By Carolyn Pexton and Blake Hubbard
Located in Harlingen, Texas, Valley Baptist Health System is a full-service, not-for-profit community health network ably serving the population of south Texas and beyond. The system is comprised of multiple organizations including Valley Baptist Medical Center, a 611-bed acute care hospital providing the number one rated orthopedics service in Texas, a state of the art children’s center and a lead level III trauma facility. The organization also serves as a teaching facility for The University of Texas Health Science Center.
In 2002, Valley Baptist Health System began to implement GE’s Six Sigma approach as a rigorous methodology for process improvement and a philosophy for organizational transformation. The adoption of Six Sigma at Valley Baptist fostered a revitalized culture that embraces the voice of the customer, breaks down barriers to change and raises the bar on performance expectations. Through this initiative, the team at Valley Baptist began to examine the most critical opportunities for improvement and select projects that would align with strategic objectives and produce measurable results.
As with most healthcare providers today, maintaining appropriate staffing levels and improving productivity are among the top concerns at Valley Baptist. During the initial wave of Six Sigma training projects, the team at Valley Baptist launched an effort to review and improve the staff scheduling process for one nursing unit in orthopedics. Within this particular unit, there had been a history of overtime and use of agency hours that did not seem to correlate with changes in patient volume. Patient census would fluctuate while staffing levels remained the same, and the higher hourly wage for overtime and agencies had begun to strain the overall labor budget.
The primary focus for this project was to improve the unit’s ability to responsibly meet staffing targets while protecting the quality of patient care. It is a challenge to reach that optimal level – avoiding overstaffing yet appropriately meeting daily needs. Paramount in this effort was the notion that targets would be met without adversely impacting customers. Patient satisfaction scores had to remain constant or increase, and this mandate was built into the project and measured through the use of upper and lower specification limits.
A cross functional project team was assembled including the chief nursing officer as sponsor, the assistant vice president from human resources, the nursing house supervisor, the nurse manager from the cardiac care unit, a representative from IT and a charge nurse. The introduction of any new change initiative can elicit skepticism, but since Six Sigma concentrates on fixing the process rather than assigning blame, once the approach was understood much of the skepticism subsided. Stakeholder analysis and other CAP (change acceleration process) tools helped to surface concerns and improve communication.
Also supporting this project were metrics to measure productivity for nurses and managers that had been introduced through the adoption of Six Sigma. The dual emphasis on productivity and quality provides a framework for offering cost effective care and aligns with the customer-centered mission at Valley Baptist.
Defining the Goal
During the Define phase of the project, the team concentrated on clearly identifying the problem and establishing goals. The nursing units in general had struggled to meet their staffing targets and were over budget on labor costs. For this project, the team decided to focus on one orthopedics nursing unit based on three criteria: the unit was not extremely specialized or unique so it offered the best representation of nursing as a whole; the manager was very supportive of the initiative; and this unit offered clear opportunity for improvement and results.
To understand the current scheduling process, the project team used the SIPOC tool to develop a high-level process map. SIPOC stands for suppliers, inputs, process, output and customers. Inputs are obtained from suppliers, value is added through your process, and an output is provided that meets or exceeds your customer’s requirements. SIPOC is extremely useful during process mapping.
Measuring and Analyzing the Issues
As they moved through the Measure and Analyze phases, the project team focused on data collection and the identification of the critical “Xs” that were impacting staff scheduling. Historical data was gathered from the payroll system to analyze regular time, overtime, agency use, sick time, vacation, jury, funeral leave and FMLA. They examined 24 pay periods for each data point. Fortunately, the team was able to extract the data they needed from existing systems and avoid manual data collection, which is more labor intensive and can increase the project timeline.
Given the availability of continuous data for the “Y” or effect and the potential Xs or causes, regression analysis was the tool chosen to help the team understand the relationship between variation from the staffing goals and vacation, FMLA, sick leave, overtime, agency nurse usage, and so on. Through regression analysis, they were able to determine that three critical Xs could explain 95 percent of the variation: agency use, overtime and census. The next step would be to understand underlying factors – data would point the team to interesting findings that disputed their original theories.
The Improve Phase
During the Improve phase, the team used many of the CAP and Work-out tools. Such acceptance-building techniques are key to success, since improvements introduce changes in process and human behavior. The team conducted a Work-out session to develop new standard operating procedures for better management of overtime and agency usage – critical drivers in staffing.
The chief nursing officer attended the sessions to underscore the importance of this initiative from a leadership perspective. The project team used the process map to indicate where they might have opportunities for improvement, and then conducted separate Work-outs on each area. They brought in nursing staff, house supervisors and other stakeholders to participate in the search for solutions.
This project translates to $460,000 in potential savings for one unit. Conservatively, if it were spread across the health system the savings could exceed $5 million.
