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Dawn Bailey


Forget Winning; Think Improving

The Baldrige Excellence Framework delivers a lot more than an award

Published: Tuesday, November 24, 2015 - 15:39

I recently had the great experience of speaking as part of a panel on the value of the Baldrige Excellence Framework, but what meant the most to me was the chance, I hope, to dispel some common misconceptions about what the Baldrige is actually all about. And, no, it’s not just an “excellence award”—there’s so much more.

Following are a few of the questions from the panel and how I answered them:

“I once looked at the Baldrige Criteria to start an improvement initiative, but the process looked like it would take too long.”

I answered by suggesting that we go back to the whole point of the Baldrige Criteria. In 1987, the Baldrige Program was tasked by Congress to develop a set of criteria that would include all of the considerations that go into successful leadership (category one), successful strategic planning (category two), a successful customer strategy (category three), etc. The Baldrige Criteria have been reviewed, refined, updated, and reviewed again for 28 years to ensure that they reflect the leading edge of validated leadership and performance practice.

So when you sit down with the Criteria (which are elements within the Baldrige Excellence Framework), don’t think of them as hurdles to fulfill an application. Use them to determine how successful your operations are and what elements you may be missing. For example, are your leaders really creating an environment to achieve the company’s mission? How are you using the voice of the customer, market data, and information to build a more customer-focused culture? Answer the questions, category by category, not to apply for an award, but to determine how successful your operations are. You may be able to find immediate insights when you can’t answer a question, and those insights may help you focus on where you should prioritize improvements. In addition, there are lots of available Baldrige resources to help organizations ease into the Criteria, including the Baldrige Excellence Builder.

Janet Wagner, former CEO of the Baldrige Award recipient Sutter Davis Hospital, has said that year after year, the hospital applied for Baldrige feedback at either state (Alliance for Performance Excellence) or national levels and “learned very quickly how to improve results, how to course correct, and then how to sustain results.”

She also said, “For me as a leader, I would say that’s probably one of the most important things. That framework, along with the site visits and the feedback, really focuses you on narrowing down and being able to prioritize those things, those behaviors, those systems, those processes that lead to consistent results. For us, [Baldrige] was a very good fit and energized us to do better.”

Wagner added that while learning to course correct rapidly was very valuable, one of the most beneficial parts of Sutter Davis Hospital’s journey was getting leadership team members comfortable in being transparent about getting and discussing results, and then having the Baldrige examiners come in and validate that they were on the right track.

“We know that we’re not ready to win the Baldrige Award. Should we still apply?”

I responded by saying yes. The most successful Baldrige Award recipients have come to the “ah-ha” moments that winning the Baldrige Award itself is not as exciting as the continuous improvements that come from the feedback reports received by every applicant. For most Baldrige Award recipients, it takes at least three to seven years of applying for Baldrige-based awards at the state or sector levels, or the national Baldrige Award, as well as assimilating and implementing the feedback received, to make continuous improvements. Improvements year over year keep the workforce motivated and customers happy, so that when award levels are achieved, the organization is much better off for the journey.

Bill Neff, interim CEO and CMO at the University of Colorado Health, of which Baldrige Award recipient Poudre Valley Health System (PVHS) is now part, shared the story of PVHS’s journey to excellence in an online video. In 1997, PVHS was a single hospital with a 24-percent annual employee turnover rate and five CEOs in four years. It was trying to survive in the midst of a changing healthcare market, but the largest challenge, said Neff, was the need for integration with very independent physicians. PVHS’s fifth CEO in four years had been working with several organizations using the Baldrige Health Care Criteria; the hospital decided to give the Baldrige process a try and applied for several years, receiving feedback reports written by Baldrige examiners on the organization’s strengths and opportunities for improvement.

In 2008, PVHS received the Baldrige Award, the nation’s highest honor for organizational performance excellence. “By the time we finally got to that point, everybody thought that was really cool, but what they really wanted was the feedback report,” Neff recalled. “Because you kind of become addicted to that level of interaction with folks who are trying to help you get better.”

“We have Baldrige-trained staff members and other experts in quality improvement methodologies among our ranks. Why do we need the Baldrige Award?”

I answered by pointing out that some of what sets the Baldrige process apart from other tools is its enterprise model (i.e., a systems approach for the whole organization, not just excellence for its parts) as well as the Baldrige examiners and Baldrige community of practice. Baldrige examiners are volunteers from all sectors of the U.S. economy, trained on the Baldrige Criteria, who can assess and potentially perform a site visit on your operations, help you find blind spots, and help you ensure sustainability. Examiners are carefully screened for conflicts of interest, so they are truly performing these assessments to help U.S. organizations for the good of the country. To have six to 12 examiners help you find those blind spots that internally focused staff might miss is a tremendous bargain for the application fee.

JoAnn Brumit, CEO of Baldrige Award recipient KARLEE, has said that based on its own data, the manufacturer chose to disregard feedback from Baldrige examiners in 2000, who said that the company might have a blind spot in its high telecom industry concentration. Brumit describes how the organization survived the collapse of the telecom industry and competitive market crisis. It was the Baldrige examiners, however, who reviewed the organization as part of its Baldrige Award feedback report and were able to point out the blind spots that could affect sustainability and which the manufacturer may have missed.

In a recent interview, Robert Patterson, chairman and CEO of the National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM), said, “What I tell people is you ought to use the Baldrige Criteria to turn a mirror on yourself. You don’t have to win a Baldrige Award.... The real key is that you can put that mirror on yourself and get some examiners to come in and evaluate what you’re doing because sometimes it’s hard for you to do this. It’s an excellent criteria [framework that helps you see] you’re doing a lot of the right things, but here are some areas where you can improve.”

How would you answer these questions to encourage organizations to apply for the Baldrige Award and let the Baldrige community—including and especially the Baldrige examiners—help them improve and find the blind spots that could affect their sustainability?

First published Nov. 5, 2015, on the Blogrige.


About The Author

Dawn Bailey’s picture

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies, social media efforts, and assessment teams. She has more than 25 years of experience (18 years at the Baldrige Program) working on publications and education teams. Her background is in English and journalism, with degrees from the University of Connecticut and an advanced degree from George Mason University.