Becoming Exceptional, Thanks to a Baldrige Feedback Report

Posted by Christine Schaefer

The visionary leader of the first health care organization to receive a Baldrige Award in 2002 still credits a 1999 feedback report for helping her organization become exceptional. “The feedback was humbling at the very least, but helpful, insightful, and transformative,” said Sister Mary Jean Ryan, former president and CEO of SSM Health Care and now board chair. The organization’s first Baldrige feedback report, she said yesterday, provided “the clarity and focus we desperately needed to move our organization closer to exceptional.”

Sister Mary Jean Ryan

Sister Mary Jean Ryan

Sister Mary Jean described pivotal events in SSM Health Care’s journey to excellence during her keynote address at the Baldrige Program’s 26th Quest for Excellence Conference in Baltimore.

She noted that her organization’s 1999 Baldrige feedback report spurred the organization to reconsider how it defined exceptional in relation to its performance, particularly the excellent health care results it aspired to achieve. The feedback report pointed out that the organization’s aim of providing “exceptional health care services” was at odds with its use of average results for performance comparisons. In defining exceptional performance in response to the feedback, the organization developed a focused approach to goal setting in each of these areas: satisfaction (of patients, employees, and physicians), clinical and safety outcomes, and financial performance. It then began to compare itself to best-performing organizations as it sought to improve and excel.

Sister Mary Jean offered additional insights on excellence through inspirational stories. She described the example of her religious order’s five original sisters in America, who survived great challenges in the 19th century as they began their ministry in St. Louis. Their example provided the legacy of caring for the work of SSM Health Care today and “is the reason I was so demanding when I was a CEO,” said Sister Mary Jean. “You see, it was up to me to ensure that the 24,000 employees, 5,800-plus physicians, and 3,000 volunteers of SSM Health Care knew that they had to deliver exceptional health care to every single patient.” She added, “If you remember only one thing from my remarks, I hope it is this: Our success as an organization is not the exclusive right of executives or managers.”

She recalled that when she became president and CEO of SSM Health Care in 1986, she saw “an organization that was only slightly better than average.” She found this unacceptable. Instead, she looked for the same “potential for greatness” in the organization that her religious order had taught her to look for and cultivate in individuals. “We were not as good as we could or should be,” she said of the organization. “Instead of constantly seeking to improve, people seemed to be satisfied with the way things were,” she added. “We were pleased to say that we were as good as the national average.”

But complacency with the status quo began to change as the organization began to improve its processes and adopted the Baldrige framework. “I can say without reservation that because of Baldrige we are much closer to achieving our mission today than ever before,” she said. “And that equates to being a better organization than we were when we began our quality journey.”

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