By Lyle Moran
In her first year at UC San Diego Health, Melody Akhondzadeh developed a project with the potential of saving the hospital $1 million annually.
Akhondzadeh was named a clinical quality improvement specialist at UC San Diego Health just as she was beginning UC San Diego Extension’s Lean Six Sigma Black Belt program in the spring of 2019.
Given that Lean Six Sigma focuses on identifying ways that businesses and other entities can balance increased efficiency with improved quality, the timing could not have been better.
Akhondzadeh, who graduated in 2008 with a UC San Diego bachelor of arts in psychology, quickly put her participation in the Black Belt program to use by devising a team-based communication intervention process to help ensure UC San Diego Health patients are not transferred to the intensive care unit unnecessarily.
Her project was deemed capable of producing $1 million in annual savings for the health system, and the intervention is now being implemented in some of the system’s units.
“It is pretty incredible what a simple project can do,” Akhondzadeh said. “I was blown away.”
Ric Van Der Linden, an instructor for UCSD Extension’s Lean Six Sigma Black Belt program, said Akhondzadeh’s project was a great example of the powerful impact implementing Lean Six Sigma techniques can have in a variety of industries.
A Lean Six Sigma teacher for nine years, he begins each 12-week Black Belt program by helping students clearly identify the problems facing their employers that they will try to address through their projects.
“It is a fun little surprise for me when I get there for the first class,” Van Der Linden said. “I get to see 18 new people from 18 different companies with 18 new problems to solve.”
He then assists the students with crafting process improvements to tackle those issues while working through the five steps central to the Lean Six Sigma methodology: define, measure, analyze, improve and control.
“Everything we do everywhere is a process, and everything is a sequence of steps,” Van Der Linden said. “The toolsets and the approach of Lean Six Sigma says, ‘Look at those steps and make them better.’”
Akhondzadeh said she appreciated that Van Der Linden gave examples demonstrating how the different Lean Six Sigma techniques could be used in a mix of industries.
The class also features breakout sessions in which the students discuss how what they have learned applies to their specific projects.
Additionally, Van Der Linden provides one-on-one feedback and guidance during class and outside of it.
“It made you feel special and supported through your progress,” Akhondzadeh said.
After the first 11 weekly classes, the students are given a two-month break to finish their projects.
They later return for a final class at which they present their work to one another and members of the public who are invited to attend, including coworkers.
The goal is for each student’s project to generate $100,000 in anticipated annual savings.
The 16 students in the spring 2019 cohort far exceeded that standard, generating a combined $9.4 million in estimated hard savings for their employers.
Van Der Linden said that was a terrific result from a great group of students, which included Akhondzadeh.
“Her project had an extra flair of energy because she has passion around anything she gets into,” he said. “I think she took that energy back to her organization.”
Akhondzadeh agreed with that sentiment, noting she has encouraged colleagues to pursue Lean Six Sigma training.
She also said the skills she learned in UC San Diego Extension’s Black Belt program have been extremely helpful in her new quality improvement role at UCSD Health.
“I’m looking at data differently and using it in a way I hadn’t known how to before,” Akhondzadeh said.
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