Thoughts from Ken Kaufman

Don’t Let Your Hospital Be Boeing

2 minute
airplane at sunrise

If you haven’t noticed (but I am sure you have) American business can be very unsettling from time to time, and occasionally the bigger the business, the more unsettling it gets. Exhibit A right now for this observation is, of course, the Boeing Company.

For years Boeing was an iconic, high reliability company; a worldwide leader in the growth of airplane transportation. As Bill Saporito wrote in the January 23 New York Times, Boeings’ airplanes were industry-changing, including the 707 jet in 1957, the 747 introduced in 1970, and perhaps the most successful commercial plane in aviation history, the 737.

But when things go bad, they can, indeed, go very bad. The newly designed 737 MAX crashed twice, once in 2018 and again in 2019, with a loss of life of 346 people. Now this year, a door plug fell off the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 at 16,000 feet and subsequent investigation revealed the possibility of missing bolts. All 737 MAX 9s were grounded while a special investigation was convened. Manufacturing airplanes is a special enterprise; lives are at stake. Airlines and the flying public take these Boeing problems very seriously.

What went wrong at Boeing? Everybody has an opinion. One popular interpretation goes all the way back to Boeing’s merger in 1997 with McDonell Douglas. Recent articles suggest that prior to 1997 Boeing had a very dominant “engineering” culture. After the McDonell Douglas merger, the Boeing culture took a more “business” turn. That is the speculation anyway. What strikes me here is the similarity between Boeing and the American hospital industry. Boeing “manufactures” planes and hospitals “manufacture” healthcare. Neither industry can make mistakes; manufacturing errors in both cases change lives and cause real personal and societal pain. For both Boeing and hospitals, high reliability and error-free execution is the only acceptable business model.

Why is this analogy to Boeing apt and important? Because American healthcare is likely the most intricate enterprise humanity has ever engineered. Therapeutic interventions are increasingly effective but demand pinpoint diagnoses and precision treatment. All of this is happening within profound technological complexity. The opportunity for regrettable manufacturing error—in fact the likelihood of such error—is so significant that no American hospital can possibly take for granted that high reliability processes and culture are properly in place and remain in place.

So what can hospitals do to keep from being Boeing? In all candor, this question is over my paygrade, so for an experienced and nuanced answer, I turned to Allan Frankel, MD. Dr. Frankel is an anesthesiologist and former hospital executive who founded Safe and Reliable Healthcare after evaluating one too many disasters in healthcare delivery. He is currently an Executive Principal at Vizient Inc. Dr. Frankel offered the following high reliability tutorial:

  1. High reliability manufacturing is directly dependent on the culture of the organization in question. Everyday excellence which leads to high reliability is dependent on the collective mindset and social norms of your workforce. Any high reliability workforce must trust its leadership and believe that the workforce values and leadership values are aligned. Further, a high reliability culture gives the workforce a sense of purpose and the opportunity to be their best professional selves on the job.
  2. In the workplace, bi-directional communication is essential. Leaders and managers must round, see the actual work firsthand, learn what it is like to perform the work, and talk to individuals about the challenges of doing the work. Under best practices senior leaders should round 10% to 20% of their time. Line managers should round 80% to 90% of their time.
  3. Workers, on the other hand, must have a sense of voice and agency. Voice means that workers are able to speak up about their concerns and ideas. Agency means that when workers do speak up, they see their ideas and concerns influence their work environment for the better.
  4. Voice and agency require that workers feel safe in the high reliability process and that when identifying defects in the manufacturing process, they will be treated fairly. And importantly, that having the courage to speak up is an organizational attribute that is perceived as worthy. Such worthiness is described by discrete concepts including “psychological safety,” just culture,” and “respect.” Each of these concepts is definable and requires focused and ongoing training.
  5. Concepts 3 and 4 require close attention and care and feeding. Functionally, this happens by robust leader rounding, robust managerial huddles, and timely feedback regarding manufacturing concerns and weaknesses. These activities need to be structural and must be built into a system of operations—such systems are often referred to as “standard work.” These changes plus the right frame of mind functionally drive improvement and change. Dr. Frankel noted “it’s not complicated, but as the Boeing example illustrates, the high reliability philosophy must be perpetually nourished.”
  6. Once all the above is in place, there needs to be an effector arm. Process improvement skills are required to take ideas and concerns and test and implement them. Quality personnel must check on the changes as they are being made and audit operations. Dr. Frankel adds that this part of the high reliability journey is very often under-resourced in healthcare organizations, with the result that the overall process feels less effective so the activities stop occurring.
  7. Training and skills are paramount. Skills come from training and reading. You should be thinking here about the “10,000 hours concept.” Worthy attitudes must be defined by your organization and then uniformly expected of all staff. Finally, behaviors can be structured, expectations set, and measures and metrics identified.

As you can see from the suggested activities, the foundations of high reliability are not rocket science. They require the right frame of mind, attention to detail, and clear accountability of all involved. No hospital should let that metaphorical 737 MAX 9 door plug fall off at 16,000 feet. It was, without question, a terrifying manufacturing moment.

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