Try the Google Way to establish a culture of innovation in healthcare organizations
Healthcare leaders are constantly challenged by changing regulations and new technologies, so the organizations they run must be agile enough to adapt to these changing circumstances.
However, the culture of many healthcare organizations is traditionally both siloed in practice and hierarchical in nature, making it difficult for organizations to spur innovation. A seismic shift in healthcare culture is therefore needed for health systems to not just keep up, but excel in the continuously changing healthcare landscape.
Healthcare has sought guidance from the automotive industry to improve operations management through widespread adoption of the Toyota Way, and this has heralded significant improvements in operational efficiency and quality of care. However, in seeking guidance for the development of a corporate culture that spurs continuous innovation, healthcare leaders should look no further than the technology industry, with Google as the tacit and de facto leader. Much in the same way the Toyota Way has influenced healthcare operations and process improvement, the Google Way could positively influence the healthcare culture.
What exactly is the Google Way, and how can healthcare systems implement it? And what, if anything, is holding healthcare back?
Google and other successful technology companies are nimble, adaptable and innovative because they engage and empower front-line employees. Indeed, front-line employees often notice inadequacies in daily operations, and they are the ones best equipped to develop and implement solutions for the problems they encounter.
Healthcare organizations can be equally nimble and innovative, but they must first have an organizational cul- ture that values and promotes front-line employee engagement. In many healthcare organizations, the ideas that are implemented come from leaders in the organization, who then enlist the help of managers to gather consensus and encourage alignment. If healthcare leaders directly engaged their front-line employees, such as by supporting the implementation of quality-improvement projects developed by the employees themselves, their organizations could more rapidly address multiple salient issues at any given time, and position themselves to be industry innovators.
Google and comparable companies also foster a collaborative environment by implementing a flat organizational structure, where managers are seen more as resources, and less as bosses. This encourages open communication among team members, and promotes a collaborative approach to problemsolving in which individuals feel free to voice ideas, no matter how radical or nontraditional those ideas may seem.
In this flat management structure, failures are not seen as errors that require punishment or remediation, but rather as necessary steps toward developing trailblazing ideas.
In many healthcare cultures, significant efforts are being made to promote interdisciplinary teams. However, it can be challenging to create true teams when hierarchies are deeply entrenched, and the constituent team members do not fully appreciate or understand the other team members’ roles and skills. In addition, healthcare culture also perceives failure as unacceptable under any circumstances. This, unfortunately, stifles teamwork and hinders adaptability, innovation and quality improvement.
If the Google Way of utlilizing flat management were applied to healthcare, interdisciplinary team members would be more amenable to sharing their ideas, regardless of how nontraditional they might seem. The increased openness in communication and willingness to fail without fear of retribution would potentially lead to more rapidly implementable improvements in patient care. In addition, if efforts were made to allow interdisciplinary team members to learn more about one another’s roles, this would engender more mutual respect, reduce hierarchical barriers and improve collaboration.
While healthcare leaders are rightfully seeking models for efficiency and quality in the automotive industry in the form of Lean principles, they also are looking to the aviation industry to emulate its successes in systems integration and safety. However, we should not forget that when it comes to a corporate culture of sustained innovation, the technology industry may be our best resource.
Google and comparable companies foster a collaborative environment by implementing a flat organizational structure, where managers are seen more as resources, and less as bosses.
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Dr. Alistair Aaronson is a clinical instructor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.