Jennifer Niswonger, an Adventist Health employee at Feather River Hospital, spends hundreds of hours every year as part of the elite Board of Examiners for the federal Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, evaluating companies and organizations with a “wow” factor.
Question: You were named this year to the elite Board of Examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige Performance Excellence Program in the US. The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award — the highest level of national recognition that can be given to a US company or organization — is presented each year by the American president, through the US Department of Commerce. Industry experts in a variety of fields apply to be Examiners each year. How did you become involved?
Answer: I started out my career in Adventist Health at Feather River Hospital in 2004 as an administrative intern. The CEO at the time, Wayne Ferch, decided that he wanted Feather River Hospital to be the first hospital in Adventist Health to win the Baldrige award. With that goal in mind, he actively started down the road of performance excellence with the help of the Director of Quality and me. He told me that he would make me an expert in the field of performance excellence. I guess that is how I got my start.
Question: The Baldrige program (started in the 1980s to increase American competitiveness, and named after a former Secretary of Commerce) helps to set standards of excellence, and then helps companies and organizations reach those standards. Do you feel it is an effective program? Any impressive strides you have seen companies in the program make this year? Can you tell us any stories about companies you have helped to evaluate?
Answer: I believe, and truly believe that the Baldrige Performance Excellence program is one of the most effective business frameworks out there. I have seen it drive results, improve knowledge management, streamline processes and hardwire systems. There have been studies that show that organizations who use the Baldrige framework outperform the S&P index. There have been many books written on the subject – one such book is Baldrige 20/20: An Executive’s Guide to the Criteria for Performance Excellence.
Due to the confidentiality standards of the program, I cannot share any specific stories. However, I know this: most organizations who do Baldrige are special. They have a “wow” factor that cannot be imitated in organizations who perform to mediocre standards. Average does not cut it.
However, the organizations in the program have high employee engagement/morale, and engaged doctors and patients. They are achieving best in class performance for regulatory results and patient satisfaction. They are truly remarkable.
Question: You are now director of rural health clinics at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California. What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
Answer: On a day-to-day basis, I run operations for four rural health clinics, which see approximately 150,000 visits a year. My day is filled with a variety of items including solving challenges, working with doctors, helping staff get the tools they need to be successful, and putting systems and processes in place that will help us be more patient-centric, employee-focused, and financially viable for the future.
Question: Has Feather River Hospital been involved with the Baldrige awards for a long time?
Answer: Feather River has been involved in Baldrige and Performance Excellence since 2005. They started out with the state program (California Awards for Performance Excellence) in 2005, won the bronze Eureka award (lowest level) in 2006, silver in 2007, gold in 2008 and 2010. And then the Governer’s award in 2010; Feather River Hospital was the first hospital to win this award in the state of California. We had a national site visit in 2012 and in 2014 (but declined more recently due to some organizational changes).
Question: Has your work on the Board taken a lot of time from your day job?
Answer: I started out as an examiner with California Awards for Performance Excellence in 2005 and started leading teams in 2008. This means that I led teams consisting of 8-10 individuals through a 5-7 day site visit where we verified and clarified the information submitted in a 50-page application. We were looking for how systematic an organization is with the way it approaches the work it does, deploys the work it does, learns from the work it does and integrates its systems and processes to ensure sustainability. I started with the national board in 2011.
For the last two years, I have worked as a senior examiner which means I am helping the lead senior through the entire 300+ hour process.
Question: Does the hospital support your job as Examiner? How does your voluntary position this year on the Baldrige Board of Examiners help you in your role at Feather River Hospital?
Answer: Yes, Feather River Hospital supports the work that I do for Baldrige; in fact, it was one of the reasons I was hired back to Feather River Hospital (I returned in January of last year to run the rural health clinics. In between I was working for the Central Valley Network and living in Loma Linda.)
I think the Baldrige work helps me with my day job – it helps me look at systems and putting processes in place to be successful. But it is a large commitment in a very short amount of time (3-4 months).
Question: How have your ideas about excellence changed since you became involved with the Baldrige awards?
Answer: I think in terms of systems and processes. We are all humans and make mistakes. Sometimes if we can take variability out of a process we can improve the outcome. I believe that it takes hard work and dedication and sometimes is outside of what everyone else thinks is normal.
Question: What experiences in your resume do you believe helped you to get the position on the Board of Examiners?
Answer: Being an administrative intern and seeing all aspects of hospital administration. My work at the state level really helped me get on the national board. I remember my first thought when I got to training, was “who am I, some project manager, to be working with CEOs of fortune 500 companies?” It’s a humbling experience.
Question: Where did you grow up?
Answer: I grew up on a farm in George, Washington (located in the central basin of Washington State). I spent most of my young life on the back of a horse (until I went to Laurelwood Academy in Gaston, Oregon).
Question: What do you do when you are not working?
Answer: Fun – when am I supposed to have fun?
I enjoy hiking, reading and riding horses. My hubby and I spend a lot of time with our dog, Jax, walking on the Paradise Ridge.
Question: What has been the best thing so far about being on the Baldrige Board of Examiners? What has been the biggest challenge? When did your term begin and when does it end?
Answer: The best thing about being an examiner is the people I meet. I have worked with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, doctors and nurses from Mayo and Cleveland clinics. The networking is unreal and the people I meet are something special. It’s like joining a fraternity – a very exclusive fraternity.
The biggest challenge is the time. It takes so much time – hundreds of hours every year plus a full eight days on site with the applicant which involves more than 100 hours in one week.
A term is one year. Every examiner has to apply annually. We are not always accepted from year to year.
The process starts in December with selection in March. The term goes through November.
Question: So do you intend to apply again next year and subsequent years?
Answer: Yes, for as long as they will have me.
Jennifer Niswonger attends the Magala Seventh-day Adventist Church near Paradise, California, with her husband. She graduated from from Canadian University College in 2003 with a Bachelors of Business and earned her masters from Andrews University in 2007 (through an extension program at Portland Adventist).