(Fish) Food for Thought


The putrid smell of vomit wafted behind me, flowing in and out of my nostrils with each up and down of our boat. Two in our deep-sea-fishing party already had lost their breakfast; I was focused on keeping mine down. The ocean seemed fairly calm, but I didn’t feel very steady. In fact, I felt like I was on a bamboo raft that had been tied together with palm fronds.

In between thoughts of how I would have been ostracized as a seafaring Polynesian, I had one thought on my mind. “Keep your eyes on the horizon,” our captain had said as we boarded the boat. My eyes were not going anywhere else that day. The horizon, whether the coastline of Oahu or just the thin line between ocean blue and sky blue, provided an unwavering constant as the waves changed our position minute by minute.

Our daily work as hospitalists is filled with ups and downs—waves, if you will. At times they threaten to capsize us; at others, they provide a short boost of momentum. These waves come in many forms, whether a busy teaching service, an interaction with a consultant, or your personal schedule. And all too often, that constant cyclical motion becomes hypnotizing. All of us have encountered colleagues that get lost at sea; they seem to always focus on that constant sense of unsteadiness. We recognize this form of despair as whining, and it’s not far removed from motion sickness. The only difference is the specific sense that is assaulted when the victim can no longer handle the ride.

Chart a Course to Success

If the captain of our fishing charter had been a business instructor, the lesson for the day would have been strategic planning. If he had been a medical school professor—well, there probably is no suitable analogy, as the path to organizational success isn’t yet a part of our core curriculum. Strategic planning is the deceptively simple process by which you ensure that you are headed toward your ultimate vision; it’s how you, your group, or your field charts its course toward the horizon.

Medicine has been in the habit of learning from business lately. Toyota’s strategy is a prime example. Their core strategic plan is termed “Lean” production or practices. Continuous quality improvement, though an oversimplification, is a substitute phrase that all hospitalists should recognize. Amazingly, Toyota’s strategic plan extends 50 to 100 years into the future and is intertwined into each and every phase of the company. Although the Lean system is being carefully studied and applied by many in the healthcare industry, the true hidden curriculum lies not in the details of their practices, but rather in their choice and execution of strategy. Toyota’s impressive history of achievement contains a few valuable lessons applicable to your own future success.

Are you aware of the specific strategies in place for your group’s success? Have you been involved in the process?

At one time, Toyota was a newcomer to the established field of automobile manufacturing, not dissimilar to the current state of most pediatric hospitalists. Like us, they undoubtedly faced uphill battles surrounding established cultural barriers and rigid practice patterns. And despite giving up more than half a century to Ford and the concept of mass production, Toyota has become the leading manufacturer of automobiles in the world.

How did Toyota choose and execute a strategy that allowed it to thrive in the face of such obstacles? In the beginning, there probably were many strategic options. They could have decided to focus on creating a specific product, such as the “ultimate driving machine,” or cars that are boxy but safe. They could have opted to cater to a specific consumer class, perhaps building a strong fleet of affordable autos. Or they could have looked to improve their purchasing power and distribution methods (think Dell and Walmart).

Instead, they made a conscious decision to pursue excellence in reliability, quality, and value (sound familiar?), then followed through beautifully.

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Strategy at Home

Despite differences in industry and scale, all of these same sorts of decisions are critical to the success of your career, your HM group, or even the field of pediatric HM. Are you aware of the specific strategies in place for your group’s success? Have you been involved in the process? Before this year, I was probably like most of you. I had some vague notion of success. It involved increasing relative value units, making everyone happy, and completing a big QI or research project.

In the past 12 months, however, I have taken part in three strategic planning sessions: one for a regional pediatric society, one for my hospital, and one for my hospitalist group. The importance of these processes crystallized for me. Apparently, the leaders in our field have had the same thoughts. They convened the Pediatric Hospital Medicine Roundtable, a strategic planning session for our field (see “All Grown Up,” p. 1). Clearly, 2009 is the year of the strategic plan.

Despite the unifying theme, the processes and products of all of these plans have been unique. Strategic plans must be developed organically, out of local context and environment, and can only be created by those who live and breathe the work. What works for group safety at the university hospital of quality focus might not work for group communication experts at suburban community hospitals. Differences in institutional, organizational, and cultural beliefs should affect the decision-making process. When a strategy has been devised, it should be carefully chosen and explicitly implemented.

Does your group’s strategy come to mind? Or are you just treading water, unable to see beyond the next looming wave? If you have a vision of what you want, whether it’s money, fame, or protected time, then this same line of reasoning should apply to the strategic plan for your individual career, as well as the future of pediatric HM.

The lesson here is simple: Success requires a plan. Strategic planning is how you set a vision for the future and chart that course. Unexpected political waves are sure to come, and not every victory will come with a prize catch. But if you can create that beautiful Impressionist painting on the horizon and maintain that course, you are less likely to lose your breakfast and go without lunch. TH

Dr. Shen is The Hospitalist’s pediatric editor.

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