Winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award® represented a significant milestone in AARP’s journey to organizational excellence. Founded in 1958 by Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, AARP has continued to build on her powerful legacy and make her vision a reality: “A society in which all people live with dignity and purpose and fulfill their goals and dreams.”
At the Baldrige Program’s 32nd Quest for Excellence® Conference (held virtually April 12-15, 2021), AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins and AARP Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Financial Officer Scott Frisch shared key insights and lessons about how AARP uses the Baldrige Excellence Framework® to achieve and maintain high performance. Following are detailed highlights from their presentations.
“As a Baldrige Fellow, along with several of my executive team colleagues who are also Fellows,” Jenkins said, “we had applied the Baldrige framework in designing and implementing the significant changes we’ve made over the past six years to improve our performance and better serve our 38 million members and their families.”
“By applying the Baldrige framework, not only have we met—and, in most cases, exceeded—our dashboard goals, we have received recognition for our work,” Jenkins explained.
In recognition of its bold approaches to sparking new solutions, AARP was named one of Fast Company’s best workplaces for innovators, recognized as a top workplace by The Washington Post, and named one of the world’s most ethical companies by Ethisphere.
“So for us, applying for the [Malcolm Baldrige] National Quality Award was a natural next step in our quest for excellence,” Jenkins said.
“Going through the Baldrige application process and site visit . . . forced us to examine everything we’re doing and why we’re doing it. . . . We learned so much about our organization: what we did well [strategic advantages], what we needed to work on [strategic challenges], and how to continually transform our organization in the years ahead. The [Baldrige] framework gives us a model for continued success as we update our processes, establish new ones, and strive for even greater results.”
The Baldrige Excellence Framework (which includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence®) fosters an approach to innovation that is systematic and integrated throughout an organization. It defines organizational innovation as “meaningful change to improve your products, services, programs, processes, operations, and business model, with the purpose of creating new value for stakeholders.” Given this definition, it follows that the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence ask an organization to define its innovation process (“How do you manage for innovation?”), making the question an overall question in the “Operations” category (i.e., the key question for item 6.1c).
AARP’s Scott Frisch focused on the importance of innovation during the Quest for Excellence® Conference, while explaining that the organization embarked on a transformation journey to build on its role in promoting “everyday innovators in aging” and to accelerate its impact. “AARP’s approach to innovation is consistent with Baldrige’s definition,” Frisch said. “AARP evolves and invents to meet the new realities of aging. Our approach to this evolution and invention is focused on both internal and external transformation.”
To internally transform its organization, AARP focused on three areas: (1) culture, (2) infrastructure, and (3) process.
As Frisch explained, “To build a culture of innovation inside AARP, we embed innovation into strategy and our way of operating. Our culture is based in the strength of our integrity and holding to our vision, purpose, and [five] core values (i.e., innovation, impact, humanity, empowerment, and honesty).
In addition, we instill in our staff that their role as employees of AARP is to be everyday innovators in aging. To help them succeed in that role, we implemented a customer-centric innovation framework to help address consumers' pain points and develop the best solutions possible. And we trained more than 90% of the staff in that framework.
As a result, we all share a common understanding of the concept of innovation, we're all working from the same playbook, we speak a common language around innovation, and we have the tools to become better everyday innovators in aging.”
“We recognize that infrastructure plays a significant role in driving innovation. Our physical workspace was outdated and not consistent with our vision of AARP in the future. So in 2017 and 2018, we completely renovated our 500,000-square foot national office in Washington, D.C. As a result of this investment, our renovated space includes digitally enabled conference rooms, lots of natural light, and, of course, consistent AARP branding throughout.
As a critical element of this renovation, we also revamped and upgraded our technology tools and infrastructure to allow staff to work from anywhere and to ensure that they had connectivity required to foster collaboration, agility, and knowledge management. We called this the 'workforce of the future;' but it actually turned out to be the 'workforce of the present,' as it enabled our workforce to move seamlessly and securely to a teleworking environment during COVID-19.
To fuel creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, we also opened the AARP Innovation Lab in our Washington, D.C., office. This allowed people across the organization to come together to brainstorm and develop consumer-facing products, services, and experiences to help our members live better as they age.”
“We also have worked extensively to transform our internal processes, in order to support and accelerate an environment for innovation,” explained Frisch. Following are three of the areas that AARP focused on:
“Similar to [AARP’s] internal transformation, we have taken a multi-pronged approach to innovation from an external perspective,” said Frisch.
“We expanded our approach to the use of capital. For example, we established a $60-million investment vehicle (the AARP Brain Health Fund) to accelerate research into treatments and cures for all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. We also established a $40-million Innovation Fund (the first of its kind in the nonprofit world) in order to push capital to the market to drive more products, services, and technology for the growing 50-plus market with a focus on access to health care, preventative care, and aging at home … [and we] developed new creative affiliations with nonprofits.”
AARP’s Innovation Lab (mentioned above) has also greatly impacted AARP’s external innovation, according to Frisch, “by driving new technology solutions that empower people to live better as they age. Since 2017, we have engaged with and mentored over 120 startups, invested nearly $750,000, and supported dozens of promising new products and services. The AARP Innovation Lab also holds challenges to motivate, inspire, and reward developers. We have launched apps to address isolation, promote fitness, and improve mobility. We recently have been hosting these events at the International Consumer Electronics Show. We also launched the Tech Nest in partnership with the Research Park at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, an innovative technology lab that employs academic talent from the university's top-ranked engineering program to create technology solutions for people 50-plus.”
“We re-envisioned our role in addressing global aging issues. We created a global thought leadership practice to engage global stakeholders to exchange ideas, challenge outdated beliefs and stereotypes, and spark new solutions to address the opportunities and challenges of aging. As a result, we’ve become instrumental in working with the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, OECD, and other international organizations in raising awareness and creating solutions to address global aging issues, such as living, learning, earning longer, global health, economic security, age discrimination, and making communities more livable,” said Frisch.
“Local relevance is critical to the future of AARP,” continued Frisch. “As trust in Washington, D.C.-based institutions is declining, people have deeper and longer-lasting relationships with organizations that are actively engaged in their communities. As a result, we have accelerated the shift from a national organization to a nationwide organization to help us deliver on our social mission agenda in a way that is more locally and personally relevant to our members and the broader constituency.”
The Baldrige Excellence Framework has empowered organizations to accomplish their missions, improve results, and become more competitive. It includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence, core values and concepts, and guidelines for evaluating your processes and results.