8 Ways to Ensure Internal Communication Supports a Culture of Improvement

Virginia Mason Institute

Communication forms the bedrock of any organization’s culture. In a culture dedicated to improvement, thoughtful communication is of the utmost importance. How an organization presents information about improvement efforts strongly influences whether people will buy into the process and participate in the change.

A successful internal communications strategy incorporates a variety of approaches over time, such as system-wide memos, informal small group discussions, and weekly report-outs. 

To get you started, here are eight key lessons on the role internal communication plays in helping healthcare organizations sustain a culture of improvement.

1.  Support and involvement of executive leadership is critical

Organizational culture starts at the top. Your staff takes their cues about what matters at your organization—and what’s expected of them—from your executive leadership. It’s vital that your top leaders be outspoken and consistent about their commitment to a culture of improvement. A critical mistake some organizations make is having their Improvement Team operate as the leading voice. This sends a tacit signal that improvement belongs only to them — it’s “something they do over there,” rather than something that applies to everyone.

“Everyone in your leadership ranks needs to be onboard,” notes Melissa Lin, Virginia Mason Institute Senior Partner for Transformation Services. “If you have even one influential leader who’s not talking positively about this work, it’s going to be difficult to sustain a culture of improvement,” says Lin. “Focus on your leaders and make sure they have consistent messages to share with their teams.”

2. Have a member of the Communications team at the table

Storytelling and messaging about improvement work should be shared in all organizational communications, rather than limited to a dedicated channel. Embedding someone from Communications on the core team that’s leading and managing large-scale change can help connect the dots between your organization’s strategic goals and its improvement efforts. When members of the Communication team are involved in improvement projects, they have firsthand experiences that bring their stories about improvement work to life.

3. Be consistent with the vision and the “why”

“It’s important to have clear, straightforward answers to foundational questions like ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘how does this improvement work help us achieve our goals?’,” says Lin.

While the answers will vary by organization, keeping the “why we do this” message top-of-mind helps cement a process improvement mindset at all staff levels.

“In the beginning of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health’s process improvement journey, we mainly talked about discrete improvement projects. Over time, it became more about connecting the Virginia Mason Production System® to everything we do, like how we achieve our organizational quality goals,” says Eli Quisenberry, Division Director for Virginia Mason Production System®. “It takes a while for that mindset to be ingrained in everything you do.”

4. Focus on results

Sharing success stories is one of the best ways to get people to buy into, and stay engaged in, a culture of improvement. What problems have teams addressed? How did they identify the core issues? How are people benefitting from the changes? Showcase what you’ve accomplished and what else is underway to inspire staff and create curiosity and buy-in organically as they imagine the improvements they might take on.

5. In-person and informal communication is key

“While memos, intranet articles and other organization-wide missives are part of a successful communications strategy, real culture change happens when people gather — and feel safe — to talk openly about successes and setbacks,” says Quisenberry. Regular forums, like weekly improvement work report-outs and executive stand-up meetings, provide opportunities to celebrate and problem solve, and signal the organization’s commitment to a culture of improvement.

6.  Think “local” and communicate from the bottom up

Engagement in a culture of improvement doesn’t roll out uniformly across an organization, nor does it happen overnight. Different sites, functions, and people will be in different stages of their improvement journey at any given time. Individualized and localized communication can speak to where teams authentically are and make it possible to focus on the work and results that resonate with their specific needs and challenges.

“You can build the local culture by focusing on local wins and local proof of concept,” says Quisenberry. “We don’t expect everyone to ‘fake it ‘til they make it’.”

7. Be honest and authentic about ambiguity, challenges, and failure

Publicly acknowledging that a project didn’t produce the desired results is a career-limiting move in many organizations, so being forthright about efforts that fall short can be feel counterintuitive. However, sharing stories of failure is as important as sharing stories of success. That’s where leadership and Communications can work together to cultivate a learning community through thoughtful messaging. Exploring failures or challenges as learning opportunities gives an organization the opportunity to be honest about ways to create necessary improvement.

“Being a learning community means people can be comfortable with not always having the right answers,” says Lin. “Creating an environment where people can fail, talk about it publicly, and feel okay sends the message that it’s valuable to continuously test, debrief and learn. And then pick back up and start again. This is the true embodiment of the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle, and it’s foundational to building psychological safety among the team long-term.”

8. It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Creating and sustaining a culture of improvement requires ongoing effort. Thoughtful communication with your team will help sustain energy for improvement work over the long haul. It can also help manage people’s expectations about improvement efforts while keeping the purpose and benefits of improvement at the forefront of organizational consciousness.

“We need to remember that the people on the frontlines know the work best,” says Lin. “Communicating about improvement work is more than telling them that change is coming. It’s about encouraging them to be forthright about what needs changing — and that their participation is what makes it happen.”

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