By Jessica Clark
In Spring 2019, the organization of which I was a part was only beginning to apply the notion of performance excellence as a strategic consideration, so when I was introduced to the Baldrige examiner experience at that time, I anticipated that I was unqualified to take part in evaluation of performance excellence at any level. I’m a little embarrassed to admit to my naivete in thinking Baldrige an elitist practice or label that could never apply to organizations like mine or growing professionals like me. I certainly did not understand how it could impact my learning and professional development. I now, without reservation, admit just how wrong I was in those early assessments.
I attended a day-long class at last Spring’s iPEX where we simulated the months-long examination process over the course of one day. I was struck by the diversity of industry represented in the room that day--from manufacturing and insurance to education, health care, and government to financial services and human services. The simulation and accompanying Q&A and discussion provided context for each step in the evaluation process and a roadmap for the months ahead.
Over the next several months, I enjoyed the process and came to understand that the Baldrige framework for performance excellence is not only about organizations already on the path to organizational health or with expressed and very public commitments to performance excellence; it is also a framework for implementation of such a commitment. When stumbling over how to codify a commitment to performance excellence where it had not previously existed, going through the examiner experience and seeing the application of the Baldrige framework provided a “how to get started” toolkit when getting started seemed overwhelming.
The examination process is designed for success and for learning. At the start, I was assigned to a team for application review--that actually amounted to the opportunity to work with others committed to performance excellence in varied industries, which I found a rare and awesome experience. Our initial meeting was spent on in-depth review of the applicant’s Organizational Profile and identification of Key Themes that we used as guideposts through the examination process.
The initial months were devoted to independent review, during which we independently read and provided comments on the sections of the application that demonstrated the applicant’s implementation of each of the principles.
In early Fall, the teams reconvened for Consensus Week, during which we reviewed comments and questions and learned from one another in discussions, formulated structured comments, and planned for site visit. Learning from seasoned examiners on the team and learning from team members from other applicant organizations enhanced my experience as an examiner and a critical thinking professional.
The deep-dive during site visit was the culmination of the examiner experience. The opportunity to see in practice what we’d read and talked about for months by that point, talking with leaders and staff throughout all tiers of the organization and validating descriptions throughout the application affirmed that performance excellence really is a commitment and discipline and does not just happen.
One of my favorite, most important takeaways was the engagement with many other dedicated professionals and how those engagements verified for me the universality of the principles of Baldrige and performance excellence -- regardless of industry, the application of the principles results in better organizational health; employee engagement, attraction and retention; operational excellence; and results.
In my previous work, the Baldrige framework and my experience as an examiner provided a way to organize strategic thinking around performance excellence and to help the organization start on the Baldrige journey. As I looked to shift my career, I used the principles and tenets identified in my own Baldrige journey to clarify the qualities of an organization I aspired to move into. Experience showed me that I wanted to be part of a value-driven organization with committed leadership, as evidenced by strategic attention to customers, workforce development, operational excellence, and a drive toward results, culminating in organizational health and growth. I’ve since joined such an organization, and still my examiner experience is reminding me that Baldrige is a journey. Knowing the framework enables me to see in my current organization what is working well and why; illuminates opportunities for improvement; and reinforces how the integration of those principles is essential for success.
Now that I have familiarity with the framework and examination process and have experience in different industries and in different places on the spectrum of organizational health and commitment to performance excellence, I look forward to a new year and a new team and applicant.