My most unusual hospital experience

Copyright, June, 2010

1994 – For the Senior VP, the group was exactly what she’d hoped for – cost savings implemented by the participants, not her. For many of the participants, it may have been the opportunity to directly manage change during an uncomfortable period – feeling empowered. For me, at first, it was the same old pre-digested program – a clever PHD teaching employees to discover what she wanted discovered, and to make the economics work – marketing hype.

For me, as time went on, and now in retrospect – it’s a story worth telling, it’s some of what I originally thought plus one of the most unique, personally empowering and valuable experiences I’ve had working in a hospital.

The Flying Dinosaurs take off.

Stupid name. Unlikely beginning – a hired consultant addressing beleaguered and somewhat adversarial department heads during a week-long series of mandated lunch meetings. It’s a big hospital – fast-paced, and financially limping. And so I avoided the resulting steering committee, assuming it to be something I did not need, and assuming the committee to be a rubber stamp for budget cuts.

I think it was the director of food services who called me months after the meetings began to suggest I attend. I liked Larry, so I went. First meeting: David, a radiology manager directed the meeting and the conversation. “Good, he’s smart and seems likable, and makes a good chair-person (I did not know David).” Second meeting: Clarette, a nursing director is the main speaker, David isn’t at this meeting.

Discovery – there are no chair-persons, no leaders, no protocol, not even a dedicated person taking minutes! It’s anarchy. I’m now intrigued. In general, I enjoy the process of relating seemingly disparate forms of information. Within a few weeks, I become one of the minute takers, a rotating position. Some time later (1995), I turn minutes into a one-page newsletter, mailed to all managers.

How the name Flying Dinosaurs came about was likely a whimsical evolution, though it’s genesis is a children’s story, one of many hand-outs at the original lunch-time meetings. The implied message was that dinosaurs who learned to fly evolved and lived to see another day. Yawn. What gave the name lift to be recognized as something special and unique, I believe, was the nonsensical ring it had, especially considering where it was in use, a hospital. “Hey Larry,” someone would yell in the hall, “Going to the Dinosaur meeting?” I always wondered what on earth a patient would think hearing that.

The committee remained active for more than two years, until numbers of its participants had either left for other jobs, retired, or had been laid off. But during that time, many Dinosaur initiatives (sounds normal to me) had real impact on the institution. Examples range from laminated phone lists for nursing stations, to cafeteria questionnaires, department clerical consolidations, theft analysis, a hospital employee video, Joint Commission survey presentation, and a monthly event called Gentle Thursday.

Gentle Thursday. Again, a name that draws attention. The idea (actually borrowed from a 1966 event in Austin Texas) was to slip a paradigm-shift into everyone’s normal daily routine. Every month, on Thursday, any number of small and large events would be initiated by us Dinosaur managers and department heads. Some examples are shown here, and included such activities as a raffle, employee video, but also handing out cards entitling people to things like a free smile (hard to keep a straight face receiving that).

My personal reaction to the committee meetings and all of these events was as unpredictable as that smile card – by nature, not a group joiner, I became an active participant. The experience was truly unique both for the institution and for the participants. And the reasons why it worked are as complex as each member, but here are some explanations I came away with:

Empowerment. How do you empower people? Don’t _______ (fill in the blank). On two occasions the Senior VP responsible for seeding this group, was invited to a meeting (she had to be invited as employees above director were not allowed). On both occasions, after discussion and presentations, she was asked for comment. “You’re doing fine.” was the reply. Asked for any additional advice, she replied, “You’re doing a great job. And now you must excuse me, but I must get back to my office.” Her genius was to let it be.

Sincerity. Leaving the committee to self-direct had to be felt as sincere by its participants. And the committee’s commitment and forms of expression had to come from a sincere and shared personal experience. In a sense, we all had to believe in the honesty of what we were doing. I don’t know how anyone can package that and bring it to others, Vis-à-vis a consultant. A consultant began the process, but that aspect was left behind in its entirety when the actual work began.

Uniqueness and acceptance. It’s all about the individual (stupid), not the organization. It is the idea that individuals do not really care about organizations, no matter how many times they hear “We care about our employees.” Acceptance and caring happens on a one to one basis, in a way that must be felt as personal.

Genuine concern for the process and the cause. This hooks back to the idea of sincerity, but is also the conscious recognition and acknowledgement that the work is important because it is your job. Does this sound like “work ethic?” I mean it more as a level of maturity that either the participants have or do not have (which is one reason I think it’s difficult to guarantee success just by educating people). A mature responsible attitude can be communicated and felt by others in an active working environment, but I don’t know what it takes for that to catch fire. All I know is, it did here.

The committee description as written in 1995.

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