Friday, June 19, 2009

The basics are the new cutting edge

Throughout my 40 year involvement in healthcare I’ve spent much of my time with front line employees. Recently I’ve spent more time than usual with receptionists when running training workshops on various topics.
Spending time with them is a great reminder to me just how important these people are in the patient experience.

It also reminds me how important the tasks we might call ‘trivial’ are in the grand scheme of things in any walk of life.

Basic tasks are not trivial at all - they are fundamental to an overall purpose.

Any house built on weak foundations is not a safe house. This ‘trivial’ work has to be done and it is often not glamorous. It nevertheless makes the final product what it is.

When I work with a group of receptionists I always say to them:

“Promise me one thing. If you take NOTHING else from this training session please tell me you will never say ‘I’m JUST a receptionist.’ You are a customer service professional. That is the reality.”

In every aspect of my life I see these basic but crucial building blocks in just the same way. We rightly celebrate watching something that gives us a real buzz, due to its sheer beauty; or because it touches some emotional buttons within us. But I believe the final ‘product’ or ‘performance’ we witness is usually the accumulation of lots of little pieces that seen in isolation are minor. This usually requires the input of many people quietly doing effective if unglamorous work.

Interestingly, the best leaders I’ve known; worked for; or interviewed have a humility you can ‘feel’ in their presence. They all say they truly value people at the front line doing the less glamorous stuff and they mean it. The least effective leaders prefer to talk about themselves first.

So it’s another opportunity for me to say thank you and to congratulate all those millions of people who do daily, that work which may be considered by some to be ‘menial.’ I say with the utmost confidence the world is a richer place thanks to the millions of foot-soldiers doing basic work quietly and seeking no spotlight.


Dan Gunter said...

I beg to disagree on one point. There IS a spotlight for these professionals. It doesn't come with fanfare or red carpets. It's that little light you see in the eyes of the patient's and family members when these people treat them with warmth, courtesy, kindness, and respect.

That light seems very small at times because at that moment, it is more like a tiny shaft of sunlight being directed at and dedicated to the person who has just made them feel special.

It is very important to remember that it has been scientifically proven that healing involves many different aspects of the human body, including the mind.

A trip to the hospital is not always a pleasant experience because it is related to something going on in a person's life that might be very painful, frightening, or potentially devastating to them. Although they might not be aware of it, these receptionists have the power to initiate some healing on the mental and possibly even physical level for these patients through mere acts of human kindness.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Dan – I agree with you totally.

Receptionists get lots of satisfaction from the smile or the thank you from patients and/or their families.

I also stress to them how important they are in the treatment of the patient and that their manner can hep the patient get better.

Dan Gunter said...

I was confident that you would do no less. They can literally be the first miracle workers that patients meet when they enter the hospital doors.

Trevor Gay said...

We agree Sir!

Dan Gunter said...

We definitely agree: they are stars.

Dave Wheeler said...


Terrific post and 1,000,000 percent on point. It amazes me at times to hear folks labeled "thought leaders"(authors, consultants) and those given the title leader through the position they hold be completely oblivious to this fact! What will separate the best from the rest in any industry is the person who build the product or provides the service...the person on th frontline. All companies say people are their most valuable strategic resource. The best companies are the ones who have programs, policies and processes in place to prove their belief in that statement!

Anonymous said...

I think it was Robert Townsend when he was at Avis who insisted that everyone at the company, from himself on down and including the geeks who tended the reservation system computers, work the rental desk at an airport for a couple of days every year.

Everyone needed to know exactly what business they were in.

And how important that first contact with the customer was.

And how hard it was to get it right- every time.

There was no such thing as 'just a rental clerk' in his company!

How many times has a dreary day been improved by the sympathetic, helpful person at the desk or on the phone?!

And a manager's smile and 'thumbs up' behind the customer's back does a lot to reward and encourage that behavior.

But that would come from a leader whose excellent-service radar is always on high alert, eh guys?

Lois Gory

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks Dave – you are so right my friend.

The sort of company you mention that says those words about ‘valuing their employees’ are too often the same companies that retain practices like having reserved car parking spaces for senior staff and separate dining rooms for executives. It annoys me intensely.

