"The Baldrige people put it to us this way: 'You want to be exceptional but we don't see that. You've compared yourself to the average.' As a result, every single year, we've refined and always look for improvement."
But what's best about Sister Mary Jean is not the awards and, yes, fame, that have come from SSM's journey under her watch, but her philosophy on leadership.
"You can talk about leadership and most people would talk about executives, but it exists at every level of the organization," she says. "Our employees go home, and when they get home, they become, in effect, the CEO or COO—and every other position—of a small corporation called a family. They do the planning, the teaching, in service education, transportation, maintenance, and long-range planning. We don't want them to come back to work and lose that leadership they've exhibited, because that's a waste of talent."
As a result of this philosophy, SSM has organized its CQI work under team-based leadership groups that other health systems are only learning, fitfully, to employ now. I'll let her explain:
"We rate highly the work that goes on in teams, and our employees rate it highly, too," she says. "We continue to rely on these people who come to work every day wanting to do a good job in housekeeping, maintenance, accounting, and nursing, and they all come up with great ideas."
With Sister Mary Jean's retirement from the president's office, she says she knows of only a few, "maybe half a dozen," senior leaders who are also member of religious orders in healthcare anymore.