Wednesday, September 21, 2011 9:13 AM

If health care were an Oreo...

Didn't look much like a Stanford business prof when last I saw him in August, decked out in a horse collar, cranial, goggles and other gear as Chip Heath and I were about to be catapulted off the USS Abraham Lincoln.

In more casual clothing, but in keeping with that vivid shipboard overnight experience, Chip brought laughter and approving nods from dozens of hospital officials in his presentation on accomplishing change in a difficult climate.

Tough times? We get that. Making powerful change? In health care, we're heavy into complexity. Chip's message, to me anyway, was to lean on simplicity. Tell stories. Involve real people. Use words and images as powerful motivators.

Chip, a keynoter at the annual summit of the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California, clearly had his work cut out for him. It was a warm day in Half Moon Bay. Some of the 100+ in attendance could have nodded off given the titles of some other sessions: "Accelerate Value Creation Through Sustainable Lean Enterprise Transformation." Arrgh.

At the risk of diminishing Chip's clear, clarifying and smooth flowing messages, some takeaways:

  • Marriage -- Such a powerful prompter that you give up half your living space.
  • Children -- Such a joy that you willingly interrupt your night's sleep to perform four trivial administrative duties.
  • Find the bright spots -- And replicate the processes that created them.
  • Shape the path -- Don Berwick started the 100,000 lives campaign, to reduce needless deaths in health care, by dumping bureaucratic jargon that got in the way of people's ability to grasp and act on the issues of quality and best practices.
  • Learn from the bad old days of American automakers -- Selling inferior products year after year may endanger your business.
  • Get the message right -- Health clubs don't increase membership by showing scads of hard bodies working out -- that scares off Oreo cookie eaters who might need to go for the burn. "Sustainability" is a great buzz word that might work in a blue state like California, but what worked better for Wal-Mart in Arkansas was "stewardship" and "avoiding waste."  How do you prevent your teen-ager from getting a tattoo of a rock band across his back? Maybe by saying, "If you get that, you'll die a virgin."

Health care is a swamp. Chip reminded me that making an emotional connection -- compelling stories/messages spryly told -- can drain the muck and mire.

(Chip and his brother Dan, another fellow embarkee on the Lincoln, are co-authors of "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.")