Create a fast track for your work.

I spent a few days at the SHS/ASQ alphabet soup conference in Atlanta this week, learning about how hospitals are implementing lean to improve their quality and lower their costs. I was struck by the fact that all the focus is on hospital processes — admission, discharge, nurse shift change, etc. — but no one is thinking about how to use lean to improve the way people do their office work. The nurse supervisors and managers I spoke to, for example, were complaining about the difficulty of getting their administrative tasks done in any sort of efficient way. Like workers in any other kind of organization, they buried by email, paperwork, and meetings.

There’s no easy solution to these burdens, but there are lessons from the way hospitals manage patients that can be applied to the way that individuals manage their work. Consider the “fast track” that many hospitals have implemented in their emergency departments.

There’s one pathway for the serious problems — gunshot wounds, cerebral hemorrhages — that need immediate attention. And there’s a fast track for people who have non-life-threatening issues that can be easily resolved, such as stitching up a bad cut or splinting a sprained finger. These are high volume, fast turnover cases. If you’ve ever gone to an emergency department that doesn’t have a fast track for a non-life threatening problem, you’ll end up sitting around for hours studying People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2007″ double issue while the medics take care of the guy who’s having a coronary.

What would happen if you created a fast-track for your work? As part of 5S, sould you set up a paper and electronic filing system that separates the high volume, fast turnover work from the serious, more complex issues that take time to process? That would make it easier and faster to access the information you need, and avoid those Howard Carter-like archaeological expeditions looking for stuff.

Going one step further, could you create blocks of time in which you only dealt with high volume, fast turnover work, and other blocks that were reserved for the big stuff? If you did that, you might increase the likelihood that you’d deal with everything more quickly, more smoothly, and with less stress.

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