Why Midwest health system went to Virginia Mason for help

“The fact that Virginia Mason is driven by the same purpose we are – serving patients and communities – helped them understand us better than consulting companies could.”

Andy Hillig, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare

Increasingly, high-quality health care organizations around the country are turning to the Virginia Mason Institute (VMI) for guidance and coaching on improvement. Virginia Mason’s 13-plus years of experience adapting the Toyota Production System and tools to health care has given it a reputation as a highly effective teaching partner and demand for coaching from VMI team members is rapidly growing.

Why VMI? There are, after all, hundreds of companies out there that provide consulting, coaching, guiding services in health care. In fact, there are many companies that specialize in lean consulting.


Andy Hillig

Perhaps the reason provider organizations come to Virginia Mason is defined by Andy Hillig, vice president of Operational Excellence for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.

“Virginia Mason has successfully adapted a management approach that has had sustained impact for the health care system and has led to a culture of continuous improvement,” Hillig says. “They have lived it, felt the challenge of change and transition, and have maintained the commitment and discipline. The fact that Virginia Mason is driven by the same purpose we are – serving patients and communities – helped them understand us better than consulting companies could.”

That is why leaders at Wheaton reached out to VMI for help. “As an organization, we knew we had an opportunity to establish the leadership discipline and incorporate the necessary tools to carry it out to achieve a culture of continuous improvement,” says Hillig. “We partnered with the Virginia Mason Institute because it offered us an opportunity to learn an approach they had field-tested and proven effective.”

Susan Boland, president of Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare-All Saints in Racine, Wis., credits the organization’s vice president of operations as the impetus behind contracting with VMI. Connie Slomczewski “raised the bar for what continuous quality improvement could look like. Her ability to create a pilot for All Saints was really valuable.”

That pilot expanded into a broader improvement effort now being rolled out throughout the Wheaton system. As with any attempt to fundamentally alter a management approach and, in the process, alter culture, there are bumps in the road to be expected. But leaders at Wheaton say they have hit surprisingly few. So far, there has been strong engagement from team members and physicians.

Originally, the work started as an initiative between Virginia Mason and Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare-All Saints in Racine, but it soon broadened to the Wheaton umbrella. “We needed a true partner that had successfully utilized lean principles and focused on patients,” says Slomczewski. “A number of organizations and companies teach lean, but not all center on the patient the way Virginia Mason does.”

The Wheaton team wanted guidance but also wanted to learn how to do lean management on their own, says Slomczewski, adding, “We wanted an organization to teach us and allow us to grow and develop our own platform, and we found that Virginia Mason fit that bill. They are a quality driven organization focused on the patient.”

One of the most powerful effects of the work, says Boland, is seeing the engagement of frontline team members “who participated very well early on because they saw the true value of what these changes could mean for quality care and service.”

A real plus has been the reaction of physicians to the work. At some organizations, physicians are suspicious of lean – and sometimes resistant. Overall at Wheaton, many physicians see the power of the lean approach.

“We are light years beyond where we were a year ago,” says Boland. “We have strong engagement from physicians and staff, and we have had some very good early adopters.”

Diane Miller

Diane Miller

Two years into the lean journey, Hillig says he hears feedback from frontline team members saying, “We can never ‘go back.’ We expected some growing pains. We’re delighted with the progress we’re making.”

As is Diane Miller, executive director, Virginia Mason Institute. Miller notes that not only is there great satisfaction in being able to help an excellent organization such as Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, but “the work there and elsewhere is a tangible commitment to Virginia Mason’s vision to ‘transform health care.’”

Leave a comment


  1. Marilyn Morrone

     /  July 12, 2014

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