Most of us are creatures of habit. Consciously, or even unconsciously, we develop patterns that bring order to our lives, both at home and at work. This is reflected in the familiar foods we eat, the routes we choose when going from one place to another, and how we do hundreds of things in the course of a day.

These patterns often make life simpler, reducing the number of decisions we need to make every day. Doing things as we have always done them creates a comfort zone. And that can be a good thing. But sometimes it is also good to go outside our comfort zones, to shake things up a bit, experience new things, see things with fresh eyes, and find ways to improve the way we do things, especially when this involves providing care and services to our patients, clients and residents.

Recently, I had an opportunity to go far outside my comfort zone. As part of a fund raising event for Prairie Hospice, I participated in “Swinging with the Stars,” a fun event modeled on the television show “Dancing with the Stars.” I was one of the “celebrity” dancers who was paired with a professional dance teacher and then performed in front of a large audience in a friendly competition to raise money for community palliative care services.

My wonderful dance teacher, Ervin Kormos, was very patient in teaching me to dance the salsa, not an easy dance for someone like myself with no previous dance training and limited flexibility. Over the course of two months, I learned the basic steps and a choreographed dance routine. During this period I gained a much greater understanding of and admiration for the hard work and athleticism involved in professional dancing. I learned a lot about myself and felt the discomfort of sore muscles. Dancing in front of more than 700 people, even for charity, put me far out of my comfort zone.

During this same period, I was involved in a rapid process improvement workshop (RPIW) that focused on eliminating waste and improving the experience for orthopedic patients receiving a spinal or anesthesia block prior to their hip or knee replacement surgery at Saskatoon City Hospital. The RPIW team involved a patient, anesthetist, surgery resident, nurse, porter, anesthesia assistant and other Health Region staff. The team analyzed the way care was provided, consulted with staff working in unit 3600 and the anesthesia block area, and tested ways to reduce waiting times, duplication of effort, and other forms of waste involved in the care process.

The end result of this RPIW involved moving the spinal and block procedures into unit 3600, eliminating duplication in nursing assessments and reducing the distance travelled by patients and staff. The changes involved were significant and clearly took the unit and block area staff out of their comfort zones. However, they demonstrated a willingness to help develop and test the new processes and to refine the changes after the RPIW was complete.
As we continue to expand our application of lean through RPIWs and other approaches to continuous improvement, we will inevitably challenge the status quo and take many staff out of their comfort zones when we develop, test and refine how we work. The changes we make will not always be entirely successful but we will learn from them and find other ways to make things better. What we will not do is revert to the old ways of doing things, with the associated waste, inefficiency and risks to our patients.

I am sometimes asked how long we will be “doing lean,” and when we will finish doing RPIWs and other lean-based approaches to quality improvement. The answer is that continuous improvement, using lean tools and methods, is how we do our work, now and in the future. Yes, it sometimes feels uncomfortable. It challenges our thinking and often disrupts familiar ways of doing things. But if it did not feel uncomfortable, if it did not take us out of our comfort zones, we would not be learning and improving, continuously seeking ways to achieve better health, better care, better value and better teams.
And like learning to salsa, despite the hard work and discomfort, it can actually be fun and satisfying to know you can do something you didn’t think was possible.