**Through this ongoing series, Trilix sheds light on exemplary business leaders who believe in the fusion of operations and culture to help companies reach organizational goals and inch closer to workplace excellence.**
When I first met Darlene Morris, Director, Center for Improvement Science, at the Rhode Island Quality Institute (RIQI), I was immediately impressed by the powerful way she prioritizes the importance of both sound operations and strong vision in achieving organizational goals. Though her role at RIQI calls for hyper focus on methodical process, operational excellence and workplace improvement, Darlene is passionate about the ways in which people, teamwork and culture also move a department forward.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Darlene right before the New Year approached to get her thoughts on everything from the importance of quality improvement initiatives to how to make sure the “people” part of the equation is never forgotten.
Me: Darlene, thank you so much for having me here today! To begin, can you tell me a little bit more about your day‐to‐day responsibilities at the Rhode Island Quality Institute (RIQI) as Director, Center for Improvement Science.
Darlene: Right now I’m directing a four-year grant awarded to RIQI by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to prepare healthcare practices for payment reform. Our work is part of a nationwide quality improvement initiative to increase patient and family engagement, use data to drive care and ensure sustainability of these practices when reimbursement models change. We are working with over 1,600 clinicians in primary and specialty care offices to transform their practices including effective use of health information technology, especially the statewide Health Information Exchange known as CurrentCare, to improve care coordination and care transitions.
Me: Your career is rich with experience in leading technology teams, focusing on quality assurance, and moving departments towards their specific milestones. When you reflect on your roles and responsibilities, what do you feel has driven your path?
Darlene: The first position I held that was relevant to my current career path was in the quality improvement department of a behavioral health facility where I worked to ensure that the voice of the client was integrated in treatment plans (I reviewed hundreds of them). I also listened through one-on-one discussions as the center’s Human Rights Officer. While there I taught myself the plan-do-study-act methodology of quality improvement and applied it to the organization’s processes. I became so fascinated with the increased use of technology at that time and obtained a degree in computer information systems before moving on to work in the IT department of a lab as their quality assurance manager. Here my goals were to effectively manage an interface team that connected the lab to doctors’ offices and to validate the quality of the system before it went live. This was my first experience working with a high-performing technical team, and I came to realize the importance of team empowerment to project success.
After five years at the lab I moved on to RIQI where I’ve been for six years, working with an amazing team of individuals who are dedicated to helping doctors, nurses and other members of care teams adopt and use health information technology and “transform” their practices through the use of quality improvement techniques.
Quality improvement is very much embedded in the way I think, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always had an eye on excellence. I am fueled by a desire to take situations and make them better. In many ways, don’t we all want to achieve excellence, do the best we can and take something to the next level? When we achieve that level of excellence, no matter our role or industry, we start to impact others.
I think that overall what matters to me most is relationships. Nothing gets accomplished well without prioritizing your relationships. Of course you still need to “manage,” for example, by clarifying project aims upfront and ensuring everyone marches in the same direction, but it’s more important to “lead” by listening to and acting on the consensus of the team when developing strategies and overcoming challenges.
As far as a purpose that drives my career path, I would have to say that it’s to positively impact the lives of people, and to do this by engaging teams in the workplace. Engagement seems to happen naturally when you genuinely care for each member and acknowledge the contribution each makes. I knew early on in my work career that the team members themselves are the key to getting things done well, and I learned that I cannot accomplish great work alone.
Me: As someone driven to both positively impact the lives of people and continuously improve the organizations at which you work, what are your own beliefs about excellence in the workplace? What role do you see people, process and technology playing in moving an organization forward?
Darlene: I believe that it’s important to always strive for excellence. This isn’t about perfection, but more about doing your best at all times. It’s a choice that anyone can choose to make. Imagine the results when an entire team is striving for excellence together!
In terms of the role of people, process and technology, you certainly need all three but I think you know my answer as to which comes first—hire capable people and take care of them, respect them and listen to them. Then, make good use of the magic of technology and continually seek to improve and refine processes to maximize efficiency and make work less like work.
I think oftentimes where there can be a breakdown is between people and process. To successfully meld these two areas together, you have to ensure that your team owns the process so that the two are not at odds with each another—you can’t simply push process, especially in a top-down way. Everyone has to be involved in workplace improvements and contribute to building the process.
Me: Along those lines, how would you define workplace excellence? What does it mean to you?
Darlene: Workplace excellence is what happens when a group of individuals with a common purpose use their individual gifts to achieve worthwhile aims. It requires the right kind of leadership, a meaningful goal, a capable team and the willingness to choose to excel.
Me: I love that part about “choosing to excel.” It speaks to the fact that excellence, and commitment to it, is very much a choice. Taking a different slant on workplace excellence for a moment, can you describe a point in time in any role where you and your team were falling shy of excellence? What obstacles were standing in the way of achieving excellence?
Darlene: In my experience, falling shy of excellence can happen when everyone involved is not clear on the goals or is clear in the beginning but then gets sidetracked. I recall a project where I gathered team members from different departments to clarify what success looked like when the work was finished. Early in the timeline we divvied up the work and assigned tasks and deadlines, etc., but what I didn’t do after that was to check in often enough along the way to ensure that everyone was still marching in the same direction. Without regular clarity checks, it’s very easy to go off course. So lack of communication was the obstacle that threatened the achievement of excellence and improving and/or increasing communication is the remedy for getting the project back on track.
Me: Makes sense; communication is often a critical component in strongly operating teams. OK one more question… as we look at today’s business climate, I am curious how you feel current workplace pressures and macro trends are perhaps placing extra pressure on leaders to focus more intently on areas like sound operations, organizational waste and effective leadership?
Darlene: This question is so relevant to the work we are doing at RIQI to transform healthcare practices today. Clinicians in hospitals and ambulatory practices are being asked to make major changes to the way they have always conducted business for the purpose of improving quality of patient care and decreasing spending (e.g. utilization of unnecessary tests, procedures, hospitalization readmissions and emergency department use). A major impetus to this shift is payment reform and the move from a focus on volume (pay for performance) to a focus on value. This movement is putting enormous pressure on these workplaces to make quality improvements to operations to ensure business sustainability. Many of the smaller practices are merging or being acquired by larger systems that have the resources necessary to effectively lead and streamline processes. This is a perfect example of the need for and value of quality improvement, technology and engaged teams who choose to strive for excellence.
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