When a company wins the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the companys typical reaction is celebratory. The company, its executives and its employees revel in the fact that the federal government has bestowed upon it the highest honor the government can award a business. Celebration then gives way to visions of dollar signs as the companys leaders ponder ways to parlay the award and the recognition that comes with it into more business, increased revenue and higher profits.
But for two 2006 Baldrige winners, the celebration was short-lived. Joy gave way to anger and frustration as what was supposed to be the pinnacle of business achievement turned into a public relations nightmare. Clients, the media and others questioned whether the pair was deserving of such an honor given their past business practicespractices that were the subject of investigations, hearings, lawsuits and legal settlements. They had a past, and their critics made sure that no one would forget it. So much so that less than a month after announcing the winners, the Baldrige program had to publicly defend itself and its choices.
The employees realize how hard they worked, said Blair Childs, senior vice president of public affairs at Premier, one of the 2006 Baldrige winners. Its an incredible accomplishment no matter what people might say. I dont think that takes away from what weve done. Its disappointing that people who have an agenda get as much coverage as people who have worked so hard.
The lesson learned by Premierand others who devote considerable resources applying for the Baldrigeis that winning the prestigious award doesnt necessarily absolve them from past sins. Premier and 757-bed North Mississippi Medical Center, Tupelo, which also won a 2006 Baldrige, both hired Baldrige consultants and spent thousands of hours following the Baldrige criteria, filling out the 50-page application and being monitored by the programs examiners. Even with the wins, neither has been able to put the past behind it.
Daniel Fell, a healthcare marketing expert with Daniel Douglas Norcross in Chattanooga, Tenn., said even when winning an award as prestigious as the Baldrige, organizations cant ignore their critics. Or at the very least, he said, winners should brace themselves for attacks. They should be prepared to show how they are changing practices, Fell said. The more specific they can get, the better they address the critics.
North Mississippi has had to deal with questions, but it hasnt faced the public relations fiasco that hit Premier.
Premier, the San Diego-based health alliance of 1,700 hospitals, won in the Baldrige service category, which recognizes companies from any industry that provides a service. North Mississippi, which is the flagship of six-hospital North Mississippi Health Services, won in the healthcare category, which is limited to companies or organizations that provide care.
The U.S. Commerce Department announced North Mississippi, Premier and a company called Mesa Products, a manufacturer of corrosion-control systems, as the only three Baldrige winners on Nov. 21, 2006.
Not surprisingly, both Premier and North Mississippi said they were proud of being recognized. A Premier written statement said: The award is a testament to our commitment to continually challenge ourselves to better serve our not-for-profit hospital members.
John Heer, president and chief executive officer of the North Mississippi system, said in an interview: The whole thing is recognition that you achieved world-class performance.
Those behind the Baldrige were also happy with their selections.
President Bush and I applaud the three 2006 recipients of the prestigious Baldrige Award, said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in a news statement. With their innovative practices, commitment to excellence and outstanding results, these organizations are among Americas best and are role models for any organization striving for world-class performance.
It was Gutierrezs use of the phrase role model that seemed to energize the pairs critics and set off the blaze that ensued.