Baldrige quality awards contest opens up to health care organizations

New forum to showcase excellence, exchange knowledge

Health care specialists at the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award office are still celebrating the congressional funding for awards to the health care and education sectors. With the $1.9 million appropriation, passed late last year, nonprofit health care facilities are eligible to compete for "the Baldrige" in 1999. The prize is regarded by many as the nation’s premier quality award. However, as in most quality efforts, the bulk of the reward is in the journey. Consequently, just applying for the Baldrige could be the best thing that ever happened to your organization.

Mary C. Bostwick, health care specialist at the Gaithersburg, MD-based Baldrige award office, says she cheers the federal appropriation as a "real milestone" in the industry’s journey toward excellence. "Health care providers have a long tradition of attention to quality; it’s part of their values and culture," Bostwick notes. "Since the mid-1980s, health care organizations have worked hard to incorporate quality improvement principles. This [Baldrige award category] gives us the ability to disseminate best practices information faster."

One of many private sector leaders who devoted countless hours to securing the new appropriation is Barry Rogstad, chairman of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Board of Overseers and president of the American Business Conference in Washington, DC. He notes, "This appropriation brings the tool kit of Baldrige quality criteria to two of the most important sectors of society: health care and education."

Application is its own reward

The sweetest fruits of the competition actually are within reach of all applicants, Bostwick explains. The Baldrige process is as much about transfer of knowledge as about recognition of industry stars. Indeed, as the application-feedback cycle commences, the whole health care community stands to improve immeasurably through the dissemination of best practices as demonstrated by applicants and winners.

Rewards start with the application, Bostwick explains. "Just the act of filing gives extra mileage on your quality journey," she says. Applicants receive feedback via reviews by outside experts. "It’s like bringing a top consultant team into your organization," she explains. "Most applicants build that feedback into their planning processes and get a whole cycle of improvement in their quality programs."

But let’s not discount the joy of winning, either. Winners in each category bring a handful of employees to the presidential awards ceremony in Washington, DC. The organization’s highest official receives a gold-plated bronze medallion encased in solid crystal from he president of the United States. Winners participate in a three-day Quest for Excellence conference, exchanging knowledge with employees from the public and private sectors.

Currently 35 state quality award programs are open to health care organizations. Many of the local programs use Baldrige criteria as a basis for their applications. But whether the recent national appropriation will stir up more health care involvement at the state level, Bostwick can’t say. However, she says, "I do foresee some organizations choosing to go through the state awards programs because that’s their market, so a state award might be more meaningful than a national one."

Whether the competition is local or national, it directs all eyes toward an applicant’s standing among its customers, peers, and competitors. "It’s the issue of how you serve your market," Rogstad says. "Baldrige is an alignment question for the total organization. It’s a tool kit that brings the total organization on to the same page.

"Sometimes you’ll have one part of the organization in line on customer service or other quality issues, but when you start to use the tool, you might learn that you’ve got other big components of your organization out of alignment," he notes.

Communities benefit, too

It’s almost as though the application itself is a prize. "The vast majority [of businesses] apply so they can get the real time feedback from the site visit," Rogstad stresses. Some even apply three or four times, and they don’t always start off with the notion of winning, he adds. For example, in the 42 states with business and industry quality competitions, over 5,000 manufacturing applications come in every year. "All these entries make an impact on the quality of business in local communities," he notes.

"Participation has a more important impact than the award — that’s what we’re trying to reinforce without negating those who achieve the standard and win," Rogstad continues. "Some businesses apply once, then they apply again two to three years later. Their CEOs tell me they want those site visits. They want to make sure they haven’t lost ground."

(For more discussion of the benefits of participating in local award programs, see related story, "St. John’s updates itself using Baldrige criteria," p. 3.)