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Photo of Jingshan Li
July 31, 2018

From factory floor to waiting room, Li elevates efficiency

Written By: Tom Ziemer

Jingshan Li craves the kind of vexing, complicated theoretical challenges that chew up existing methods and require novel solutions.

But that doesn’t mean the professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is content to operate solely in the theoretical realm, removed from the demands of reality. Li’s work on manufacturing and healthcare systems reaches factory floors and shapes patient experiences—tangible results that start with extensive site visits to truly grasp the challenges at hand.

“You cannot just stay in your office,” he says. “Typically my students and I go to the plant, we go to the clinic or hospital many, many times to discuss with physicians, with engineers. Only after you fully understand the problem, then you can start work on it. Otherwise, the work you develop may not be useful for them.”

Over the course of his career, Li has collaborated with the likes of Toyota, Chrysler, General Motors, Kraft Foods, UW Health and Dean Health System. Whether he’s examining a production system for an automaker or the workflow in a hospital pharmacy, Li develops models to improve efficiency, throughput and quality.

Just as a vehicle goes through a set, predictable assembly process, Li notes, a medical patient progresses through a series of checkpoints at an appointment.

“It’s also from one stage to another stage to another stage,” he says.

He comes from a manufacturing background, having worked extensively with Chrysler and Ford plants as a PhD student at the University of Michigan. He then spent more than six years as a researcher at General Motors before returning to academia as an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.

There, Li helped Toyota—known as a leader in “lean manufacturing”—reduce inventory and improve throughput and co-wrote the textbook Production Systems Engineering. He also started dabbling in healthcare research, beginning with the emergency department at the university’s hospital, where he and his collaborators identified the CT scan as the bottleneck.

Since coming to UW-Madison in 2010, Li has analyzed the workflow at UW Health’s CT imaging center and helped reduce physician workload and improve efficiency at Dean clinics. He’s currently working with Madison’s St. Mary’s Hospital to develop a prediction model for patient readmission. By using machine learning techniques, Li and his group can predict the risk of readmission after discharge and identify critical factors, allowing doctors to personalize treatment.

“There are a lot of opportunities,” he says. “I think we can help to improve our healthcare systems. It’s really critical. It impacts everyone’s life.”

Li is an associate director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthcare Systems Engineering (WIHSE), which hosted its second annual conference in May 2018. He sees WIHSE as providing a tangible link between engineering faculty and those in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, the School of Nursing and the School of Pharmacy.

“If you’re only working by yourself, it’s like a silo. Your impact is very limited,” he says. “I think only when you’re able to apply your results in the clinical field, then you can see the impact. And to do that, you have to work with medical people.”

He remains active on the manufacturing front as well. Every spring, he teaches ISyE 615, Production Systems Control, a course that includes a class project in partnership with an industry sponsor such as Chrysler or Harley-Davidson. True to Li’s approach to research, those projects involve class visits to Chrysler’s assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois, or Harley-Davidson’s powertrain operations facility in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

“Even the class projects,” he says, “we always can find something new.”