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Kevin Johnson: Culture Survey helps teams work together to solve problems

Kevin Johnson, senior vice president Health IT

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Q&A interviews with some of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s leaders to talk about why all staff members should take the VUMC Culture Survey: Pulse Edition, which is May 1-22, to help us build a stronger and better VUMC.

As senior vice president of Health Information Technology, Kevin Johnson and his team are busy putting in our new clinical IT system and getting the organization ready for the November Go Live of the new system. But that won’t stop him from encouraging his team and others to take time to do the VUMC Culture Survey: Pulse Edition. We recently sat down with him to talk about how his team has used past results and how he is looking forward to hearing more ways to improve Health IT.

VUMC: Why is the VUMC Culture Survey: Pulse Edition important to leadership and staff?

Kevin Johnson: The survey is an impartial way to get a barometric reading of how we are functioning as an IT organization. It’s very easy in an IT organization to create silos which are sometimes a good thing because like-minded people who work together elevate each other and buoy each other during the difficult times. At Vanderbilt, that’s actually a bad thing because we’re a highly collaborative organization, so we encourage people to break down their silos in Health IT and work together to solve problems. This survey is a way that I can gauge to what extent our people are engaged enough in what we’re trying to do in Health IT that they can break out of their own little shells. I certainly can’t say more strongly that it’s a super important thing that everybody complete the survey and that they trust that leadership at all levels reads and uses the survey in a way to make the workplace better. 

VUMC: Why is it important that employees’ thoughts are heard?

Johnson: It would be hard for me to imagine why one wouldn’t want to hear employees’ thoughts. It’s obviously important that we hear what’s actually happening because it helps us with retention. If we can get an early signal from the people who are working around us that something is not working well, then it prevents us from having to spend time rehiring and re-acclimating new people to major projects. For instance, with the EpicLeap project, one of the goals of success is that we have a low attrition rate because we need the same people to understand where we’ve been so that they can help make sure we don’t make the same mistakes. Talking to employees gives us a general sense of workplace conditions. In fact, we heard very early in the EpicLeap project that while people understood we wanted them to take a lunch break, they looked around, and the only option they had was Dairy Queen or the Indian place. Otherwise with travel time it was taking more than an hour to sit down and eat. Because of that, we decided to dedicate some of our budget to having food brought in. We’ve heard it has been one of the most important things we’ve done for our employees because every single person who works on this project literally converges in the lunchroom. We all sit around and talk — it’s down time, it’s collaborative time and it’s relatively inexpensive. We would never have thought that through had we not heard it from employees. We’re definitely doing anything to improve wellness, flexibility and nutrition, and we’re getting those suggestions from our employees.

VUMC: What does engagement mean to you?

Johnson: Engagement is the idea that there are behaviors and attitudes and knowledge a person uses to be involved to the best of their ability and interest. You can in theory be engaged and simply be incapable of doing certain things, therefore, willing to hear ideas about ways to get it done. Or you can be engaged and very capable and feel empowered to take things on. We would accept either of those over apathy. The problem with apathy is you never really know if what they need to succeed is what you’re providing or how to help them find their joy in the workplace. We’re a place that cares, and we want people who are going to stay and who are going to help us keep others engaged. We need engaged people who are going to help make the place better and let us know when things aren’t working well.

VUMC: What are some of the ways you tried to incorporate last year’s survey results into your department?

Johnson: We decided to move our town halls closer to where people are working, and we also virtualized it so you can be in a small team room or small conference room and still are able to see everything and dial in to ask questions. That change has been well-received based on feedback we’ve gotten. We also are hosting smaller social events, such as a chili cook off and ice cream social, in the building rather than what we used to do which was to get them out of the building. The attendance suggests it’s going really well. We also have a very big holiday party. Last year, we had it at the Maxwell House with a band, karaoke and an ugly sweater contest.