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James Brewton

Health Care

Creating a Culture of Innovation in Your Healthcare Organization

Use idea campaigns and idea games for incremental and major improvements

Published: Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 16:06

The healthcare industry is under pressure to improve performance across strategic measures of performance, including delivery cost, operating revenue, employee engagement, patient safety, patient experience, and patient outcomes. A growing number of organizations turn to innovation as a way to survive and succeed in this new healthcare environment. Although many definitions exist for innovation, I like to define it as “the deliberate effort by an organization to find new ways for meeting business challenges.”

Idea campaigns and idea games are two powerful methods for launching an innovation journey in your healthcare organization. Unlike innovation efforts in command-and-control organizations, where ideas can only come from managers or a select few “experts,” these campaigns and games are idea-generation approaches that democratize the innovation process and allow every employee to participate.

Idea campaigns: sustaining innovation

Idea campaigns are time-limited events focused on generating and selecting ideas for achieving incremental improvement in critical measures of performance. The source for campaign ideas is the full complement of an organization’s employees, including executives, department managers, hospital-based physicians, frontline staff, and nonclinical staff. Nine key design elements define the idea campaign:
1. Short duration
2. High employee involvement
3. Focus on incremental improvement
4. Easy to run
5. Immediate employee recognition
6. Idea card or web-based idea submission
7. Rapid idea evaluation and implementation
8. Visible and active involvement from executives and department managers
9. Fun for everyone

Short duration
Idea campaigns typically last two to four weeks, with the most successful lasting 30 days from start to finish. A short time frame keeps employee interest and motivation high.

High employee involvement
Idea campaigns select and communicate a broad challenge for focusing idea submission (e.g., “How can we increase patient safety?” “How can we improve the patient experience?” and “How can we reduce cost?”) By using a broad challenge like this, the greater the likelihood of more participants in the campaign. And with more participants, the greater the likelihood that more ideas will be submitted.

Focus on incremental improvement 
Idea campaigns encourage small changes whose cumulative effect adds up to significant improvement on a continuous basis. For example, a goal statement for an idea campaign that focused on cost reduction was, “Think of ways we can save a dollar a day.” However, a focus on small ideas doesn’t automatically exclude bigger ideas from being submitted. In well-designed idea campaigns, approximately 60 percent of submitted ideas will be small and implementable by the employee himself with help (as needed) from a supervisor. The remaining ideas will have a higher benefit and impact multiple departments or require capital investment. Ideas in that category require decisions and guidance from an appointed idea campaign steering committee.

Easy to run
Idea campaigns are meant to be easy to run. They should be led by a campaign leader who is respected by her peers and has the ability to get things done. Well-designed idea campaigns use guidelines to plan and run the campaign. The campaign leader should be responsible for the following information and tasks:
• Briefing the organization about the idea campaign, its purpose, how it works, and the key roles and responsibilities in making it a success
• Strategically selecting and placing idea campaign promotional materials
• Planning and preparing for campaign activities
• Submitting, evaluating, and implementing employee ideas
• Awarding employees for their ideas
• Tracking campaign progress
• Keeping the campaign fun and exciting
• Achieving high employee participation
• Informing the community about the healthcare organization’s effort to improve its delivery performance

Immediate employee recognition
To help encourage high participation, awards are presented to employees by their supervisors immediately upon submitting an idea, whether it’s approved for implementation or not. Campaign award buttons showing the number of ideas submitted by the employee, branded coffee mugs, T-shirts emblazoned with the campaign logo, and gift cards are common awards used in idea campaigns. Other recognition approaches include employee ideas featured on an “Idea Wall of Fame” and recognition by executives during weekly campaign rallies of exceptional or high numbers of ideas.

Idea card or web-based idea submission
Idea campaigns use one of two methods for capturing employee ideas. The first is the idea card, usually 5 in. × 7 in. or 8.5 in. × 11 in., that captures five key pieces of information regarding an employee’s idea:
Opportunity: a 15- to 30-word description of a condition that presents an opportunity for improvement
Idea: a 15- to 30-word description of a change that will reduce or eliminate the condition
Improvement type: the type of improvement the idea creates (e.g., cost savings, time savings, reduction in patient safety incidents, improvement in patient experience)
Estimated benefit: a measure of the estimated benefit from implementing the idea (e.g., $2,500 per year)
Name and department: the name and department of the employee submitting the idea

In addition to idea cards, a growing number of healthcare organizations are investing in idea management systems (IMS) for supporting their idea campaigns. An IMS is a web-based solution specifically designed for capturing, sorting, and tracking employee ideas for improvement. An IMS is a cost-effective tool for launching and managing idea campaigns, and getting employee ideas submitted and evaluated fast. An IMS idea submission page closely follows the outline of the idea card described above. Although not necessary in idea campaigns, an IMS also allows ideas to be voted on by other employees.

Rapid idea evaluation and implementation
Rapid idea evaluation and implementation is essential to the success of an idea campaign. It demonstrates to employees that their organization is truly interested in their ideas and in achieving the goal of the idea campaign. Immediate to 24-hour idea approval by the employee’s supervisor and 72-hour idea approval by an idea campaign steering committee are typical idea-evaluation targets used in idea campaigns.

Visible and active involvement from executives and department managers 
Because of their unique position in a healthcare organization, executives and department managers can be great motivators of employee participation during an idea campaign. A powerful activity they can use to sustain employee excitement and participation is the gemba walk. Drawn from the lean methodology, gemba walks are daily visits that executives and managers make throughout their healthcare facility during the idea campaign so they can engage with employees to learn about the opportunities they are finding, thank them for their ideas and participation in the idea campaign, and encourage them to keep submitting ideas no matter how small.

