Norwegian National TV recently broadcast a documentary about "The Health Factory" (film available to the world until August 19th 2013) where the first question was whether Toyota car manufacturing is the right ideal for healthcare.
Well into the program, former health care minister Bjarne Håkon Hansen presents the following scenario: He goes to Toyota, orders a specific model car he wants, colours, accessories. He is given a time he can pick up the car, and the car is ready at the time given. On his way out of Toyota, he calls the hospital, because he needs a knee operation. When he asks when he can have his operation, the hospital is not able to give him an accurate estimate. His conclusion: Norwegian hospitals have problems with logistics.
While I do not see any problems applying Lean principles in health care, one must keep in mind that there is a distinct difference between manufacturing and health care. And it is the same difference I experience between manufacturing and running a municipal IT department: It is not a production environment.
Manufacturing is a known process. It does not require diagnosis, and the risk of unexpected events are low. In contrast, a hospital will have a varying amount of emergencies, and many operations have a great risk of complications.
There is still value to be taken from Lean also in hospitals: Known procedures can be simplified. Quality can be increased. More things can be taken into consideration. Communication can be improved. However, it is important to understand that one must look at this holistically. The problems presented in the documentary seem to be what happens if top management attempts to implement Lean with a single focus on short term savings.