Transformational Lean Leadership in Action

Oncology is a field that is changing at the speed of medical progress, which is stunning. Just a decade ago, a diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma skin cancer was a wake-up call to get your affairs in order. Today, it is a managed, chronic disease thanks to breakthroughs that are shifting treatment from an emphasis on chemotherapy to one of immunotherapy. The advances don’t just offer empty hope; patients are living years toward a cure.

Medical leaps such  as this occur because brilliant researchers are dedicated to solving the mysteries of the interplay of disease and health. One of those researchers who has dedicated his life and career to cancer research is Dr. Suresh Nair of Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, PA.

You might think that the Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown is a backwater medical facility. You’d be wrong. LVHN is cutting edge in the way it thinks about healthcare. It has embraced a Lean philosophy that means it is focused on it value to patients. LVHN is recognized as a leader in Lean healthcare. Its leaders embrace Lean principles, which provide an environment in which Dr. Nair is able to be on the cutting edge of cancer research.

Walking the Talk

Last week, Lehigh Valley Health Network sponsored a Melanoma Celebration Day that featured – its patients. The Melanoma Celebration Day started as a modest idea to provide a place for melanoma patients to meet each other and grew into a full-fledged festivity as the staff saw the potential for honoring its patients in a meaningful way.

For the celebration, a conference room was packed with patients, their families, doctors, nurses, staff and executives. The event was conducted in a way that showed LVHN does, indeed, “get” Lean even though Lean never once was mentioned. Looking at LVHN through its culture, however, these few hours presented a microcosm of what LVHN does right.

1. Engage executive management.

Every successful Lean transformation must occur for the top down. A panel discussion included patients, Dr. Nair, surgical oncologist Dr. Rohit Sharma, and the hospital President and CEO, Dr. Ronald Swinfard. Dr. Swinfard clearly provided the top down leadership support required for Dr. Nair and his clinical trial team to do their jobs. Dr. Swinfard was effusive about the efforts of the clinical trial team. He wasn’t just present, he was engaged.

2. Emphasize patient engagement.

The event focused on the patients. Hospitals talk about patient engagement; LVHN showed how it’s done. A stage 4 melanoma patient who had been told elsewhere that he had little time was referred to LVHN to participate in a clinical trial. He said he was rushed into testing to make sure he was appropriate for a trial, then staff removed all barriers to treatment with urgent haste. He spoke from the dais:

“I was so scared. I didn’t want to leave my wife and grandkids. I knew what I was facing. How do you say thank you for somebody saving your life and giving you more time? I am so grateful. Thank you.”

3. Celebrate success.

The trial team presented Dr. Nair with an engraved award to recognize his efforts. The event was catered with a lovely breakfast. People cheered, clapped and cried, especially the trial team who has seen many successes – and some losses – along the way. The patients, past and present, were honored. The local media captured the event to publicize the success.

4. Practice humility.

In the spirit of Lean, the leaders are truly humble. President and CEO Dr. Swinfard used his time at the microphone to honor his colleagues, and Dr. Nair used his moment in the sun to deflect the light onto his patients, clinical trial team and the researchers who preceded him.

“These patients are taking the risk that helps all the other patients,” Dr. Nair said.

The event featured the accomplishments of all the team players. The nurse team that worked on a high-dose interferon study displayed a poster they presented at a meeting of oncology nurses in Anaheim, California the previous week.

Lean Healthcare’s Mission

Lean efforts in healthcare are just beginning to really take hold in the industry. Many hospitals are still struggling with the change that is required to transform a culture. And some places, like Lehigh Valley Health Network, are further along in the journey. The Melanoma Celebration Day certainly demonstrated LVHN’s commitment to its cultural transformation and its emphasis on patient experience which is, after all, all about life.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Lehigh Valley Health Network is my local hospital and I have some personal relationships with people on staff. However, I had learned of LVHN’s Lean leadership during my training work outside this community, so I can, with a clear conscience, say that LVHN is nationally recognized for its efforts in developing a Lean cultural transformation. LVHN has been named on of U.S. News and World Report’s Best Hospitals for 18 consecutive years.


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