A critical review of the research literature on Six Sigma, Lean and StuderGroup's Hardwiring Excellence in the United States: the need to demonstrate and communicate the effectiveness of transformation strategies in healthcare

Implement Sci. 2009 Jul 1:4:35. doi: 10.1186/1748-5908-4-35.


Background: U.S. healthcare organizations are confronted with numerous and varied transformational strategies promising improvements along all dimensions of quality and performance. This article examines the peer-reviewed literature from the U.S. for evidence of effectiveness among three current popular transformational strategies: Six Sigma, Lean/Toyota Production System, and Studer's Hardwiring Excellence.

Methods: The English language health, healthcare management, and organizational science literature (up to December 2007) indexed in Medline, Web of Science, ABI/Inform, Cochrane Library, CINAHL, and ERIC was reviewed for studies on the aforementioned transformation strategies in healthcare settings. Articles were included if they: appeared in a peer-reviewed journal; described a specific intervention; were not classified as a pilot study; provided quantitative data; and were not review articles. Nine references on Six Sigma, nine on Lean/Toyota Production System, and one on StuderGroup meet the study's eligibility criteria.

Results: The reviewed studies universally concluded the implementations of these transformation strategies were successful in improving a variety of healthcare related processes and outcomes. Additionally, the existing literature reflects a wide application of these transformation strategies in terms of both settings and problems. However, despite these positive features, the vast majority had methodological limitations that might undermine the validity of the results. Common features included: weak study designs, inappropriate analyses, and failures to rule out alternative hypotheses. Furthermore, frequently absent was any attention to changes in organizational culture or substantial evidence of lasting effects from these efforts.

Conclusion: Despite the current popularity of these strategies, few studies meet the inclusion criteria for this review. Furthermore, each could have been improved substantially in order to ensure the validity of the conclusions, demonstrate sustainability, investigate changes in organizational culture, or even how one strategy interfaced with other concurrent and subsequent transformation efforts. While informative results can be gleaned from less rigorous studies, improved design and analysis can more effectively guide healthcare leaders who are motivated to transform their organizations and convince others of the need to employ such strategies. Demanding more exacting evaluation of projects consultants, or partnerships with health management researchers in academic settings, can support such efforts.