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Russ Russo

Quality Insider

How to Apply for the Baldrige Award

An overview of the Baldrige application.

Published: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 - 23:00

The original title for this article was “How to Win the Baldrige.” But of course, no one can give you some secret on how to win the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality award. Instead, this article sets a less daunting objective: to identify the practical steps in writing a Baldrige application. Your overarching goal for writing an application and participating in the awards process is to transform your organization into a high-performance organization. As a start on that journey, this article provides some guidelines for writing an application that appropriately reflects your achievements and makes your organization a contender for the award. 

A few caveats to begin: First, working with the Baldrige criteria and the awards process is a journey, not a single step. Although any organization may apply for the award and use the experience to improve their performance, even the very best organizations discover that it is rare to win on the first submittal. Actually, organizations may be better served by first applying to their state level award. Quality Digest has a list of most state quality awards that is updated frequently. Most states adopt the national criteria, and the experience of working with the state program is a solid foundation for applying for the national award. 

Second, there are two critical challenges in the application process. One is to clearly understand the award criteria and to develop organizational systems and processes necessary to meet those criteria. The second challenge is to understand how the award process itself works, particularly what happens to your application after it is submitted, and what you can expect from the judging and feedback process. The best way to learn about the awards process is to volunteer to serve as a state or national examiner. States are always looking for volunteers interested in serving their programs. 

Finally, it is essential to understand that the examiners who read, review and score your application are all volunteers. They participate in the award program and devote their time while continuing to maintain full-time jobs and family responsibilities. Think about your readers and your need to produce a clearly written, coherent application document for them. The best applications have simple declarative, active voice sentences, without jargon, and especially without grandiose language. Remember that examiners only have your 50-page application to make an assessment about your organization. Examiners are specifically enjoined against looking at your web page or seeking additional information about your organization. As your third-grade English teacher said: “What you have written is who you are.”

Understanding the criteria

Clearly understanding the criteria is essential. Key elements are the seven Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and the organizational profile. Equally important during the writing and scoring processes are the 11 core values and concepts and the four key characteristics of the criteria. To get the best from the application process and heighten the likelihood of doing well, the team writing the application must have a very clear understanding of the six levels in the scoring system. Scoring is based on both the approach of the processes (what you do) and deployment (how well the approach is dispersed throughout the organization) as well as evidence of how the organization learns from its data to systematically improve its operations.

The criteria itself have sometimes been compared to a hamburger. The organization’s profile and your description of the environment within which the company exists form the top of the bun. In five pages you tell the examiners who you are, the market within which you operate, who your customers are, and other relevant facts about your organization. It is critical that the examiners clearly understand “where you live” as they assess how and what you are doing to meet the criteria.

The middle of the hamburger contains the seven criteria and represents the bulk of the information about your organization. And finally, the bottom of the bun is your account of your measurement and analysis, how you use and manage data and information for organizational learning. This bottom part of the bun is directly related to the highest of the six scoring levels and emphasizes the importance of using data to manage organizational learning and performance improvement.

It's vitally important to remember that the four key characteristics, 11 core values and six scoring levels apply to the overall hamburger. And as you write about how you meet the seven performance criteria, you must also include information about the key characteristics, core values, and where your activities fit in the scoring levels. How do you do that? It is useful to establish a team of members representing different activities in your company. Here's one way to organize a team to prepare an application.

How to organize a team to prepare an application

Writing an application might be done by one person, but most organizations decide to form a team and devote several months to writing their application. Frequently companies decide to have seven members on the team and to assign each member to write one section of the criteria. Although on the surface this might appear to be a reasonable approach, it's a recipe for failure. The criteria are a conceptual whole and need a single focus. Using multiple writers frequently results in a disjointed, repetitive, and confused application that misses important information and requires massive rewrites.

A more efficient solution is to appoint a team leader, someone who is high enough in the hierarchy to demolish barriers and build support for the application process with senior leaders and throughout the organization. Second, a team of three research writers work together to gather data, conduct focus groups, interview stakeholders and knowledge holders, and together write the application. Third, one additional person works with the team and has the specific responsibility to gather data and to understand and develop needed graphs and charts. And the sixth member of the team is a “sergeant at arms” overseer who keeps up with the myriad of details and work needed to keep the team organized and to pull the effort together into a functioning whole. This overseer has the additional duty to guard against redundancy within the application, to make sure everything that was supposed to be included is in fact included, and to do grammar and logic edits for the team. The sergeant at arms remembers the third-grade English teacher’s admonition: “Sloppy writing is a reflection of sloppy thinking.”

