Children’s Healthcare Reduces Length of Stay, Increases Patient Satisfaction with Georgia Tech Assistance

In April of 2008, Children’s contacted Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute for assistance in implementing lean principles in its emergency department.

In 2008, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta saw more than 170,000 patients across three of its three emergency departments. That kind of volume demands an effective and efficient process, and staff spent the past three years developing a master facility plan to do just that. However, moving into a larger space did not yield the expected results.

“We increased the size of our departments thinking capacity would resolve turnaround time issues,” said Marianne Hatfield, director of Children’s emergency services. “But what we found was we didn’t really get any better once we moved into the bigger space; we got slower. We really had not examined whether or not our process needed to change.”

A visit to Seattle Children’s Hospital convinced Hatfield that CHOA’s processes had to change to truly improve performance. Seattle Children’s Hospital is a leader in lean management principles – a set of tools derived mostly from the Toyota Production System and widely used in manufacturing – that helps identify and steadily eliminate waste from an organization’s operations. In April of 2008, Children’s contacted Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute for assistance in implementing lean principles in its emergency department.

“We knew we had to do something for turnaround time in our emergency department and we began interviewing people to teach lean. We thought Georgia Tech was the best fit. They were nearby and we could see what they had done with some other hospitals,” Hatfield recalled. “The week they spent with us changed the lives of the physicians and the frontline staff; they all think differently now. There was so much impact to that week together, where everyone really started to examine waste in our system. I don’t think we would have been able to do that on our own.”

Kelley Hundt and Matt Haynes, lean specialists with Georgia Tech’s Healthcare Performance Group, led a team of Children’s physicians, nurses, technicians and administrators to analyze and streamline flow processes from the moment a patient arrives in the emergency department until he or she is discharged. The team, which implemented lean principles primarily on Children’s Scottish Rite campus, identified both value-added and non-value-added activities and made a number of observations.

“By studying the processes, we learned that time was being wasted because of searching, re-work, travel and variation in processes,” observed Jeff Rehberg, manager of clinical process improvement at Children’s and a 1996 industrial engineering graduate of Georgia Tech. “Our goal was to reduce the length of time children who did not need to be admitted waited in the emergency department. Using lean principles, the team developed a model for pulling rather than pushing the patients through the emergency department.”

In a push system, the emergency department tries to push a patient through triage regardless of whether or not the physician is available. The new system, dubbed TAPP (Team Assessment Pull Process), anticipates emergency department demand and has both a physician and a nurse ready before the patient is called back.

“A lot of times when you hear people talk about emergency department flow, you hear them say ‘pull ‘til full,’ and we completely changed that. Before, as soon as we had an empty room, we would put patients in it – regardless of whether we had enough staff or physicians – because we thought people were happier if they weren’t in the waiting room and in an exam room,” Hatfield said. “Now we match the two resources before the patient comes back. When the patient comes into the exam room, both the physician and nurse are there and the work starts immediately.”

The new process noticeably reduced the time patients spent waiting for a physician assessment, enhanced physician and nurse partnering, eliminated order confusion and allowed discharge from the first room if no other treatment was needed. Most importantly, it improved the patient family experience by providing a more timely initial interaction with a physician.

“I am always trying to be more efficient and take out the waste in my own practice and patient care interactions without sacrificing quality,” said Dr. Michael Shaffner, a physician who helped develop the new process and a 1987 industrial engineering graduate of Georgia Tech. “There were no new concepts, but the implementation was fresh and greatly appreciated.”

From September 2007 to January 2008, the median length of stay in Children’s main emergency department was 190 minutes. A year later, length of stay had decreased to 163 minutes during the same season. In addition, the median time patients wait between being greeted and being seen by a provider has decreased by 37 percent.

“We did a one-month trial from mid-June to mid-July 2008, and we saw some frustration because physicians had to leave some rooms in search of supplies,” Hatfield recalled. “So we took a separate 5S team another four to six weeks to standardize all the rooms so the physicians have everything they need.”

5S refers to improving organization of the workspace in five steps: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. As a result of the 5S project, hospital carts are labeled and stocked in the same way, blood pressure cuffs are organized by size and small items frequently used by physicians are easy to grab and keep clean. Visual cues signify when it is time to re-stock a certain supply. The cumulative effects have been good for both hospital staff and patients, according to Hatfield.

“The way customer service scores normally work is when there is high volume, the score drops, but with low volume, customer satisfaction goes way up,” she observed. “September through January we were at the 99th percentile and this has been maintained month after month. We have to believe it’s the process because we’ve not really done anything different.”

Hundt says that a critical component of Children’s success was the support and involvement of top management.

“Management would not let the team fail; they stuck with it. They followed the model of plan, do, study and adjust and have seen tremendous benefits,” she said. “Before there was a lot of wasted time with interruptions and now they are working in an uninterrupted fashion. They developed a process that allows them to eliminate interruptions.”

To continually improve the lean process, Children’s is also implementing a lean education program that focuses on transforming all employees into problem solvers that can identify and eliminate waste. Ultimately, says Rehberg, lean principles will be applied to other areas of patient care, such as operating room, inpatient units and radiology.

“After other staff members heard about the great things going on in the emergency department, they started banging down our doors,” Rehberg said. “The more people that understand the concept, the better the process flows.”

For more information on lean health care services offered by Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, contact Frank Mewborn, director of the Healthcare Performance Group (706-338-0072); E-mail: (

About Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

Research News & Publications Office
Enterprise Innovation Institute
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contact: John Toon (404-894-6986); E-mail (

Writer: Nancy Fullbright