Guiding inpatient quality improvement: a systematic review of Lean and Six Sigma

Jt Comm J Qual Patient Saf. 2010 Dec;36(12):533-40. doi: 10.1016/s1553-7250(10)36081-8.


Background: Two popular quality improvement (QI) approaches in health care are Lean and Six Sigma. Hospitals continue to adopt these QI approaches-or the hybrid Lean Sigma approach-with little knowledge on how well they produce sustainable improvements. A systematic literature review was conducted to determine whether Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Sigma have been effectively used to create and sustain improvements in the acute care setting.

Methods: Databases were searched for articles published in the health care, business, and engineering literatures. Study inclusion criteria required identification of a Six Sigma, Lean, or Lean Sigma project; QI efforts focused on hospitalized patients; descriptions of project improvements; and reported results. Depending on the quality of data reported, articles were classified as summary reports, pre-post observational studies, or time-series reports.

Results: Database searches identified 539 potential articles. After review of titles, abstracts, and full text, 47 articles met inclusion criteria--10 articles summarized multiple projects, 12 reported Lean projects, 20 reported Six Sigma projects, and 5 reported Lean Sigma projects. Generally, the studies provided limited data, with only 15 articles providing any sort of follow-up data; of the 15, only 3 report a follow-up period greater than two years.

Conclusion: Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Sigma as QI approaches can aid institutions in tackling a wide variety of problems encountered in acute care. However, the true impact of these approaches is difficult to judge, given that the lack of rigorous evaluation or clearly sustained improvements provides little evidence supporting broad adoption. There is still a need for future work that will improve the evidence base for understanding more about QI approaches and how to achieve sustainable improvement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease / therapy
  • Health Services Research
  • Hospital Administration*
  • Humans
  • Quality Improvement / organization & administration*
  • Total Quality Management / organization & administration*