Ricardo Semler is the best example I’ve come across for speaking and living the word – far too many managers just say and write the words …. but do not live them.

Trevor Gay said...

Many thanks Lois – excellent thoughts as always. I remember very well when I was a fairly senior healthcare manager. One time I spent two 12 hours shifts working as a nursing assistant to help out due to sickness in a residential unit for older people with mental health problems. I also recall spending an entire month working alongside receptionists and front line nurses as part of my induction just to get a feel for what it is really like. Those times taught me far more than the many hours I had to sit in my office.

I would love to have worked for Robert Townsend – wouldn’t you? – He is clearly a man who really ‘gets it’

Dan Gunter said...

Brilliant comments all! As I was sharing with Dave in a private e-mail exchange a little while ago, I so often see companies treating certain types of service front-liners like the proverbial "red headed stepchildren," because they view them as liabilities instead of assets. It's far too easy for the top brass to look at the "costs" involved in such operations and view them as dragging the operation down instead of adding value (and they not only add value, they are (or at least should be) THE key link between customers and design.)

Whenever I hear of a group of executives from a company conducting an expensive off-site "strategic planning retreat" or other supposed strategy session without participation by at least as many front-liners as executives, my blood boils. My analog is a medieval one: the king, sitting comfortably on his throne back in the castle, is in no reasonable position to tell the men out there with the swords and lances how to maneuver in battle. He's essentially clueless. Even King Arthur had the good sense to gather the knights who had actually "been there" to help formulate strategy.

Whether "service" means a person that answers calls all day, or someone registering patients, a housekeeper that stops by to tidy up a patient's room in the hospital, or the person who drops off and picks up the lunch tray, they all have one thing in common: regular, ongoing, direct, face-to-face contact with the customer.

They matter. They have stored in their memory banks a LOT of valuable business information. Recognize their value. Treat them in ways that let them know you do, including giving them the resources they need to implement their ideas on making things better. If you don't, go ahead surrender, because you've lost the battle already and just don't know it. Don't blame it on your competition, the economy, or bizarre ethereal forces -- you did it to yourself.

Mark JF said...

The basics are only the new cutting edge for those folks daft enough to have forgotten (or seriously daft enough never to have realised) that they are the perennial cutting edge.

Trevor Gay said...

I couldn’t agree more Mark. This is certainly not ‘new’ thinking

hucknjim said...


Another great discussion here. The executives, including my direct manager, at my job say all the right things and for the most part do them. The one thing missing is direct experience of what the people they're managing go through.

My own job as a unit secretary involves not only greeting patients and their families and answering the phone, three or four of which often ring at the same time, but also entering orders into the computer after deciphering the often illegible penmanship of doctors. And I am expected to do this perfectly each and every time. If I don't, I'm sure to hear about it although not in a punitive way. Nevertheless, the stress level ranks right up there.

That is my biggest complaint, and I hear it echoed by the nurses and techs and housekeepers and food service workers that I work with every day.

For the most part, I do feel supported by management; but they really need to spend a few days in our shoes. Then maybe they would see beyond the numbers that the number crunchers can't seem to see past. Just my take on another interesting conversation.


Trevor Gay said...

Hi John – thanks as always for your input.

One time a few years back when I was successful in applying for a new management position in the healthcare business I had over a month at the beginning of my job spending a minimum of one day alongside every type of employees in my area of responsibility,

I spent time with receptionists, community nurses, doctors, health visitors, hospital nurses, van drivers, porters, administrators … in fact you name it … I spent time with them.

This turned out to be 35 days of perhaps my greatest learning during my entire 35 year healthcare career. I gained so much more by spending time with these folks than I ever could have done by sitting in my office or attending meetings. Of course it only gave me a snapshot but it helped me be non-judgmental and always made me think about how it is for folks working at the front line. I guess that is why I believe so passionately in front line folks.

Conversations on my Blog are made interesting by everyone who contributes John – your views are ALWAYS enlightening because you are at the front line at the interface with patients and there is no more important place in healthcare.