A healthcare leader’s keys to success: Creating value through safety

After leaving the Ford Administration, I set out to test in the private sector the ideas that I believed could lead to the creation of great value across any dimension of human activity – great social value, great human value and great economic value.

In my second assignment as CEO of Alcoa beginning in 1987, I got the chance to put my ideas fully into practice. I committed myself and the company to the notion that we could become the best at everything we did by committing ourselves to becoming the first injury-free workplace in the world.

Wall Street scratched its head for years at the notion that human values, safety performance and financial success could somehow be connected. Yet, as we progressed toward our goal of complete safety, we gained the human bonds and the deep skills at understanding and improving our processes that every one of our people applied to transform us from a threatened company in 1987 to an increase of 800 percent in market value by 2000 – an increase that was sustained through the bursting of the economic bubble.

We became the safest company in the world, despite the presence of tremendous hazards in the workplace and the fact that we had more than 120,000 people working in more than 30 countries, many with terrible health and safety records.

Today, the company’s lost workday rate is more than 27 times smaller than the average American healthcare institution. What I understood – and Wall Street didn’t – is that it is people who produce value in any enterprise, and that people will respond to a set of values and proven ideas and principles to produce unbelievable increases in performance.

Applications in Healthcare

I felt I had proven my hypothesis with regard to creating true social value across very complex enterprises in any discipline. This led to a focus on healthcare, the sector in our society that was obviously crying out for rapid improvement.

Making such progress in healthcare starts with leaders setting performance goals at the limit of what is theoretically possible, focusing on safety and quality, and pursuing them with vigor.

Most organizations make the mistake of establishing arbitrary benchmarks to define success. It is particularly glaring that benchmarking accepts a certain level of error or poor quality as “normal” when it comes to basic safety for patients in our healthcare system.

If our goal is to have “just” 4 percent of patients contract an infection while they’re in the hospital to be cured, who among us will volunteer to be among the 4 percent? Perfection goals defuse defensiveness and blame, and keep people pushing forward. The question isn’t whether we are “good” or “bad.” It is, “What’s the next step toward perfect?” It also drives one toward thinking, “How could we be sure this is done right every time?”

Is progress on this scale possible in healthcare? Yes. I look forward to sharing more about what only the leader can do to help the people of their organizations achieve it when I speak with the UL webinar audience in a Dec. 13 broadcast: A CEO’s Keys to Success: Creating Value through the Pursuit of Perfect Quality & Safety.