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The Official Baldrige Blog

Could Baldrige Help Detroit?

 As a young child, I spent most Sundays visiting my paternal grandmother in a declining inner-city neighborhood of Detroit. By then, the city had already seen large-scale losses of middle-class residents. Many had fled to suburbs that offered better public schools, more reliable services, and safer streets. Over the decade stretching into the 1980s, I watched my grandmother’s well-built bungalow become a virtual jail cell for her.

Yet my grandmother met the continual erosion in city services (and correspondingly, in her quality of life) with a ferocious obstinacy. No matter what happened, she would not  abandon the city she had loved in better times—and the home that had witnessed her immigrant family’s years of striving to secure the American dream (through decades of steady earnings from a manufacturing job). So she stayed indoors nearly 24/7 throughout her seventh decade. Redundantly deadbolted doors alone protected her from the pervasive robberies in the area.

As family members urged her to move during weekly visits, I became a sentinel in the barred window of the back porch, awaiting the regular backyard parades of ever-more-robust rats scampering to and from a nest down the block. Along their route, the ironically thriving rodents were seemingly cheered by unruly rose bushes—which my aunt had stopped pruning after she was robbed at gunpoint in the driveway. I sometimes wondered about symbols of lost life, such as a charred shoe decaying unburied near the burned-out house next door (which had been rendered uninhabitable by a suspicious fire years before). And I listened for sirens that might signal another movie-like spectacle like the dramatic chase my grandmother had watched. As the story went, an alleged drug dealer reached his home across the street moments before police to flush illegal commodities into the citys sewer lines.

My grandmother could describe the growing pathology of her neighborhood and the city at large with alarming details from her daily observations and reading of the news. But she had no solutions beyond prayer. She had seen enough evidence over several decades to doubt the city government would save any such street from a further descent into blight.

Recalling these memories, I was saddened but not surprised by recent news of the impending bankruptcy of the once-prosperous city. I realize my experiences were limited, and that even now there are pockets of hope in the city, for example, in historic neighborhoods with thriving businesses. So I wonder what Detroit might be able to do to leverage strategic advantages it still possesses and make progress toward tackling its colossal challenges.

In considering the latest news of Detroit, I have been thinking about the excellent budgetary and other results achieved by two other U.S. cities (Irving, Texas, a 2012 Baldrige Award winner; and Coral Springs, Florida, a 2007 Baldrige Award winner) that have used the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence to improve their performance and become national role models. The Criteria focused them on treating their city governments as businesses—forcing them to consider financial stewardship, strategic priorities, customer engagement, and all the other considerations that must be addressed to keep a business sustainable.

While those cities are smaller than Detroit—and their current and past challenges are not necessarily similar—the Baldrige Excellence Framework (which includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence) has been used by organizations of wide-ranging sizes and sectors to improve performance and achieve sustainability. For examples, see profiles of nonprofit, education, health care, and business organizations on our website here and case studies and results in our book Baldrige 20/20

So I have dreamed recently of the great possibilities of a Baldrige-based transformation in Detroit. What if its leaders were to embark in earnest on a Baldrige journey of improvement? Perhaps the city could begin such a journey by considering how it could adopt and demonstrate the core values of the Baldrige framework for organization-wide performance: visionary leadership, customer-focused excellence, organizational and personal learning, valuing workforce members and partners, agility, a focus on the future, managing for innovation, management by fact, societal responsibility, a focus on results and creating value, and a systems perspective.

Next, Detroit could begin using the Baldrige Criteria requirements (which are phrased as self-assessment questions) to consider and improve its approaches to leadership; strategic planning; customer focus; measurement, analysis, and knowledge management; workforce focus; and operations focus (also known as categories 1 through 6). And it could track its results (category 7) in measures of all key processes. While the Baldrige Criteria do not provide for a quick or easy fix, using this framework has helped organizations in every sector of the U.S. economy build management systems that enable them to better serve their customers and other stakeholders and become profitable and sustainable. This is why I believe the Baldrige Criteria can help Detroit remake itself into a steadily improving and higher-performing city.

My grandmother, who would be over 100 years old today, is long gone. But in my lifetime, I sure hope to see a Detroit commitment to major change and continuous improvement draw large numbers of new settlers and businesses to help rebuild and diversify the foundations of the municipal economy. And of pressing importance: to see the city be able to improve the quality of education and services for all Detroit residents.

Note: Michigan organizations can look to the Michigan Quality Council for expertise and support in improving their performance using the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence (most other states are similarly served by local Baldrige-based programs that are part of the nonprofit Alliance for Performance Excellence network); Detroit also is fortunate to be home to a high-performing role model and national Baldrige Award recipient, Henry Ford Health System.  

About the author

Christine Schaefer

Christine Schaefer is a longtime staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP). Her work has focused on producing BPEP publications and communications. She also has been highly involved in the Baldrige Award process, Baldrige examiner training, and other offerings of the program.

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar and a double major, receiving highest distinction for her thesis in the interdisciplinary Political & Social Thought Program. She also has a master's degree from Georgetown University, where her studies and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

When not working, she sits in traffic in one of the most congested regions of the country, receives consolation from her rescued beagles, writes poetry, practices hot yoga, and tries to cultivate a foundation for three kids to direct their own lifelong learning (and to PLEASE STOP YELLING at each other—after all, we'll never end wars if we can't even make peace at home!).

