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Baldrige award winners see no end point in their journey to excellence

January 21, 2010

Winning a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award doesn't mean an organization can rest on its laurels, say 2009 award winners Heartland Health System and AtlantiCare.While the award recognizes a commitment to patients, employees and quality performance, the health systems emphasize that their pursuit of excellence is a continuous journey.

Winning the Baldrige award "is a wonderful acknowledgement and treasured measure of our progress," says AtlantiCare President and CEO David Tilton. "But it is by no means the end of our journey. This is a journey that doesn't have an end."

Similarly, Heartland Health President and CEO Mark Laney, M.D., calls his health system's pursuit of excellence "an ongoing journey ... and we're just at the beginning. We have every intention of using what we have learned through Baldrige — the discipline, the infrastructure, the processes — to continue to get better."

The Commerce Department last month announced that the health systems were among the five recipients of the 2009 award, the nation's highest presidential honor for quality and performance excellence. Commerce's National Institute of Standards & Technology manages the program.

AtlantiCare in Egg Harbor Township, NJ, and Heartland Health in St. Joseph, MO, first applied for the award in 2002 and 2003, respectively, and have followed the Baldrige criteria for internal improvement ever since. Both health systems consistently rank high nationally in clinical care measures and patient and employee satisfaction.

Award applicants are rigorously evaluated by a panel of experts on leadership; strategic planning; customer and market focus; measurement; analysis and knowledge management; workforce focus; process management; and results. Organizations that pass an initial screening are visited by teams of examiners who spend hundreds of hours evaluating performance, interviewing personnel and preparing feedback on strengths and areas for improvement.

Integral to the Baldrige application process is learning best practices from other organizations, especially other Baldrige award winners. For example, AtlantiCare was influenced by the work done by previous Baldrige award winners St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, MO, Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton, NJ, and Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo, MI.

AtlantiCare's Tilton also recommends attending Baldrige's annual "Quest for Excellence" conference in Washington, DC, where the awards are typically presented to winners. "It's a great opportunity to hear high-performing organizations talk about their best practices and processes," he says. "It is all about sharing best practices ... and it's okay to borrow and steal."

Key to the health system's success is including staff and physicians in the strategic planning process and day-to-day decisions, Tilton says. "We listen and learn from our patients, staff and other stakeholders in many ways and incorporate their feedback and input as we develop our strategy," he says.

Heartland Health also has learned from other Baldrige award winners, like Fort Collins, CO-based Poudre Valley Health System's work to foster strong employee satisfaction and performance goals. "But we are all unique institutions," observes Heartland Health's Laney. "You have to take the Baldrige journey and customize it to your own institution."

Following the Baldrige criteria is not a "prescriptive journey where you link up the steps that you take," Laney explains. "It is a process that makes you think about how you make decisions. They ask the question, but you analyze it based on your own institution ... that is why the journey is different for every organization."

Congress established the Baldrige Award in 1987 to promote excellence in organizational performance. The award is presented each year to five types of organizations: manufacturers, service companies, small businesses, education and health care. To date, 80 organizations — including 11 hospitals and health systems — have received the award.

For more information on the Baldrige Award and how your organization can apply, visit www.quality.nist.gov/.