By Christine Schaefer
Last year when Elevations Credit Union won the Baldrige Award—America’s most prestigious honor for high-performing businesses and other organizations—there may have been people who thought the Colorado-based nonprofit could rest on its laurels. If so, they probably wouldn’t be Elevations employees.
Staying true to the Baldrige tenet of continuous improvement, Elevations today is focused on achieving ever greater levels of performance, according to Pete Reicks, the senior vice president of performance excellence. “While we are proud of our Baldrige Award recipient status, the journey has also brought great humility,” Reicks said recently. “Our awareness and understanding of what world-class performance excellence truly looks like and how it applies to our situation is dramatically different than when we started the journey. Our drive to be better tomorrow than we are today has grown exponentially.”
“The Baldrige journey increased our capabilities as an organization and accelerated our ability to learn, improve, and innovate,” he added. “We are continuing the journey, continuing to embrace the support provided by the Baldrige community, and have every intention to hopefully seek a Baldrige Award again.”
Following are some additional updates and insights he provided in response to my questions.
How has the Baldrige Excellence Framework contributed to your organization’s success throughout its journey to excellence?
In the context of our performance, Elevations’ response to the famous line Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessup shouted from the witness stand in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men is unequivocally, “We can handle the truth!” The Baldrige journey promotes an environment that makes it safe to ask and answer the really important questions without fear of recrimination. Baldrige provided the framework and language for our already passionate, committed, hard-working people to set emotion aside and really talk to each other. We learned to be proud of our accomplishments, yet have the humility necessary to embrace truthful conversations about how to further leverage our organization’s strengths and how to address opportunities for improvement.
The discipline and rigor brought by the Baldrige journey and community of volunteer examiner support brings valuable perspective. Day-to-day demands require such a commitment of energy and focus—a “zoom-in” perspective—the days become weeks, weeks become months, and months become quarters, with years easily gone past without an opportunity to gain perspective, assess, plan, prepare, learn, improve—to “zoom out.”
As for results, Elevations experienced significant improvement in annual growth rates of membership, assets, and capital as a result of our journey. Our annual capital growth rate from 2009 to 2014 was 15 times greater than that of the previous four years and almost twice that of our peer group. For mortgage market share results, we moved from ranking sixth or seventh in our primary county to first. These financial milestones were a reflection of dedicated employees, whose engagement rose from 69 percent to 82 percent during this period. These financial and cultural successes occurred during one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression.
What are your top insights or tips for getting started with using this framework to support improvement across an organization?
1. Embrace the journey, make the investment, and leave a legacy. You owe it to yourself, your workforce, your customers/students/patients, and your community. The hardest step is setting the goal. You have to commit. The journey is an investment. Just get started, regardless of the reasons to delay. The only better decision is to have started sooner.
2. Use the power of the Baldrige framework and the magic of ADLI and LeTCI to affirm your Why (your organization’s mission and purpose). Become systematic in your How (approaches) and appreciate the Who, What, and When (deployment) occurring within an interdependent system (alignment and integration). Meaningful measurement (levels, trends, comparisons) of (aligned and integrated) results (operations, customers, workforce, leadership, and financial/market performance) drive accelerated cycles of applied learning.
3. Make it FUN (really)! Celebrate! Make reaching for your goals fun. Have many carrots and few sticks. While gains may be slow at first, committed, talented, passionate people will be attracted to your organization as they see movement towards excellence. They will want to be part of it, to contribute and to attain excellence not only for today, but in an environment built to sustain excellence for generations to come. The Baldrige journey exposes talent, accelerates development, and is a magnet for others.
4. Ensure an operational rhythm. Bring rigor and purpose to your organizational forums and meetings. Get to a point where your staff can discuss their work with the same fluency with which they dissect their sports team the day after a game. If the water-cooler or happy-hour conversations at the local watering hole are more honest than those in your meetings, you’re not being effective. Measure your performance. How are you doing relative to leaders within and innovators outside your industry? Get comfortable with truthful conversations. Set emotion aside and find ways to work smarter, collaboratively.
5. Recognize that the path of a Baldrige journey is not a straight line. Realize you’ll take some spills. Learn from them and move forward. Guard against “change fatigue.” Be smart about change. Evaluate new ideas by reconciling them against your core values and strategic plan. Know the difference between good and great. Sometimes you need an outside view. Bring in someone unencumbered by the internal organizational dynamics who can coach you through blind spots as well as affirm your organization’s strengths.
6. Embrace what’s “simple smart” (after you’ve made the “simple easy” improvements). There are few easy answers left when your organization is going from good to great. The low-hanging fruit has been stripped clean. Simplistic solutions quickly applied to complex problems temporarily address symptoms yet are ultimately rendered ineffective by unaddressed root causes. Fortunately, the answer is often not fighting complexity with complexity. A simple-smart approach requires an appreciation for the hard work necessary to get under the hood, correctly diagnose root cause, and assess the trade-offs presented by potential solutions. Finally, leaders must be accountable for the sustained and disciplined deployment of selected approaches.
What do you consider the key reasons why other organizations in the nonprofit sector and/or the financial services industry can benefit from using the Baldrige Excellence Framework?
What is a product innovation today is quickly a commodity tomorrow. Information transparency compresses price and removes barriers to consumer availability. Consistency of service and quality of experience are the last game in town. Getting better faster than the competition in these areas is the only viable path to an organization’s sustainability. The Baldrige framework helps organizations operate systematically within an integrated system using fact-based decision making to drive a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.
For more information, attend the credit union’s presentation on Tuesday, April 5, at the Baldrige Program’s Quest for Excellence® Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.