A Publication of WTVP

In 2000, a report by the Institute on Medicine made national headlines. Patients die each year because of medical errors, the report said. This was a wake-up call for hospitals everywhere. 

OSF Saint Francis Medical Center has a history of being an early adopter of quality and patient safety techniques. We’re a charter member of the National Institute on Healthcare Improvement. And yet we knew we needed to address medical errors, as well as other process improvement and patient safety issues. 

What we did was truly innovative. We developed a partnership with Caterpillar Inc. to bring into the medical setting a process improvement system that had been in the industry for several years: 6 Sigma. 

In the strictest sense, Sigma is a term that defines statistical variation. Operating at a 6 Sigma level means having only 3.4 defects per one million activities. As Caterpillar implemented 6 Sigma, it has become a system of process improvement and a means of transforming a culture to one that’s continually improving. 

It was logical for OSF Saint Francis to begin using the 6 Sigma approach. Health care is enormously complex, with extensive human involvement. Most errors are process issues and not a lack of skill or knowledge by the workforce. 

By summer 2001 we were ready to embark on a journey of discovery with Caterpillar Inc. as our guide. Caterpillar was planning to roll out 6 Sigma to its suppliers, and OSF Saint Francis is, in a very real sense, a supplier—of health care. We identified two deployment champions and accepted applications from our workforce for Black Belt positions. 6 Sigma uses a martial arts theme, thus the Black Belt terminology. Those chosen as Black Belts became full-time 6 Sigma employees at OSF Saint Francis. 

The Deployment Champions and those selected as Black Belts underwent extensive training through Caterpillar. Simultaneously, we solicited project ideas from our managers and directors, who spent five days off-site having 6 Sigma explained and demonstrated to them by Black Belts and Master Black Belts from the Caterpillar 6 Sigma team. 

In early 2002 we attacked our first projects, using Black Belts as leaders of multi-disciplinary teams. We had a wide variety of processes to review, disassemble, and then reassemble again in our endeavor to improve patient safety, patient satisfaction, and to decrease costs. Many groups throughout the Medical Center were actively involved in the process: emergency, radiology, admitting, pharmacy, nursing, materials management, etc. 

The results have been astounding. We’ve fixed problems. We’ve saved money. We’ve made OSF Saint Francis Medical Center a safer place. We continue to add projects and Black Belts, and with assistance from Caterpillar Inc., we’re developing our own Master Black Belts. 

In early 2003 we became “accretive,” having recouped all investment costs of 6 Sigma through the savings realized in just one year of 6 Sigma projects. 

And the journey continues. 6 Sigma, we’ve learned, is far more than just a one-time technique to overcome process problems. 6 Sigma has become a way of life. We’re witnessing a cultural transformation that’s bringing together a wide variety of people to focus on issues vitally important to them and our patients. 

The Institute of Medicine report was a wake up call for us in health care. Our response at OSF Saint Francis has been to embrace a system called 6 Sigma and to do it through a quiet partnership with an industry giant, Caterpillar Inc. IBI