Lean thinking and six sigma have a long history in GE Healthcare and this experience is helping develop future leaders and drive change in NHS trusts.

As a supplier to, and partner with, the NHS, GE Healthcare is perhaps best known for a range of products and services from diagnostic imaging technologies to patient monitoring systems. However, the company is also working with a number of trusts in the NHS to help improve operational and clinical efficiency using industrial methodologies such as lean thinking and six sigma through its Performance Solutions business.

GE Healthcare began its own journey as a lean organisation in the early 1990s. It needed to drive innovation and transform its culture and processes to accelerate productivity. Ever since, whether in setting strategy or developing its people's skills and expertise, GE Healthcare has incorporated lean as a way of working.

A long-standing element of GE's work in developing leaders is its current lean leader programme, where its staff build expertise in problem-solving, change management and facilitation.

While all employees attend an introductory course and can speak the common language of lean, regardless of business or professional background, lean leaders receive advanced training along with coaching and support from a master lean leader. Master lean leaders in turn provide quality assurance for training and projects, ensuring there is a consistent, rigorous approach.

'Within GE, the lean leader programme is a breeding ground for future leaders,' says Nigel Mason, president of GE HealthcareUK.'People are chosen for the role based on their potential - process discipline, creativity, communications and coaching skills. Internal lean certification is not easy.'

Tough training

Prospective lean leaders spend at least two years in the role and deliver at least two major projects showing significant customer impact. Throughout their development, lean leaders are encouraged to be bold and are set additional 'stretch targets' on top of normal performance goals.

Qualified people are not enough for a lean organisation, however. The business structure must support it too. Each GE business has a lean support office led by a master lean leader with the same authority as its executives. With no direct operational reports, it has 'dotted line' authority to work across the business, leaving it free to cut across departmental boundaries and focus on customer needs. These roles, coupled with their team of lean leaders, act as catalysts for change in challenging, complex, and often global environments.

With its Performance Solutions business, the company is using its experience of lean and six sigma in an industrial setting to work with healthcare organisations to improve their processes and train and develop lean leaders of their own.

With projects in settings as diverse as mental health, cancer care, life sciences research and bio-pharmaceutical production, lean tools are delivering substantial benefits to healthcare professionals across theUK.

'It may seem out of place to apply industrial tools such as these to healthcare, but consider what a good manufacturing process seeks to do: to remove variation in outcomes and quality, and to ensure a streamlined process,' says Nigel. 'The rigorous standards we apply in manufacturing are just as valid in healthcare. Patients want to go into a healthcare system knowing that they will have the best outcome possible.'