Lean Management and Breakthrough Performance Improvement in Health Care

Qual Manag Health Care. 2021;30(1):6-12. doi: 10.1097/QMH.0000000000000282.


Background and objectives: Lean management in health care organizations attempts to empower staff to generate continuous improvement through incremental but regular improvements in work processes. However, because of the increasing pressure on health care organizations to substantially improve quality of care and patient outcomes while containing costs in the relatively short term, many health care leaders are looking for ways to achieve large breakthrough improvements in their organization's performance. The objective of this research is to understand whether and how Lean management can be used to achieve breakthrough improvements in performance.

Methods: This study used grounded theory and content analysis of in-depth, semistructured interviews with 10 nationally recognized experts in the use of Lean management in health care organizations. The 10 participants constitute a purposive sample of experts with in-depth understanding of the strengths and limitations of Lean management in health care organizations.

Results: Two out of 10 participants defined breakthrough improvement as a major change in a performance metric; 2 participants defined it as a fundamental redesign in a process or service; the remaining 6 participants defined breakthrough improvement as having both these characteristics. The extent to which participants believed Lean was an effective means for achieving breakthrough improvement in performance was related to how they defined breakthrough improvement. The 2 participants who defined breakthrough improvement as a significant change in a performance metric believed Lean methods alone were sufficient. The 2 participants who defined breakthrough improvement to be a fundamental redesign tended not to view Lean alone as an effective approach. Rather, they, and the 6 participants who defined breakthrough improvement as having both change-in-metric and process redesign characteristics, viewed human-centered design thinking as the primary or important complementary approach to achieving breakthrough improvement. Participants identified resources, culture change, and leadership commitment beyond what would be required to achieve incremental improvement as the main facilitators and barriers to achieving breakthrough improvements.

Conclusion: This research reveals some differences in experts' definitions of breakthrough improvement, and illuminates the value of human-centered design thinking, alone or as a complement to Lean management, in achieving breakthrough improvement in health care organizations. Most of our expert participants agreed that supplementing Lean management methods with the contributions of innovation design and investing significant resources, strengthening the organizational culture to support the necessary changes, and providing stronger leadership commitment to the effort are important facilitators for achieving breakthroughs in organizational performance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Health Facilities
  • Humans
  • Leadership
  • Organizational Culture*
  • Quality Improvement