The Baldrige Quality Award and NBA Basketball

Having spent the majority of my life living in Chicago and being a big basketball fan, I had the great pleasure of watching the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson era. For basketball junkies like myself, it couldn’t have been any better. While the athleticism of the basketball played on the court was always a great attraction, the leadership examples set by Jordan and Jackson resonated with me both personally and professionally. From Jordan, it was his passion for the game that was his life’s work–leaving everything on the court, every game. From Jackson, it was his ability to pass on the love of the journey in the midst of ten team championship seasons across a career.

Michael Jordan had a “Love of the Game Clause” written into his contract. It gave him the ability to play in a pick-up basketball game, anywhere–anytime, because he loved playing basketball. He didn’t want the Bulls to keep him from playing the game he loved whenever he wanted.  Today’s athletes aren’t allowed to do this because teams and owners fear they might hurt themselves – their contracts forbid them from participating in non-professional athletic activities unless first approved. Sightings of Michael Jordan playing basketball with neighborhood teens in Chicago parks and schoolyards were common in the early days of his basketball career. In my mind, Jordan’s passion for the game, and the artistry with which he graced the court was second to none.

Phil Jackson’s reference to the Chinese saying, “the journey is the reward” throughout his career stuck with me throughout mine. After each of the six NBA championships he won with the Bulls, and four more with the LA Lakers, Phil would relate that the work put in every day–coming together as a team, creating an offense that flowed smoothly, almost intuitively and a defense that capitalized on each players’ strengths, drawing out the weaknesses of the opponent, was far better than an NBA championship trophy. When I reflected on things in my own life, I thought his comments were always right on the mark.

So how does basketball, the Bulls, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan connect to the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award? When I met with Bill Neff, Ric Detlefsen and Stan Gunstream, members of the Poudre Valley Health System (PVHS) leadership team last week, they unknowingly echoed Phil Jackson’s words numerous times. The journey far exceeded the award, they shared. Less than a dozen hospitals have been awarded this prestigious award, given by the president of the United States and considered the nation’s highest honor for innovation and performance excellence, and they were telling me the journey was more rewarding than the award? Only a Bull’s fan would understand. Or maybe Phil Jackson fan.

Hard to believe, but Bill Neff explained. When their CEO announced PVHS was going to apply for the Baldrige Award, leadership all thought, “great idea – this will be fun. Since we already provide high quality care it will be easy”. Their leadership team all believed they would win the award the first year they applied…if not the first year, the second year for sure. They were already picking out where the trophy would be displayed in the hospital’s lobby. When the evaluation came back that first year, not only had they not won the award, their quality score was not even close enough to warrant a site visit. As Bill shared with me, PVHS leadership’s first reaction to the rejection was “the Baldrige reviewers didn’t understand healthcare quality. We’ll reapply next year and get reviewers who get it.”

The following year, they did a better job of addressing issues in their application, reapplied, and guess what? Their quality score was lower than the first year. This phenomenon is common in medicine. Don Berwick and others often reproduced this same self-aggrandizement when they would ask audiences of physicians to raise their hands if they believed they were in the top half of their discipline. Every time they asked this question, all the physicians in the audience would raise their hands. So leadership at PVHS looked in the mirror and said “we aren’t as good as we think we are”. That single reflection and honest assessment led them on their road to high quality patient care, and one of the most fulfilling journeys of their professional careers.

The mission then became improving how they provided patient care each day by using the annual Baldrige quality assessment report as a guide, completed by an independent expert quality assessment team without any personal agendas or motivations. They decided to use it as a tool to improve their patient care and make their organization better. It took four years before they finally qualified for a site visit by the Baldrige team, and another four years before they won the award. But as Bill Neff shared, an amazing thing happened on the way to the award. The culture at PVHS had changed. Everyone now looked forward to the annual Baldrige assessment report because it became the driver for them to refocus energy and effort in areas that were cited for improvement by the assessors. Over the eight years, the focus had changed from winning the award, to pushing their patient care to a higher level each year. For PVHS, like Jordan and Jackson, the journey was truly much more important than winning the award .

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