Fun for everyone
The best idea campaigns use lighthearted banners, posters, tent cards, and cutouts that communicate the campaign theme and remind employees to submit their ideas during the submission weeks. Weekly drawings for campaign-branded T-shirts and other prizes help keep the campaign fun. Incorporating well-designed promotion in an idea campaign can double or even triple employee participation and ideas-per-employee results.

Idea games: breakthrough innovation

Idea games (also known as innovation tournaments) are time-limited events focused on generating, selecting, and funding ideas for achieving dramatic improvement in critical measures of performance. While idea campaigns normally solicit only employee ideas for improvement, idea games often use both internal (employee) and external (patients and suppliers) sources for improvement ideas, depending on the game’s goal. Key design elements for idea games include:
• Specific challenge for improvement
• Distinct phases
• Expert panels
• Focused on large improvement
• High participation
• Idea form or web-based idea submission
• An expert panel and voting on ideas by employees
• Systematic idea evaluation and pre-implementation testing
• Visible and active involvement by executives and department managers
• Funding driven
• Limited number of approved ideas

Specific challenge for improvement
Like idea campaigns, idea games select and communicate a specific challenge for focusing idea submission. Challenges for idea games can be broad (e.g., “How can we improve patient safety?”) or narrow (“How can we reduce medication errors?”).

Distinct phases
Once a specific challenge has been selected and communicated to all eligible participants, the idea game is ready to be launched.

Idea games are comprised of four major phases:
1. Idea submission
2. Idea narrowing
3. Selecting idea finalists
4. Selecting idea winners

During phase 1, all eligible game participants are empowered and encouraged to submit their ideas for achieving the idea game goal. For most idea games, phase 1 usually lasts two to four weeks.

During phase 2, the ideas captured during phase 1 are evaluated and narrowed to a list of idea finalists. Idea narrowing is accomplished through multivoting or other narrowing techniques, using both participant voting and selection by expert-panel members. Depending on the number of ideas captured during phase 1, two or more rounds of idea narrowing may be required to reach a list of idea finalists.

During phase 3, individuals and teams whose ideas are selected as finalists present their ideas and expected benefits to an expert panel. These presentations are designed to be short and to the point. Once all idea finalists have presented their ideas, the expert panel selects the winners whose idea implementation will be funded by the organization.

One large U.S. medical center’s idea game phases looked like this:

Phase  Resulting ideas
1. Idea submission 1,749
2. First-round narrowing 200
2. Second-round narrowing 40
3. Finalists 10
4. Winners 2

Expert panels
To ensure that the best ideas are funded, an expert panel is mobilized to screen and select idea finalists and winners. Expert panels are comprised of a carefully chosen multidisciplinary team that is knowledgeable and experienced in some aspect of the idea game goal. The team may include experts from outside the organization.

Focused on large improvement
While idea campaigns focus on capturing and implementing a large number of small ideas whose cumulative effect will achieve significant improvement, idea games select and fund a limited number of ideas that will have a dramatic impact on the idea game goal. For example, the following were among the finalist ideas for an idea game run by a large East Coast medical center. The game focused on improving patient experience:
• Concierge service to provide filled prescriptions to patients before leaving the hospital
• An app for helping patients and their families find their way around the healthcare facility
• Kiosks that enable patients to check in and register for their appointment, update information in their electronic health records, and make on-the-spot co-pays
• A room with reclining chairs, TV, and Internet access for patients and families waiting for final X-ray or lab results before discharge
• 24/7 Skype access to help patients stay in touch with family and friends

High participation
Like idea campaigns, idea games strive for high participation to  increase the likelihood of generating exceptional ideas. An essential element for driving high participation is a well-designed promotional strategy. A well-promoted idea game can achieve more than 80 percent participation and an average ideas-per-participant of two or more.

Idea form or web-based idea submission
Idea games use two basic tools for capturing idea submissions: an idea form and web-based idea submission. Idea forms can either be a sheet of paper (e.g., a flip chart) with ideas captured on it by a facilitator during brainstorming sessions, or a more formal idea card preprinted with spaces for key information that describe the idea, the problem it solves, and the estimated benefit.

Idea management systems (IMS) are powerful and efficient tools for capturing, tracking, and managing ideas and game performance across relevant metrics, including participation percentage, total ideas submitted, and ideas-submitted-per-participant. In addition an IMS enables eligible participants to vote on ideas submitted during a breakthrough idea challenge.

Funding driven
The purpose of idea games is to help a healthcare organization select and fund ideas that will dramatically improve performance for a selected goal. To that end, an innovation budget is established prior to launching the idea game.

Limited number of ideas
Because of the nature of idea games—i.e., funding the implementation of a few breakthrough ideas—the number of ideas that become winners is normally limited by an innovation budget selected for the idea game.


Carefully planned and implemented, idea campaigns and idea games offer healthcare organizations of all sizes a significant opportunity for engaging their entire organization in meeting the financial challenges they face while significantly improving patient safety, outcomes, and experience. Further, idea campaigns and games offer two powerful ways for launching an innovation journey and creating a culture of innovation in your healthcare organization.


About The Author

James Brewton’s picture

James Brewton

James Brewton, Founder of Small Ideas, LLC has spent his career in implementing employee-driven performance improvement initiatives. Brewton is a published author, Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, Kaizen Facilitator and Lean Master with over thirty years’ experience in planning and leading the implementation of employee-driven continuous improvement programs across a broad range of service sectors and with a deep passion for healthcare.