Lean interventions in healthcare: do they actually work? A systematic literature review

Int J Qual Health Care. 2016 Apr;28(2):150-65. doi: 10.1093/intqhc/mzv123. Epub 2016 Jan 24.


Purpose: Lean is a widely used quality improvement methodology initially developed and used in the automotive and manufacturing industries but recently expanded to the healthcare sector. This systematic literature review seeks to independently assess the effect of Lean or Lean interventions on worker and patient satisfaction, health and process outcomes, and financial costs.

Data sources: We conducted a systematic literature review of Medline, PubMed, Cochrane Library, CINAHL, Web of Science, ABI/Inform, ERIC, EMBASE and SCOPUS.

Study selection: Peer reviewed articles were included if they examined a Lean intervention and included quantitative data. Methodological quality was assessed using validated critical appraisal checklists. Publically available data collected by the Saskatchewan Health Quality Council and the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses were also analysed and reported separately.

Data extraction: Data on design, methods, interventions and key outcomes were extracted and collated.

Results of data synthesis: Our electronic search identified 22 articles that passed methodological quality review. Among the accepted studies, 4 were exclusively concerned with health outcomes, 3 included both health and process outcomes and 15 included process outcomes. Our study found that Lean interventions have: (i) no statistically significant association with patient satisfaction and health outcomes; (ii) a negative association with financial costs and worker satisfaction and (iii) potential, yet inconsistent, benefits on process outcomes like patient flow and safety.

Conclusion: While some may strongly believe that Lean interventions lead to quality improvements in healthcare, the evidence to date simply does not support this claim. More rigorous, higher quality and better conducted scientific research is required to definitively ascertain the impact and effectiveness of Lean in healthcare settings.

Keywords: Lean; Lean interventions; Lean thinking; healthcare; quality improvement.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Program Evaluation
  • Quality Improvement* / organization & administration
  • Quality of Health Care / organization & administration