ASQ Influential Voices: Young People and the Future of Engineering and Healthcare


I'm happy to be participating in the ASQ “Influential Voices” blog series here in 2012. ASQ President Paul Borawski (listen to my podcast with him) writes about a topic each month and the group of bloggers all chime in. This month, Paul wrote about the need to encourage young people to enter “STEM” careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Here, I'm going to write about the opportunities for young engineers to help solve the critical problems facing patients and the healthcare industry, as I reflect a bit on my engineering education and career and what I've seen from others.

Borawski's topic was inspired by Engineers' Week, taking place from February 19 to 25. I just returned from the 2012 Society for Health Systems annual conference, which is attended primarily by Industrial Engineers (like myself) who work in healthcare (or “are fixin' to” as they say in the South). Many of the presenters and attendees are relatively young, full of  enthusiasm  with most of their career still in front of them (but some get frustrated). I'm literally a bit of a “grey hair” now as I approach 40 and have over 15 years in the workforce now. I jokingly blame healthcare for making me grey, but it's just a factor of age (or is it???) . Anyway, it's always energizing to meet with those who have already chosen an engineering-related career.

We saw a lot of great presentations from engineers who are working shoulder to shoulder with clinicians and other healthcare professionals, working together to solve critical challenges, improve systems and processes, and manage differently. Seeing these presentations had me reflecting on my own work and career as an Industrial Engineer. I chose that field because it was more business and people focused than other types of engineering (or at least the college classes were). I took many mathematics intensive courses in IE and operations research areas. Early in my career at General Motors, I did a lot of work in discrete event simulation and other math-based methods, but my time in the factory and the shopfloor drew me into people-related issues more so than math.

So I think there is an important lesson for kids who can achieve in math and science, but think that being an engineer means sitting alone in your cubicle or working just in a lab. If this scares kids off, they should realize that engineering is a springboard to many kinds of work experiences. Learning the rigorous thinking of engineering is such a great benefit, even if you don't end up working as an engineer.

There are studies that show a shockingly high percentage of nurses get frustrated and leave their profession within just a few years. I hope there aren't similar rates for young engineers. Engineers, working with nurses, can help reduce waste and engage nurses in process improvement – hopefully keeping more of them in the workplace – otherwise expected nursing shortages will be even worse in the coming decades. As I flew home on Tuesday, USA Today had a full page ad highlighting under-30 engineers who are making an impact. One of them is Kristin Goin, an Industrial Engineer, who is making a great contribution to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. I saw Kristin present at the SHS conference a few years back, using the Lean methodology in the hospital system.  So congrats to Kristin on that honor.

From a Georgia Tech press release about her honor, Kristin describes her work:

As an IE, I love working with people to help solve problems and develop new systems and processes. As an internal consultant at Children's, I was very lucky to work on a variety of projects and learn about many aspects of the hospital and our business.

In this type of work, every day is a little bit different, which keeps things interesting. A key aspect of my role with Children's was leading and facilitating multi-disciplinary teams to solve problems and develop recommendations for new business plans. There was a great mix of analytics, problem solving, and research, coupled with leading meetings and developing presentations. Meeting with our physicians and nurses and seeing patients in the hallways provided a great deal of inspiration for the work.

We need more engineers like Kristin and the other SHS members working in healthcare to help address the major challenges that are here or waiting around the corner. Industrial Engineers are helping reduce patient waiting times, design more efficient hospitals, and reduce preventable harm like patient falls and hospital-acquired infections – this is very important and meaningful work.

Sometime soon, I'm going to be talking soon with the son of a friend who wants to be a Mechanical Engineer and an automotive design engineer. That's pretty exciting stuff. I'm going to try to help him network with people I know who have worked or do work at GM, Ford, Toyota, and Tesla – hopefully encouraging to continue down that career path. But, you never know — he could end up designing hospitals and improving processes in a way that I know I couldn't have imagined when I graduated with my BSIE degree from Northwestern University in 1995.

Is your company expecting a shortage of STEM professionals in the future? Are you or your organization doing things to help promote and support STEM  education  and career paths? If you're an engineer, has your career taken you in unexpected directions, as has mine?

Disclaimer: I'm part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own.

Some other posts in this series on this topic:

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.



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