How to write an application

As a way to begin, the team should have on hand a good supply of large, preferably 5 x 8, sticky notes and an area with a blank wall, preferably a small conference area devoted to the application-writing project while it is under way.

Once the basics are in place, the team should gather the first of several focus groups. These should be people who are intimately involved with the organization and know it well. This first focus group probably has the most difficult and most important task of all the focus groups that will be assembled. They should study the 11 core values and brainstorm a list of specific activities and behaviors that demonstrate how the organization embodies each of the 11 values. Embodying means a value is ingrained into the organizational culture; it is something the organization does not need to think about in order to act upon. The group should identify specific behaviors and actions that demonstrate how each value is embodied. Usually the task of identifying core values and recording each specific behavior on a sticky note is difficult for most organizations. But the result of this first exercise focusing on the values underpinning the Baldrige is critical to how you will later organize and focus writing responses to the seven performance criteria.

At this point, the writing team can begin interviewing individuals and small groups of knowledgeable stakeholders about specific questions in the seven Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. Again, sticky notes can be used to capture specific ideas or points to be developed in the actual written application. This process is very much like writing a research paper in school. It is important to get all of the ideas together that you need before starting to write. Some teams try to write responses as they go, but this usually results in massive rewrites as new information and data are gathered. The process will go much faster if ideas and points are captured on sticky notes and then organized within the seven criteria. Save the actual writing for a later step.

As the team is interviewing individuals and small groups, the person charged with developing section seven “Results” should be working with the team to identify specific data and begin creating relevant charts and graphs. Remember, the results criteria represent 450 out of a possible 1,000 points. The scoring weight for this section is reflective of the MBNQA focus on data-based decision making management. The work of the individual developing this section can make the difference between a high-scoring application and an also-ran.

Once the team has gathered what they believe is sufficient information and data, they should organize the sticky notes to address specific points within specific criteria. This can be complicated because frequently a particular activity could easily be discussed in multiple locations within the seven criteria. Once all the team members are comfortable that the ideas are properly located, the team should work with the core values focus group to connect specific core values to specific activities. Not every activity needs to be associated with a core value, but all core values should be reflected somewhere within the responses to the various criteria.

At this point the team can organize an additional focus group for the specific purpose of assessing each identified activity against the four key characteristics. Essentially the objective is to look at each activity and ask if it is reflective of a key characteristic. At this point some activities may be discovered to be irrelevant and other activities emphasized. And finally, a focus group will need to study the scoring system, assess, and then describe how they can best add detail to the response to gain the highest score. This means they must flesh out sufficient detail for the examiners to understand how well the approach is deployed throughout the organization and how data is used for organizational learning and process improvement.

At this point, more than 90 percent of the work is done and your team is ready to begin writing the application. Actually, with excellent prework, the writing should be relatively quick and easy. You might adjourn the team to a quiet location, establish an interconnected computer-to-computer network and begin writing together. Send the first draft to a few selected, high-level individuals for assessment and comments. Once these comments are received and incorporated, polish the document into a final version. Your overseer should then complete the formatting and submit it to the Baldrige Award Program. 

Now you can congratulate yourself for your effort, but your work is not yet complete. You cannot just sit back and wait for the MBNQA to send you a feedback report or conduct an on-site visit. As part of your next senior management strategy meeting or retreat, negotiate for four hours on the agenda and ask your senior leaders to score portions of the application. A way to do this is to spend about 30 minutes with them explaining the criteria, core values, and scoring system, then break them into small teams to work on selected portions of the application. Give them about 45 minutes to work on one section of the criteria and then 45 minutes or so to debrief each others’ teams. It is not necessary for them to work on all the sub-elements with a section or even all of the criteria. With this step you will have given your senior leaders an enormous gift of clear understanding of what issues they might address as part of their overall strategy development effort. And when the Baldrige feedback report is received, these managers will have a more intimate understanding of the organization and how the examiners arrived at their comments and score. After all, that is what the Baldrige journey is all about—organizational strategy and management based on performance excellence.

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Russ Russo