What is Lean Automation?

― Adam Polka

March 27, 2014.  

What is Lean Automation?

Mix in one part methodology, one part technology, and a dash of that industrial flavor

The term Lean Automation, or variations thereof, such as Lean Technology, Automated Lean or e-Lean, has been lauded as an overdue facelift to the 1950s era ‘Lean’ in the manufacturing industry. Each term on its own, ‘Lean’ and ‘Automation’, is well-established in the vernacular of the healthcare professional, so much so that the roles of Chief Kaizen Officer and Chief Technology Officer are gaining in prevalence. And though some may argue that Lean Automation is a juxtaposition or oxymoron, the dovetailing of these two terms is fundamental to the success of its implementation.

Ultimately, Lean Automation boils down to applying Lean concepts where manual processes are required, but minimizing these through balanced application of technology. You would be hard-pressed to find a Hospital CFO using a slide rule to balance the budget, yet many proponents of Lean resist using this era’s technology to enhance Lean implementations. By the same token, you would be equally hard-pressed to find a Hospital CFO relying on a fully automated accounting system without cross-checking, auditing, or otherwise manually validating the numbers. The technological advances that have emerged over the last 75 years have given industry the tools – not to eliminate – but to enhance and enrich the process excellence first conceived by Mr. Toyoda.

Lean and Automation are sometimes looked at as two branches off the same ‘industrialization’ tree – each one with its own leaves, but neither dependent on the other. Rather, Lean and Automation are more like the branches and the roots, both part of the industrialization tree, but both contributing equally to the overall health of that tree. Lean processes feed Automation, and Automation supports effective process.

Thus, these two terms are not mutually exclusive. Some practitioners of Lean are averse to automated processes, citing that Lean methodology trumps technology risk. Still others will suggest that a fully automated platform supersedes Lean processes. Emerging models reflect a shift away from a two-silo view of these practices, suggesting instead that combining technology with Lean methodology has the capacity to reduce the risk associated with each, whether IT malfunction or human error respectively.

When Eiji Toyoda masterminded the Toyota Production System, it is unlikely he anticipated the industrialization concept of Lean would evolve into a comprehensive approach to process excellence and continuous improvement across industry and service. Nonetheless, representing rigorous process analysis designed to reduce waste and optimize workflows, Lean has been successfully applied almost every environment seeking to generate efficiencies across value streams.

However, for hospitals who have gone through a Lean transformation, or for those who are currently undergoing one, there may very well be underwhelming results. Many factors contribute to this, but the headliner is that processes alone can only get you so far. Indeed, they can bring you pretty far, but there is a reason that since Lean was introduced to industry some 75 years ago, the many iterations of the concept have evolved to include – at least to some degree – a level of technological integration.

Technology designed to enhance Lean methodologies serves to accelerate and sustain process excellence.