VA Center Tries Teaming

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Judith Zboyovski thinks for a minute about her job title.

"Didn't you want to be called Yoda?" Vickie Blose asks.

"Or Wizard?" chimes in Rick Larkin.

"I'm thinking Warlock for myself," Joe Delanko chuckles.

The Erie VA Medical Center has restructured so dramatically that its managers and employees have given up their job titles. Zboyovski and Larkin are members of the Executive Leadership Team. Delanko, once the engineering service chief, is now on the Support Team, and Blose, a registered nurse, is now on the Primary Care Team.

But all four are quick to point out that the center's revamp as a team-based organization is more than just a name game.

The team approach has improved how the center cares for its patients, Zboyovski says. Since the center began the restructuring process 18 months ago, customer complaints have dropped by 50 percent, despite the fact that the center was serving more veterans with fewer staff. Though employment has dropped from 433 to 387 and the center's budget has been cut in real terms, it has served 9,624 patients this year, almost 400 more than at this time last year.

"Our goal was to become patient-centered and customer-focused," Zboyovski says.

The Erie VA Medical Center's experience with restructuring its workforce shows success does not come easy, however.

Managing the reorganization took a full-time commitment from 12 percent of the center's staff. The employees and managers involved in the effort devoted themselves full-time for six weeks to eight months to the initiative, so other staff members had to take over their responsibilities.

By the time the restructuring teams finished, they had reorganized the center from 35 services into seven product lines. They revamped the management structure, replacing 90 supervisory and management positions with seven team leader slots and creating a four-person executive leadership team.

Not everybody at the center was pleased with the restructuring process, said one employee, who asked not to be named.

"The seemingly secret plan-making that took place made associates feel their future was being planned for them," the employee said. "We were kept in the dark."

While management is generally headed in the right direction, they need to make sure employees get the answers they need, the employee said. "People in Erie are worried about our future. Will the VA survive? Will the hard work people put in every day matter in 'crunch time'? Is the bottom line all that matters?"

Delanko says his new position as support team leader is more challenging--and more rewarding--than his old supervisory role as engineering service chief. He used to check employees' work against rules and controls mandated by a vast array of regulations.

"Now I don't tell people what to do," he says. "You're expected to excel."

Delanko explains to his team members what is expected of the team. The team members tell him what they need to meet those expectations. Then Delanko provides them with the tools they need to perform well.

Blose tells the story of how even a secretary was affected by the new team structure.

A patient needed some information. Before the restructuring began, if a patient needed information, a unit secretary was required to send the patient four doors down to the release of information clerk, who signed a form permitting the patient to get what he needed. Now the secretary can take care of the release of information requirement herself. The patient no longer has to be inconvenienced by an unnecessary bureaucratic procedure.

To make reengineering efforts work, Blose says, "you have to have leadership buy-in. They have to drive it."

Delanko says managers have to listen to people and communicate in order to make teaming work. When managers feel they have communicated enough, that means they have just begun to communicate.

"If I have a problem, I can call Judy or Rick directly," Blose says. "I don't have to go through five layers anymore."

Larkin says team leaders "treat people as adults." They give their employees a lot of latitude because that allows them to perform better, he says.

Blose says she feels liberated by the changes at the medical center. "I don't have to check my brain at the door," she says.

The representatives of the Erie VA Medical Center are showcasing their teaming success at the Reinvention Revolution Conference. Check the Daily Fed this week for more stories of frontline reinventors.

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