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Since America is in far worse shape than Detroit, a better question is: could Baldrige save America? Lets start with a simple question. What are the Values of America and what is the Mission of the federal government? What is the Vision? These things were clearly established by our founders and form the framework that limits the federal government. The transfer of just powers from the People to the government via the constitution further limits the federal government. If America followed the Baldrige criteria, we would achieve our Vision of securing the blessings of liberty for oursves and our posterity. However that would shrink this government down to its intended size and disappoint the absolute power they currently enjoy.
Yes, I believe that the Baldrige Criteria, if properly applied, could be of help to various parts of Detroit's government. However, consider that Detroit has been in decline for at least 50 years, so this would make the task of improvement much more difficult. It is much easier to implement positive change when an organization is functional and growing, than when it is dysfunctional and shrinking. I haven't studied what I am about to say, but I have 20+ years as an examiner and judge on various award programs (including 10 on Baldrige, and 10+ on others that used the Baldrige Criteria). This experience probably encompasses over 100 companies, and I don't think any of these had crawled back from the precipice, especially the financial precipice as a result of using the Baldrige Criteria. Here’s an example. Improvement systems like the Baldrige Criteria usually improve quality and efficiency simultaneously, reducing the need for labor. In declining organizations, costs shrink, labor shrinks, and people are invariably laid off. Layoffs do negative things to morale, reducing incentives for the remaining employees, managers, and others to participate in future improvement activities; after all, they could be next. Conversely, in a growing organization, these same gains result not in layoffs, but in delays in hiring, which do not impact morale in a negative way. This is just one example among many, indicating why organizations in decline are harder to fix. They usually go bankrupt. And, by the way, I wanted to add a comment to Julie Pace. America is not in decline and is not in worse shape than Detroit. You have apparently been listening to someone who wants to scare us all into voting for a particular political party.
Very poignant story. Detroit lacked the most basic resource required for the Baldrige process to work. It had inept -- and in some instances corrupt and criminal -- leadership. Perhaps the 21 current Baldrige Examiners from Michigan, or – better yet -- the Michigan Quality Council under Geri Markley, a Baldrige Judge, or – best of all -- the two Baldrige recipients from Michigan – Bronson Methodist Hospital and Henry Ford Healthcare (located in Detroit) can educate Detroit’s new leadership on how to benefit from Baldrige so the national and local Baldrige communities will benefit from this opportunity to do something to create powerful testimony to the power of Baldrige before the opportunity passes. It looks like we have ample resources where they are needed. This is an opportunity for Michigan’s Baldrige leadership -- assisted by the Baldrige Enterprise leadership -- to step forward and educate the new leaders of Detroit on the power of Baldrige to improve the communities they they live in.
Thank you all for adding your thoughts and insights to this discussion! David: Might hope spring eternal with Baldrige as a framework for better management—even when (in some cases, perhaps only when) an organization has reached a particularly low point in its performance? After all, we have heard a number of senior leaders of Baldrige Award-winning organizations over the years tell back-from-the-brink and Cinderella-story accounts of how they turned to the Criteria for Performance Excellence while in crisis and/or as a first step toward new growth. For example, Rulon Stacey, the CEO of Poudre Valley Health System when it won the Baldrige Award in 2008, described how his organization began using the Baldrige Criteria to turn itself around in the mid-1990s when facing an employee turnover rate of 25 percent and steeply declining revenues (down to a quarter of what they had been in previous years). And former superintendent Terry Holliday initiated his successful Baldrige-based plan to raise the performance of the Iredell-Statesville (NC) Schools at a historic low point in the system’s performance: he began his tenure just a year or two after the school board began investigating the district based on reports of financial mismanagement (the system was broke, with a budget gap of $2.5 million), student achievement levels had fallen below state averages, school facilities were deteriorating, and community expectations were low. Within six years, the school system had become a top-performing district in its state (while maintaining a per-pupil expenditure rate below the state average), and it won the Baldrige Award in 2008. Barry: I appreciate your mentioning Bronson Methodist Hospital, a 2005 Baldrige Award winner. While it’s based in Kalamazoo, southwest of Detroit, it certainly adds to the wealth of role-model organizations in Michigan. Finally, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share some inspirational information and results conveyed in presentations by city of Irving (TX) leaders at the Baldrige Program’s 25th Anniversary Quest for Excellence Conference this past April. For example, in a session on the city’s Baldrige-based strategic planning, Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd described how the city decreased crime overall by 35 percent in recent years. The comprehensive approach included alignment of resources with strategic priorities and alignment among the city’s “teams” encompassing the police department, code enforcement, corporate communications, real estate development, sanitation, animal services, and housing and human services. The plan Boyd and others developed for reducing crime used problem-solving methods such as root cause analysis and SARA (Scanning, Analysis, Response, and Assessment), which includes sequencing action steps and tracking and evaluating results. Boyd shared the case of one declining neighborhood whose problems included blighted conditions, high crime (including illegal drug sales), absentee owners, spillover neighborhood issues, and a bad reputation. Yet crime was reduced 80% using the Baldrige-based approach, while calls for police service fell 52%, 18 substandard buildings were demolished, community satisfaction increased, and new neighborhood development was enhanced. So perhaps great results are possible for any organization that employs effective and systematic strategic planning--among other key elements of performance addressed by the Baldrige Criteria--under the guidance of leaders dedicated to systemwide improvement. As Boyd noted, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.”

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