01 Oct 2013  Working Papers

Organizational Factors that Contribute to Operational Failures in Hospitals

Executive Summary — Despite a pressing need to do so, hospitals are struggling to improve efficiency, quality of care, and patient experience. Operational failures—defined as instances where an employee does not have the supplies, equipment, information, or people needed to complete work tasks—contribute to hospitals' poor performance. Such failures waste at least 10 percent of caregivers' time, delay care, and contribute to safety lapses. This paper seeks to increase hospital productivity and quality of care by uncovering organizational factors associated with operational failures so that hospitals can reduce the frequency with which these failures occur. The authors, together with a team of 25 people, conducted direct observations of nurses on the medical/surgical wards of two hospitals, which surfaced 120 operational failures. The team also shadowed employees from the support departments that provided materials, medications, and equipment needed for patient care, tracing the flow of materials through the organizations' internal supply chains. This approach made it possible to discover organizational factors associated with the occurrence and persistence of operational failures. Overall, the study develops propositions that low levels of internal integration among upstream supply departments contributed to operational failures experienced by downstream frontline staff, thus negatively impacting performance outcomes, such as quality, timeliness, and efficiency. Key concepts include:

  • To avoid workarounds or the need to keep large stocks of materials on the units, managers should create a method for customer-facing employees to request and receive patient-specific supplies in a timely fashion.
  • Employees are unlikely to discern the role that their department's routines play in operational failures, which hinders solution efforts.
  • Failures and causes may be dispersed over a wide range of factors. Thus, removing failures will require deliberate cross-functional efforts to redesign workspaces and processes so they are better integrated with patients' needs.

 

Author Abstract

The performance gap between hospital spending and outcomes is indicative of inefficient care delivery. Operational failures—breakdowns in internal supply chains that prevent work from being completed—contribute to inefficiency by consuming 10% of nurses' time (Hendrich et al. 2008, Tucker 2004). This paper seeks to identify organizational factors associated with operational failures with a goal of providing insight into effective strategies for removal. We observed nurses on medical/surgical units at two hospitals, shadowed support staff who provided materials, and interviewed employees about their internal supply chain's performance. These activities created a database of 120 operational failures and the organizational factors that contributed to them. We found that employees believed their department's performance was satisfactory, but poorly trained employees in other departments caused the failures. However, only 14% of the operational failures arose from errors or training. They stemmed instead from multiple organizationally driven factors: insufficient workspace (29%), poor process design (23%), and a lack of integration in the internal supply chains (23%). Our findings thus suggest that employees are unlikely to discern the role that their department's routines play in operational failures, which hinders solution efforts. Furthermore, in contrast to the "Pareto Principle," which advocates addressing "large" problems that contribute a disproportionate share of the cumulative negative impact of problems, the failures and causes were dispersed over a wide range of factors. Thus, removing failures will require deliberate cross-functional efforts to redesign workspaces and processes so they are better integrated with patients' needs.

Paper Information