This project furnished a classic example as to how Six Sigma can be used to either corroborate or dispel original theories. Management at Valley Baptist had initially assumed they were over budget on labor costs due to sick leave, FMLA, vacation and people not showing up, which would have naturally necessitated the additional overtime and agency hours. The data and analysis proved those assumptions to be incorrect.
It turns out there were several factors contributing to the staff scheduling challenges. One illuminating aspect to come from the Work-outs was the realization that nurses didn’t like floating in and out of units – this came up in every session. There were also issues with the staffing matrix which attempted to set parameters based on volume. Compliance was not ideal, and the matrix itself was based on data that was not completely current. Another complication was that maintaining information in the matrix involved labor intensive, manual processes that were difficult to control.
The team discovered the use of overtime was not always need-based. Units would regularly schedule 48 hours for each nurse, with the extra eight hours of overtime built-in as “traditional” usage. This became an accepted practice and although in theory, adjustments are supposed to be made when the patient flow is lighter, this was not happening. On the form used to submit data the nurses would have to guess what hours they might actually work. The matrix might indicate compliance, but the payroll data actually showed them clocked in for 14-15 hours instead of 12.
Another critical issue is that the nursing unit lacked appropriate mechanisms for shift coordination and handoff. There were two fully independent teams between the day and night shifts, and there was not a smooth transition between them. Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of written guidelines governing the overtime between shifts. Nurses would finish their regular 12-hour shift and stay on overtime to complete tasks rather than pass them on to the next shift.
The central metric of this Six Sigma initiative was worked hours divided by equivalent patient days. Valley Baptist Health System defines worked hours as those hours during which an employee was actually working – including regular time and overtime, and excluding non-productive hours such as sick and vacation time. Equivalent patient days is the volume statistic utilized within the Orthopedics Unit. It is the typical patient days number adjusted to reflect short-term observation (STO) patient volume.
Results and the Control Phase
The development of new standard operating procedures has clearly had a positive impact on the organization. This gave staff a plan they can follow and established accountability. The unit began a process for transition meetings between shifts. The outgoing nurse now takes the incoming nurse to the patient’s room, introduces them and provides a report on the current status and whether there are outstanding orders. In addition to improving operations for the hospital, this change has also been well received by patients, as reflected in rising satisfaction scores during the pilot.
The project on staff scheduling has led to an overall reduction in the higher hourly cost of overtime and agency use, and has translated to $460 thousand in potential savings for this one unit. Conservatively, if this project were spread across the health system the savings could exceed $5 million. It is also important to note that this project started at the 0 sigma level and increased to Six Sigma for nine consecutive pay periods.
“At Valley Baptist, we continually seek opportunities to improve productivity,” said Jim Springfield, President and CEO. “This focus is critical for our future success and ability to meet patient needs.”
To ensure results are maintained, managers use control charts and trend reports with data from HR, time and attendance and payroll systems. This provides real time information on productivity, tracking worked hours versus patient days to show alignment with targets on an ongoing basis.
Organizational and Customer Impact
The bottom line is that nurses, management and patients are all happier as a result of this project. With the pilot in the Control phase, Valley Baptist has held Work-outs to determine how they might broaden the SOPs and implement this approach across the system in all nursing units.
“Staff has become much more flexible. We initially encountered some resistance, but using the CAP tools and working through the process helped to create a shared need and vision.”
Leadership involvement and support turned out to be a significant factor in the overall success of the project. This initiative represented a major culture change from previous CQI and TQM approaches to quality improvement. All previous efforts had involved hard work and good intentions, but prior to Six Sigma, they lacked the framework and rigor to institute statistically valid long-term results.
The health system is moving toward autonomy through additional Green Belt and Black Belt training with projects, and through participation in a Master Black Belt course at GE’s Healthcare Institute in Waukesha, Wisconsin. This experience provides instruction and interaction that prepares the MBB to come back and teach within the organization.
“Coming from the HR side, it’s important for organizations to know it’s possible to change the way you’ve always done things, and that employees will adapt to a new approach. If you can overcome the stress surrounding change you can realize increased efficiency. This is a positive way to control staffing without employing slash and burn techniques.”
Irma Pye, senior vice president at Valley Baptist, attended a conference in Utah with other healthcare executives. When the issue of performance improvement and staffing came up, someone mentioned they’d attempted to do a project on this and it had failed because they couldn’t afford to alienate and potentially lose good employees. Irma spoke up and let them know that based on her own recent experience, you can indeed address this issue and it can work if it is approached in the right way using the right techniques.
“Usually, when you ask the department manager to trim labor costs they think it can’t be done because it will antagonize employees . . . they’ll either take a job somewhere else, or stay there with negative feelings which impacts morale. This approach was able to affect change, while avoiding issues of layoffs or pay cuts.”