Rocket science – what the NHS can learn from NASA about staff engagement

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10 / 9 / 2015 3.39pm

What can the NHS learn from other organisations on staff engagement?

In this blog Steven Weeks takes a look at what the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) and some other leading international organisations are doing to improve staff engagement.

This follows up on from the previous blog which looked at how the NHS compares with other sectors. Here it was argued that the NHS actually compares reasonably well with other parts of the economy, in terms of overall staff engagement levels.

This created quite a debate and some critical comments, however, most were pleased to see some positive analysis of NHS performance in this area. I sought to highlight areas where the NHS does reasonably well. However, it is also clear that there is scope to improve and learn from others.

NHS Employers website and the Listening into Action Blog site have many case studies that can help. Some specific ones will be highlighted in September’s staff engagement newsletter.

The range of performance in the NHS is wide and the overall average needs to be higher if we are to meet the challenges facing the service. The overall levels of involvement are not yet at a level found in other sectors, for example, in leading edge manufacturing and retail companies. The NHS scores well on ward-level involvement but less well on involvement with the organisation as a whole.

Some retail organisations have linked staff and customer data and achieve higher advocacy scores. More information on involvement in UK companies can be found on the Engage for Success website. In this blog though I am looking a bit more internationally. 

NASA is often cited in the discussion around staff engagement because of an anecdote told about President Kennedy. He was touring its building and met a janitor. He asked the janitor: “What do you do?” and the cleaner replied: “My job is to help put a man on the moon”.

The levels of staff engagement in NASA have been among some of the best in the overall USA federal workforce. Like the NHS, NASA employs a large professional workforce with many different occupations ranging from scientists and astronauts, to technical and administrative staff. Ensuring all staff feel part of the overall organisation has been an ongoing challenge. 

NASA has suffered budget cuts and a loss of direction following cancellation of key programmes. Its public reputation was damaged by disasters such as the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle during lift off. 

In 2013 NASA adopted a new approach which has had a positive impact on staff engagement. Key elements included:

  • refocussing on the core organisational mission (space exploration)
  • providing greater support for team leaders
  • using a range of ways to tap into the ideas of staff for improvement both in their own job and across the organisation.

Unusually, in USA terms, NASA operates within a collective bargaining framework and has developed a partnership working model to assist in quality improvement.

International help for the NHS

There has been a recent spate of interest in other international examples of successful staff engagement. The Virginia Mason Hospital has been asked to work with NHS hospitals on patient safety issues. One of the foundations of its successful drive to improve safety has been an innovative approach to medical engagement. This involved drawing up a new ‘compact’ (its own document similar to the NHS Constitution setting out rights and responsibilities) with its medics and harnessing the ideas of clinicians around improvement. See the King’s Fund resource on our website for further information.

A number of community services are looking at what could be learned from the Dutch nursing at home provider Buurtzorg. It has been able to maintain quality whilst reducing costs, through a radical approach to service provision based on self-managed teams of nurses. This has taken staff involvement to a new level through almost complete delegation of authority to teams.

There is also potential learning from approaches in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In addition, the experience of Republic of Ireland with partnership working, staff involvement and quality improvement has recently been reviewed with key lessons highlighted. 

If you would like more information on any of the examples I have highlighted please get in touch.

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