Triage: Definition, How It Works, Examples in Business

What Is Triage?

Triage is a form of process management that fast tracks incoming workflow by priority so the most critical work is attended to first. For example, it is how emergency rooms assess priority for patient care in hospitals. It also is used by companies needing faster workflows for projects under tight deadlines or based. But it is not without risk.

Key Takeaways

  • Triage is a management protocol that structures the incoming workflow by priority so that the most critical work is attended to first.
  • The practice is most often used in hospitals and other healthcare settings, becoming particularly important in response to disasters, battlefields or other emergencies.
  • Triage also has applications in non-healthcare businesses by creating a structure for prioritizing projects, updates, publications, and other timely corporate needs.
  • Triage helps companies by enabling them to attend to emergencies quickly, but it also poses risks, as it tends to involve the elimination of certain time-consuming steps that are normally part of the workflow.


Understanding Triage

Triage refers to the practice of dividing incoming work or customers by priority level so the highest priorities are handled first. Triage is especially important in emergency medical situations such as those seen on the battlefield or following catastrophic civilian accidents. Health care workers use medical triage when the number of incoming patients exceeds the normal capacity of the medical center or emergency room. All medical personnel learn triage procedures so that patients with the most serious conditions receive attention first.

Triage Examples in Business

Process management is an important part of project management within companies, especially those releasing several products simultaneously. For example, development teams tasked with upgrading software releases now use Agile sprints where the improvements are continuously made and released to customers on rapid timelines. Within the same software company, serious glitches will be discovered by an important customer requiring a fast response to save the business. The software engineers work in a triage manner to prioritize the most important issues as they work through the list of issues.

Most triage process management situations originate with customers, patients or external deadline pressures. For example, book publishers release most of their new titles on a set editorial and production schedule of one year or more, which allows everyone to plan ahead for the timed publication. Publishers also have a system where they can put a project on a fast track schedule through a specialized editorial and marketing triage team. This is most often done with an important political book or celebrity biography where the publisher wants to be first to market.

Triage is most effective when used on an as-needed basis—in response to emergencies or time-sensitive problems—not as the normal, day-to-day protocol for running a hospital or other business.

When Triage Becomes the Norm

A risk for medical and business management teams occurs when triage processes start to become the norm. There are temptations once a team proves it can fast track a project to think that all projects can be handled this way. When teams attempt this approach across multiple projects, the end result is almost always a decline in quality and service. Triage by definition must eliminate some of the time-consuming steps seen in best practices processes. For example, a software development team releasing a new product might allocate less quality control hours than normal.

When everything becomes a rush project, staff may become overburdened and demoralized working long hours under constant deadline pressures. This, in turn, leads to mistakes that a normal process would catch. Effective process management starts at the top and requires sensitivity in determining which projects truly need to be fast-tracked and which can run through normal processes. If more and more projects must be fast-tracked, then additional labor is typically needed, so there is a cost for every management decision made regarding the need for triage.