the constant creation of understanding.  To say, “I told them,” and think that once is enough, is a pipe dream.  People need to constantly be reminded of goals and action plans so that they sink in over time.
  3. Review goals regularly.  Share results.  Enjoy accomplishments but use them to spur greater progress. Review progress in order to stay on track. After all, people do that which gets reviewed.
  4. Establish accountability that is truly accountable.  A powerful action plan asks Who, What and When  and describes the desired outcome.

Sustainability. What a fascinating word. It can be achieved by purposefully working at sustaining what we start on an ongoing basis.  In a Lean Healthcare environment, the word refers to systems that can be expected to be productive for long periods of time, or the capacity to support, maintain and endure.

How will you maintain and support your Lean Healthcare effort in order to sustain?


Today’s blog was written by Jay Conner, Ph.D., a Senior Manager at HPP.  

Jay has more than 30 years of experience in communications, human resources, and human resources development.  He has worked in both higher education and in the private sector.  In healthcare, he has consulted in training and development, executive and managerial coaching, recruiting and hiring, employee relations, performance management, compensation, employment law compliance and employee manuals and handbooks.

Jay holds a B.A. from Georgetown College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Communications from LSU. 

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