Article | Permanente Journal | Summer 2014

Designed for Workarounds: A Qualitative Study of the Causes of Operational Failures in Hospitals

by Anita L. Tucker, W. Scott Heisler and Laura D. Janisse


Frontline care providers in hospitals spend at least 10% of their time working around operational failures, which are situations where information, supplies, or equipment needed for patient care are insufficient. However, little is known about underlying causes of operational failures and what hospitals can do to reduce their occurrence. To address this gap, we examined the internal supply chains at two hospitals with the aim of discovering organizational factors that contribute to operational failures. We conducted in-depth qualitative research, including observations and interviews of over 80 individuals from 4 nursing units and the ancillary support departments that provide equipment and supplies needed for patient care. We found that a lack of interconnectedness among interdependent departments' routines was a major source of operational failures. The low levels of interconnectedness occurred because of how the internal supply chains were designed and managed rather than because of employee error or a shortfall in training. Thus, we propose that the time that hospital staff spend on workarounds can be reduced through deliberate efforts to increase interconnectedness among hospitals' internal supply departments. Four dimensions of interconnectedness include (1) hospital-level—rather than department-level—performance measures; (2) internal supply department routines that respond to specific patients' needs rather than to predetermined stocking routines; (3) knowledge that is necessary for efficient handoffs of materials is translated across departmental boundaries; and (4) cross-departmental collaboration mechanisms that enable improvement in the flow of materials across departmental boundaries.

Keywords: Supply Chain; Health Care and Treatment; Failure; Business Processes; Health Industry;


Tucker, Anita L., W. Scott Heisler, and Laura D. Janisse. "Designed for Workarounds: A Qualitative Study of the Causes of Operational Failures in Hospitals." Permanente Journal 18, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 33–41.