Posted by Dawn Marie Bailey
“When it comes to excellence and achievement, never give up,” said Dr. Ben Carson, acclaimed director of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, as part of his keynote address at the 25th Annual Quest for Excellence® conference. Touching on just about every category in the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, Dr. Carson shared stories of people striving for excellence, sometimes successfully and sometimes literally dying in pursuit of their dreams, as in the case of soldiers at Fort McHenry in 1812.
The pursuit of excellence has been part of the history of surgery, and “learning from your mistakes is a big part of excellence,” he said. For example, the first transplants were disastrous, but today transplant surgery is routine.
Carson told the story of Walter Dandy, one of the founding fathers of neurosurgery who practiced in the first half of the twentieth century; the first 13 of his neurosurgeries were unsuccessful. “Imagine if you were patient number 14?” Carson asked. “The point is perseverance. And this says a lot about the ability to learn from what others do.”
Baldrige Category 1: Leadership
Know the goals of the people whom you are leading, Carson said. He told a story of being a young ROTC officer in charge of a very unruly group; he quickly learned what group members loved most: playing with guns and knives. Rather than letting this intimidate him, Dr. Carson turned the group into a drill team that could take apart and reassemble rifles in record time. “Unless you set a goal which may seem impossible–something no one’s ever done–it’s very unlikely you will make it reality,” he said.
“Leaders are people who will encourage and uplift,” said Carson. “That makes all the difference in the world. . . . So many people can always tell you why something won’t work but don’t invest the time in what will work.”
Baldrige Category 2: Strategic Planning
The power of people coming together and planning for the future helped him succeed in medical school, Carson said. When studying alone, “you can miss stuff, but when you pull together collective knowledge, what a difference.” He also told the story of acquiring the previous year’s tests; the goal was not to find answers to the questions but to find the body of knowledge for which the questions were being asked. Dr. Carson said this was a “good example of how to use history to cement the future.”
Unlike animals, humans have a gigantic frontal lobe that allows for rational thinking, extraction of data, and planning into the future. Animals can only react, but, he said, “how many people do you know that only react and don’t use their processing ability to plan?”
Baldrige Category 3: Customer Focus
“A focus on people makes all the difference,” Dr. Carson said. As a young doctor, he built up a practice purely by word of mouth; “If you treat someone well, [word of] that gets multiplied quickly. . . . You must be cognizant of what every interaction brings to that person. Concentrating on that is guaranteed to make a difference.”
He told the sad story of Ladan and Laleh Bijani, conjoined twin sisters, both law school graduates, who died in 2003 after a 50-hour surgery to separate them. The women dreamed of being separated and were willing to take the risk.
“It’s important to have a dream that pushes you on. It pushes you forward when nothing else seems to work,” he said. “But you have to put the dream out there if you’re going to achieve it.”
Baldrige Category 5: Workforce Focus
In terms of workforce, Dr. Carson said he will soon be retiring with the same physician’s assistant who began her career with him, and he has other staff who have worked with him for many years. “That’s one of the keys to excellence–to have people who know you, work for you, and can feel the same success that you have.”
Humility is another key to excellence. He told the story of being the primary surgeon for the successful surgery on the first set of conjoined twins at Hopkins. “As the primary surgeon, I got the credit, but I couldn’t have done it without the team. Everyone on the team made contributions. It was not any great surgical skill that I possessed, but it was about the teamwork.”
A similar story was his organization of 18 neurosurgeons on one surgical team, with each being slotted into a position where he/she could be an expert. The surgery was ten hours ahead of schedule because everyone contributed and no one took all of the credit. “A telltale sign of success is not being concerned about who gets the credit,” said Dr. Carson.
Baldrige Category 6: Operations Focus
Dr. Carson offered the Carson Scholars Fund as an example of operational excellence that addresses the need to uplift U.S. scholars and especially children who excel in math and science. For 17 years, the fund has given more than 5,600 scholarships in all 50 states; “Now children have something else to aspire to,” he said, “not just to be the quarterback but to be the scholar.” The winners of the scholarship not only have to show academic achievement but humanitarian caring and compassion, he said.
“No matter your accomplishment, you should always be willing to give back, willing to care, to talk, to even be kind with whom you disagree,” he added.
Judging from the line of people waiting to speak with Dr. Carson after his presentation, I imagine they, like me, were inspired by his stories of excellence. How are you inspired by excellence?