Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Spread of Lean in Alaska

Patrick M. Anderson, Executive Director
1840 Bragaw St., Suite 110
Anchorage, Alaska 99508
(907) 334-0147

As a new chief executive for an Alaska Native non-profit organization in 2004, Chugachmiut, Inc., I heard the message about Lean from Brian Jones, President of Nypro Precision Plastics based in Clinton, MA. During lunch Brian explained Nypro’s “High Velocity System” to three of us. I asked Brian whether Nypro ever utilized Lean for their administrative processes, and while he said they did not, they were looking into it. He piqued my interest and I returned to Alaska to talk about Lean with my Executive Staff. They were willing to give it a try. I then sought out the first available conference that discussed Administrative Lean, and worked around my schedule to attend The 2004 Shingo Prize in Lexington, Kentucky. I could only attend 2 days of the conference if I traveled all night the first day and returned home in the early morning following the last day in order to fulfill obligations. My commitment to learning about Lean was intense.

At the Shingo Prize, I attended a number of presentations, but none by the host for this Blog, Dr. Tom Jackson. I was fortunate enough to stop Dr. Jackson on my way to another presentation and meet him. He ended up becoming Chugachmiut’s Sensei about a year later.

I must confess that I was already very knowledgeable about the principles taught by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, so I was predisposed to process management. The Lean training and simulations I experienced at Shingo convinced me to start a Lean initiative at Chugachmiut. 5 years later, we have achieved considerable success, and learned a lot about resistance to change.

It’s not my intention to talk about Chugachmiut’s Lean improvements here. Our website talks about a number of our lean initiatives. Instead I want to discuss resistance to Lean management in Alaska, and elsewhere, to this proven and true improvement method. What I have learned is that the Lean management message is very hard to sell. Persistence, results, and a network of true believers are necessary to make an impact.

Why am I even trying to sell the message? I explain I through one of the Lean Management principles of working with the supply chains that serve your customers. Our patients at Chugachmiut also receive health care services from two other Alaska Native health care organizations. I realized that both organizations could benefit our patients through adoption of Lean Healthcare and Lean Administration.

So in December of 2006, I sent a letter to the heads of the largest Alaska Native health care programs in the state of Alaska. By then one of the organizations had conducted a Kaizen for one of its smaller but critically important processes. They achieved about a 40 day reduction in the length of the process, an increase of quality from somewhere in the 5% range to somewhere in the 90% range, and a savings of 80% from the original cost of the process. What I found was that the middle management staff that engaged in the Kaizen were sold on the idea quickly. They have quietly advocated for slow spread of the culture. Through their efforts, and the many examples of successful hospital lean healthcare implementations such as occurred at Virginia Mason, Theda Care, Park Nicollet and others are pointing the way for other executives.

Shortly afterwards, I learned about the Lean Production advocacy coming from the Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Their staff includes a Lean Sensei. Together he and I wrote to the former Governor of Alaska recommending that she look at the use of Lean Production for managing the now defunct Matanuska Susitna Dairy and the Alaska Office of Children’s Services, two highly distressed organizations. We did not receive a response.

I also discovered the Alaska Performance Excellence Network, an organization dedicated to spread the gospel of process management and the Baldrige Quality Criteria.

Lean Healthcare is finally making some inroads in one of the two Alaska Native Healthcare organizations. One high level administrator has expressed considerable interest and a number of Kaizen events are scheduled this year. This brave executive needs support among his policy makers and the other executive leadership at his organization. This organization is on it’s way, and if Lean is implemented properly, the successes will soon pile up and hopefully encourage deeper involvement.

I also spoke to 2 heads of Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, 2 Anchorage Mayors, the Anchorage Chief of Police (he sent 2 of his staff to learn more and was starting an implementation when he was removed from his position), and countless other business leaders in Alaska. I don’t get discouraged. Again, our customers are served by each of these organizations, and I firmly believe they could benefit from the application of Lean Management.

By the way, if you have avoided learning about Lean and its benefits, take a second look. The quality of your organizations work will go up, the productivity of your work force will increase, and one of the nice benefits of a Lean implementation is that you will save money. You won’t even have to try if you implement well.

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