What a DC hospital official learned from Apple, Chipotle and the zoo

How do you get a slow-moving organization to become a quick-on-its-feet idea generator? Give its leaders little time to solve a major problem.

This was the thinking behind Washington, D.C.-based Sibley Memorial Hospital's launch of the Sibley Innovation Hub, an incubator designed to encourage employees to crank out innovative ideas to improve healthcare, according to the Washington Business Journal.

Nick Dawson, the Hub's executive director, described how the hospital's idea-generating tactic — placing employees under a 24-hour time constraint — leads to more creative ideas, which has resulted in new inventions, improved safety, higher patient satisfaction scores and a design-driven culture of problem solving, according to the report. 

"We don't want to ramrod ideas. We don't want to be a bull in a china shop. But it gets you past that hurdle where people get stuck. In 24 hours, you can say, 'There's an idea here. We have something.'"

Here are three lessons other healthcare leaders can learn about problem solving from the Sibley Innovation Hub, according to the Washington Business Journal.

1. Look into other industries. After seeing a spike in accidental needle sticks in 2014, Sibley Memorial Hospital officials decided to hold its first 24-hour problem-solving "sprint." The officials began the process by asking the surgical nurses to describe and show how accidental needle sticks happen in the operating room.

With this insight in mind, the Hub team visited a local Chipotle to ask workers how they avoided injuring themselves as they quickly chopped meat. An employee showed them a chain-mail glove used to shield their hands. The nurses, however, said there was no way they could compromise that dexterity in their hands during surgery.

The team's next stop was the Smithsonian National Zoo. "We cornered a reptile room worker and said, 'How do you protect yourselves?'" Mr. Dawson told the Washington Business Journal. The zoo workers employed a different tactic — instead of wearing protective hand gear, the reptile workers "neutralized" the snakes' fangs by covering their teeth. The workers also follow a call-and-response process to increase communication while handling the snakes, according to the report.

With the 24-hour limit approaching, the Hub team raced back to the hospital, armed with all of their new information. Borrowing an idea from the Apple iPad cover, they created something completely new: Specially magnetized needles that would land point side down when dropped on something magnetic. Although it was just a prototype, when the surgical nurses saw it, they thought it could work. The Hub team filed for a patent the next day.

2. Don't be afraid of bad ideas. Pitching terrible ideas is an important part of the brainstorming process — the criticism and feedback they provoke provide the necessary stepping stones to great ideas.

In January, Sibley's CNO, Joanne Miller, MSN, RN, asked the Hub to find a way to improve the hospital discharge process. The team started with an idea: Candy Land-like game where patients "follow the journey," eventually ending at discharge. The idea was not well-received by patients, who called it childish, according to the report.

"But sometimes you have to throw out these sacrificial ideas and say, 'Just react. We'll start there,'" Mr. Dawson told the Washington Business Journal.

The next idea also failed. The team tried using individual "discharge ambassadors" as each patient left the hospital, which was unsustainable. Finally, the team looked to the hotel industry to see how hotels measured guest satisfaction. The Hub team decided to borrow the idea of small questionnaire cards, which many hotels leave in their rooms and use to measure guests' feedback and ask them for ways they can improve. Nurses at Sibley began giving patients "Ready to Go" cards, which ask patients which questions they have before they are discharged.

Since introducing the "Ready to Go" cards, internally reported patient satisfaction has significantly improved, according to the report.

3. Set a serious deadline, then move out of the way. While they are not a replacement for longer-term projects, "sprint" challenges can be effective methods of problem solving.

"Speed forces people to clear their minds and focus," Lawrence Ramunno, MD, Sibley Memorial's chief medical director, told the Washington Business Journal.

Speed also creates a safe environment where failure serves as a learning tool.

However, in such a fast-paced environment, it is important that the problem-solvers have enough space to let the creativity flow. That means the boss needs to stay out of the way when the team is brainstorming.

"The last thing senior leadership should do is go in the room and say 'What's going on?'" said Mr. Ramunno. "We're trying to break down that hierarchy. We want them to know it's OK to try something."

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