Listen and learn — why I host staff breakfasts

Last November, I started the practice of hosting monthly breakfasts for up to 20 of my department staff at a time. We skipped two months around the time of our major inpatient go live in June. That means I’ve spent time with at least 160 staff getting to know them, listening to their concerns and answering questions in a small, informal setting. There’s a small group of “frequent flyers” who have come to more than one so far. I tease them that it must be the food but I know it’s them wanting to have a voice which I’m happy to listen to.  “Make your voice heard” is a theme I’ve been encouraging all year.

At the most recent breakfast, there was a lull in the conversation.  I called upon one of my frequent flyers whom I have come to know is willing to tell it like it is.  He said there are a lot of broken processes in the department. I was happy to see he was comfortable being so open and honest with me and in front of the group. While some may have been surprised at the comment, I saw heads nodding. I then invited the entire group to tell me examples of broken processes they saw in their daily work.  I heard many examples including service desk ticket resolution, software package distribution, and asset management.

That is what these sessions are about. Leaders can’t live in isolation thinking everything is running smoothly and efficiently. Yes, we spend our days in too many meetings and on what seems to be endless email but we have to get out and listen, go to the gemba as I’ve said in previous posts. These breakfasts with staff are a virtual gemba for me – they are not at the actual place where work gets done but they are candid conversations with front line staff and anything is fair game to talk about.

Those of us who manage knowledge workers struggle to find a gemba to visit.  Much of my employees’ work is done alone in front of a computer, where the interaction with colleagues and customers is often done asynchronously through email.  Getting a diverse group together, with attendees from different divisions and levels of the organization provides a place for us to talk about our work processes collectively. And perhaps, more openly.

I heard that staff have ideas for improvements and solutions to problems they see but can’t get any traction due to silos and turf. Getting buy-in from one’s own team or division is possible, but when the process involves multiple divisions the likelihood of all parties making the effort a priority is minimal. The people closest to the problem know how to solve it, but leaders have not come to consensus to make it happen. Breaking down silos in my own department is something I’ve been working on since I got here. Clearly, more work to do.

I also heard a perception of management that we are too busy and don’t have time to fix broken processes. That one was tough to hear. Yes, we have a lot going on and many projects to deliver on with our customers but if we can’t take time to fix what’s broken and improve our processes, we can’t effectively and efficiently deliver solutions to our customers. So we must find the time. It’s part of a leader’s work to make the time.

I had one last “a-ha” at the recent breakfast. I’ve been working with my leadership team on this year’s management agenda focused on a number of internal processes and improvements. But, we’ve not done a good job of communicating all this to staff. That will be part of my next CIO message in our monthly departmental newsletter.

The old adage “be careful what you ask for” doesn’t apply here. I’m glad I asked for input and will continue to do so at the monthly staff breakfast and every opportunity in between.

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