Soul of Summa Featured

10:05am EDT December 28, 2005
Thomas Strauss can sum up his vision for Summa Health System in one statement.

“The employees are the soul of our firm, the patient is why we exist, and the philosophy is if you are not serving the patient, you should be serving someone who is,” he says.

Strauss’ employees come first in his vision because in order for his patients to be cared for, he needs to care for his employees first.

What Strauss has discovered in his six years as president and CEO of Summa Health System is that when employees are truly engaged in their work and genuinely care about the organization they work for, patients receive the best care possible and the organization is going to succeed.

And Summa Health System has had its share of success. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best hospitals in America for eight consecutive years, and it won the NorthCoast 99 award for being one of the 99 best places to work in Northeast Ohio. In addition, NorthCoast 99 named Summa the 2005 Communication Award Winner because of its well-informed staff.

Keeping 6,000 employees — from janitors to brain surgeons — informed can be a challenge. And Strauss stresses that every employee is important, regardless of his or her role in the organization.

“One of the things that drives me crazy is hierarchy, and if you’re not a manager, then I don’t talk to you kind of thing,” Strauss says. “One of the things we really strive for here is that every level position is important. We really try to show that in the way we respond to people in the hallway, talk to people, have interactions. You can never know everybody, but when you are open to that it, really makes a difference.”

Strauss recognizes that his employees are what makes his organization great. And he empowers them, and therefore his organization, by giving them constant communication and support.

Constant communication
Strauss says that communication is essential to every aspect of his organization. He makes a point to tell his employees what their roles are and how those roles contribute to Summa’s success.

Strauss begins the process of communicating to employees from their first day at orientation.

“We talk about [how] people have the opportunity to be someone’s hero every day in the way they treat them,” he says. “One of the things I do is (give a presentation) to every new employee, and I give them a card that says, ‘You are this hospital.’ It talks about what you say and what you do is critical in our success.”

Strauss says employees only have 15 seconds to make an impression on a patient or a family member. He calls those first 15 seconds the moment of truth.

“Those 15 seconds represent our success or failure,” says Strauss. “I tell our employees that they are empowered to take whatever steps are necessary to satisfy that patient, family member or volunteer, because if they do, then we will be successful. But if they are too busy, if they feel it is not their job or if they are not empowered to take those steps, then we will fail.”

Strauss spends a lot of time communicating his vision for Summa to his employees, but it is just as important for him to get feedback from them. One way he does that is through a lunch every month called Talk with Tom that allows employees to voice comments and concerns directly to Strauss in an open and safe environment. No managers are allowed, and employees are encouraged to say whatever is on their minds without fear of punishment.

“It’s listening to those problems and kind of unlocking the ability to solve problems for people so that they can do their jobs,” Strauss says.

If employees don’t feel comfortable speaking their minds in a room full of people, they have an opportunity to share their opinions on paper through an annual survey. The questions used in the survey come from the book “First, Break All the Rules,” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

“It’s a Gallup Poll interview of 80,000 managers across the country,” says Strauss. “It includes the 12 most important questions you can ask your employees to create a healthy environment: In the last seven days, have you received praise about the work you do in the organization? Do I have a best friend at work? Does my boss care about me as a person?

“It’s very different from the traditional command and control environment that many of us grew up with. It’s that kind of philosophy that we are trying to create here in the organization.”

If a department gets a poor score in a certain area, Strauss has the human resources department facilitate a meeting in that department. Following the meeting, an action plan is developed to improve upon the problems.

“Every manager is educated on how to follow up with those scores so that each organization has a process they are to follow in order to get better from the results of the opinion survey,” Strauss says. “Every year that we have done that for about the past six years, the responses have gotten better.”

Supporting his employees
Strauss says that beyond communicating with his employees, he must empower them to do the best job possible. He describes this process as servant leadership.

“(Servant leadership) basically puts the patient at the top of the organizational chart and I am at the bottom,” says Strauss. “It is my job to support people at the bedside who come in between.”

Strauss learns how to support his employees through the feedback that he receives from them. For example, he learned that his employees wanted to have more of a say in the organization. He now gives them a way to do that.

“We had an effort where people wanted to have an area where they could give us ideas,” says Strauss. “So we created a program two years ago called Rewarding Innovation.”

The program encourages employees to submit ideas they have to better Summa either by making the organization more efficient, improving financial performance or improving patient care. Employees with great ideas are then recognized for their innovation.

“Depending on the extent of improvement, we allowed our employees to get some cash rewards for that innovation they brought to us,” Strauss says.

Meghan Shaw is one employee who reaped the rewards of this program — she won an Alaskan cruise for her idea to eliminate the third copy of a lab request form. By taking Shaw’s advice, Summa saved approximately $12,000. And although the program has only been in effect for two years, Summa has already saved $1.2 million as a result of employee ideas.

To ensure that all employees are committed to the success of Summa, Strauss came up with another way to let everyone share in the organization’s success.

“We put together a bonus program for employees based on our financial performance, our improvement and patient satisfaction,” says Strauss. “If we do those things, we are able to share with our employees our success by giving all employees a bonus. Last year, we gave everybody a 1 percent bonus, and our hope is that this year it is going to be bigger than that. It is a chance for us to say thank you.”

Another way Strauss empowers his employees is through Summa’s Leadership Institute. The Leadership Institute is way to ensure that all managers have the proper training, support and knowledge before they enter a leadership position, and potential leaders must complete a series of courses before they can become managers.

“It teaches them how to treat employees the way they would want to be treated and gives them tools and skills,” says Strauss.

One course is called the Philosophy of Summa. The course is four hours long and focuses on the mission, vision and values of Summa.

“We break each value down and have a video clip from a movie that we think either reflects that value or doesn’t reflect that value,” says Strauss. “And then we have an interview from a manager inside the organization about what that value means to them.”

Following the video is a conversation in which employees discuss whether the value featured in the video is working and talk about examples of other organizations where it is working better or worse.

“That has turned out to be a wonderful conversation that I teach for the managers that really gets them engaged in our mission, vision and values,” Strauss says.

And having engaged employees is one of Strauss’ main goals for Summa.

“We do all these things because we believe that if you have an engaged work force, a work force that really loves what they do, a work force that really believes in the vision of the organization and the mission, that they will give better care to their patients and that will result in a ‘raving fan,’ as we like to call it, which is a patient who experiences our organization and sees something different,” he says.

“When they experience that difference, that translates into preference, and then they will tell 10 or 20 of their friends and family about the unbelievable care they’ve had. That is why having an engaged employee makes such a difference.”

HOW TO REACH: Summa Health System, www.summahealth.org