Defining true measures of healthcare success

I have the privilege of coaching amazing young men in a high school recreation basketball league. Thomas Dahlborg

I remember one particular game last season where we were getting beat soundly and our players were feeling pretty down. As I turned to the scoreboard and saw we were trailing 43 to 12 late in the first half, I called our players' attention to it. I called their attention to the fact that the outside world was judging us based on those electric red numbers glaring ... and yet the outside world had no idea the measure of a young man's heart, the real measure of our team's success.

We turned our attention toward each of our own measures of success, each step we were making individually and together to improve as basketball players (and coaches) and as men. We talked about the outside world and the glare of the red, and set that aside to focus on the REAL wins, the TRUE measures of success.


Back on the court, the other team continued driving, scoring, pushing, harassing, showboating and taunting. And yet my boys never gave an inch and played with perseverance, tenacity and integrity until the final whistle.

Even though the neon red numbers had grown further and further apart, by the end of the game they no longer glared down on our team. Those numbers were no longer the key metric to be measured against; they were no longer all encompassing.

In fact, the outside world's view changed for that one game and it saw what the glowing red numbers could never show, as exemplified by the two referees approaching me after the game saying, "Those boys, we have never seen that type of maturity, focus, determination and HEART in all of our years of refereeing than we saw tonight. What an amazing team. What fine young men."

When I am challenged at work, I often look back on that one incredible game and think about what those young men taught me and how I can use those lessons in the midst of a healthcare world that judges based on metrics that may not be the true measure of success.

I mulled this all over as I was developing measures of success for a partner organization. I have seen this organization evolve and grow under great leadership. I have also seen their measures of success that are truly amazing and yet clearly not what the outside world wants to see. And again I reflect back on that special night.

I also often turn to the blog It's About the Dash that focuses on the "-" on a gravestone between the person's year of birth and year of death and the measure(s) of a person's life during their lifetime. It's another great reminder for each of us to choose our measures wisely.

As you look at your own organization, as you review your organization's vision and mission, and perhaps your own vision and mission, how are you measuring success? As part of this reflective process, have you also looked into your own heart and the heart of your organization to define measure(s) of success that are aligned with what you are truly seeking to achieve? Have you also created an aligned measurement strategy which takes into account all these factors?

Measuring success is critical to achieving success. - "You cannot manage what you cannot measure." Defining success is just as critical. The next time you look into the eyes of your board, your funder(s), your staff, your patients, your customers, the next time you as a leader look in the mirror, be sure you have a clear definition of success (based on what will best position your organization and yourself for optimal outcomes), a measurement strategy and plan in place to ensure you remain on the most favorable pathway to achieving the defined success, and SMART measures aligned with your and your organization's defined success.

The delivery of optimal healthcare will continue to be full of challenges and yet these challenges can and will be mitigated by leaders who mindfully define, measure and manage their own success and the success of their organizations.

One final note: Beware of those red numbers glaring in your eyes. They may not be the true measure of your or your organization's success.

Thomas H. Dahlborg, M.S.M., is Vice President for Strategy and Project Director for the National Initiative for Children's Healthcare Quality (NICHQ), where he focuses on improving child health and well-being. He has 23 years of experience leading collaboratively, creating optimal healing environments, analyzing and addressing practitioner and patient needs, and developing and implementing aligned strategic plans.