Why a Better Hospital Supply Chain Starts with Better Relationships

When I started this “Champions of Change” series, I wrote about the importance of bringing diverse teams together and tapping into their strengths and knowledge. Being a Champion of Change isn’t just about your own great ideas — it’s also about bringing the great ideas out of others. When I think of this crucial skill, one of the first people who comes to mind is Suzi Collins, CMRP.

I first met Suzi at a Lean healthcare conference in 2011, and I could tell right away that she was a “Champion of Change.” She’s enthusiastic about helping others improve their supply chain operations, and she brings deep expertise and sharp instincts to the table. I had a chance to catch up with Suzi recently, and she shared some lessons learned from her experience as a hospital supply chain leader and Lean consultant.

Putting Relationships First

Suzi thinks of a Champion of Change, first and foremost, as a master collaborator: “Somebody who is willing to come in and have an understanding of the environment that they're working in, and then work collaboratively with both the people doing the work and the executive team to really make progress,” she explained. “I believe you can’t really over communicate.”

Suzi stressed that a Champion of Change makes nurturing relationships a priority. In her experience, maintaining relationships with executives and sharing success stories over time establishes deep credibility and understanding — which is critical when it comes time to ask senior leaders to fund a supply chain improvement initiative.

Going Beyond What’s Broken

Identifying big problems is relatively easy. When you run out of supplies over the weekend because a “skeleton crew” can’t keep up with restocking materials, the consequences are clear. But what happens next?

“I think that so often in healthcare we're really good at saying this is broken . . . or that needs to change,” Suzi said. In her experience, healthcare managers tend to schedule meetings to talk about a problem, but nothing happens. That’s where the Champion of Change comes in. You need, in Suzi’s words, “somebody who can come in and identify, even if it’s small, little steps, to get toward a better process.”

Truly Understanding the Situation

Suzi works with staff to understand supply chain operations opportunities and challenges beyond surface appearances. She noted that a Champion of Change is willing to really dig into the current situation, instead of just throwing out solutions. They get down in the trenches with the people doing the work or feeling the effects of supply chain processes. To paraphrase the late Stephen Covey, Champions of Change seek first to understand.

Suzi then works to bridge the gap to executives by providing solid examples of what she saw, how it affects the process, why it’s important to fix, and what the team will need. Providing that clear story gains the commitment (and funding) the team needs to move forward.

Making Many Small Improvements

As others in this “Champions of Change” series have discussed, a Champion of Change doesn’t just focus on big projects; they’re also willing and able to engage people in solving smaller problems that are meaningful — even if there’s no promise of an eye-popping return on investment.

Suzi has seen that organizations tend to focus on the really big thing, when fixing 20 small problems may have a much bigger impact on employee satisfaction, patient outcomes, accreditation survey results, and more. “If we can do some of the little stuff,” she said, “it starts to add up.”

Collaborating Instead of Telling

Suzi also talked about the importance of having “collaborative sessions” with staff to assess which items aren’t used very often. Even when she already has data on inventory use available, she starts by asking the staff about their experience.

“If you tell nurses what to do,” she observed, “they’re going to dig their heels in.”

Getting their input and asking them to put red, yellow, or green stickers on items based on the frequency of use helps them become comfortable with change. Suzi has seen that nurses are typically excited to do it, simply because the process is interactive.

It comes down to open, honest conversations. “It makes it feel like I'm not telling them something,” Suzi said. “Instead, they're telling me something, and I'm sharing with them.”

Then together, everyone sees that they can make change happen, because everyone was legitimately part of the discussion. They didn’t just feel like they were involved — they were actually involved.

Being Respectful When Telling is Necessary

As we discussed the power of collaboration, Suzi reminded me that there are times when an executive team has to set a direction or make a decision without taking time for collaboration.

“If you explain and have an intelligent conversation,” Suzi said, “they might not like it 100 percent, but they’re at least going to understand.”

I’ve seen this many times. An effective Champion of Change treats people respectfully when explaining a decision that will impact them. A Champion of Change never falls back on “because I said so.” There’s an old expression among Toyota’s senior leaders: “Lead as if you have no authority.” Being directive and pushing decisions at others should be the exception rather than the rule.

When I talk to Champions of Change, the same themes come up again and again: being respectful, reaching out, and communicating well. Champions of Change use data, but they also build relationships at all levels of the organization. That personal connection is crucial to moving from venting to what matters most: solving the important problems we face in healthcare. That’s driving results for the right reasons.

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