LR Exec Wins Top Quality Award

It is that time of year again. Most of my clients are tying the ribbons on operating plans and budgets for 2007. I am always struck by the different ways to approach this process. How about this one? Instead of a one-year commitment to squeeze another 2 percent into margins, how about a three-year plan to win the Malcolm Baldrige Award?

The Malcolm Baldrige awards are among the most rigorous ways to win business recognition in the market. Want to know what it takes to win one? Visit the Web site (www.quality.nist.gov) and see how others have handled the journey. Or you can ask Chuck Stokes. As president of the Northern Mississippi Medical Center, Chuck has seen his rural hospital system named as one of only five hospital systems to ever receive a Baldrige award.

You may know that Chuck was EVP and COO at St. Vincent’s in Little Rock until he took a similar position at Huntsville Medical Center in Alabama. About two years ago, the board of directors of NMMC invited Chuck to come and lead the charge for the Baldrige. The board saw in Chuck Stokes a leader who could take them all the way there. I had the opportunity to visit with Chuck in November, the week he learned that his hospital had won.

Chuck identified a few keys to their achievement. He and his team believe that efficient operations, clinical excellence and patient satisfaction depend on a team of committed employees who are fully engaged in their work and profession. Training, executive development and a commitment to a patient-centered culture are all reflected in the rhetoric, decisions and budgets. A culture of trust and open communications all the way to the executive suite is also a hallmark of the hospital.

When I asked Chuck what most stood out for him, he talked about the level of trust on his team. “It is not that we were without conflict,” he said. “We had plenty of it. But it was on the table and in the open. The team was accountable for performance, and each other. I am proud to be part of a leadership team that showed such courage in the decisions that we made and the way that we worked together.”

Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the way that Chuck wears the mantle of leadership. The newspaper article announcing the Baldrige award to Tupelo was about one-and-a-half-pages long. It included a picture of five people whom Chuck identified as members of the senior leadership team. He sounded like a proud parent, crowing over talent and commitment that each person brought to his or her work and the way each contributed to the team. As I read the article I could see narrative of the journey unfold.

But what about Chuck Stokes, the president who led the charge? The article included a quote from Chuck about how proud he was of the organization and the commitment to honesty and open communication that the team had shown and a small picture of him. I know a lot of CEOs who want a lot more ink and attention for a lot less accomplishment.

This is not false modesty. Chuck will travel to Washington, D.C., to shake the hand of the president of the United States. He will be feted as he receives the Baldrige award on behalf of his organization. But my guess is that in his remarks, he will recognize the team and the organization, feeling privately proud of his own contributions.

If you are wondering why any company would go through the effort and expense of competing for a Baldrige award, you will be interested to know that those companies make a lot of money. The changes that helped NMMC win the Baldrige have left it in a fiscal position that is the envy of its industry, all while making it a model for patient care.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, January 15, 2007.