Why Debbie Palmer Came Out of Retirement

By asking the right questions, Debbie Palmer crafts a more ideal work environment for Fairfield Medical Center

“I’m not interested in coming to work at Fairfield Medical Center,” Debbie Palmer told a colleague who was trying to persuade her back in 2008. “I’ve been retired six months. I’m learning bridge. I’m playing golf.”

But the colleague persisted, and Palmer offered to come and do a one-time analysis for Fairfield—a 222-bed nonprofit hospital in Lancaster, Ohio. Fairfield’s problem, she was told, was the less-than-successful decentralization of the training and education department. But as a short-term opportunity became one accepted job offer after another, and as months at Fairfield turned into years, she helped create a work environment that is not only more efficient than ever, but is also infinitely more satisfying. She currently serves as Fairfield’s chief human resources officer and corporate compliance officer.

“I’m no expert,” Palmer says, discussing basic process improvement skills. “But I do know that really understanding what your services are, what you’re trying to deliver, what your customer wants from you—they’re all important. And then you have to deliver it in an effective and efficient manner.”

Palmer kept all that in mind as she began her initial assessment, which involved Fairfield’s education and training department. She quickly perceived an unmistakably negative vibe: We’re terribly busy all the time. We’re underappreciated. Nobody cares about us. She responded by trying to verbally identify what was keeping them so busy and so unhappy. That proved easier said than done, especially without any measurable
data. So, she got rudimentary about it, produced slips of paper, and required each employee to track their daily activities in fifteen-minute increments.

Debbie Palmer’s Three Aspects of a Positive
Work Culture

1) Understand who you have working for you, and get them in the most suitable job for their skills and strengths.

2) Understand what managers are looking for, and develop personnel accordingly, including promoting from within, prepping for leadership, and addressing performance issues.

3) Empower people to do their jobs, evaluating and supporting without micromanaging them.

“We did that time study for a month,” Palmer recalls. “There was a lot of moaning, lots of groaning, lots of, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re making me write down what I’m doing every fifteen minutes.’ And I told them, ‘This is about understanding how you spend your time because most of you cannot tell me.’”

The standout discovery from the study was that a whopping 30 percent of each educational staff member’s time was spent helping people either register, reregister, or cancel registration for classes. “One of the first things I said was, ‘I want to get these people on the phone so they can tell me why we can’t do self-registration,” Palmer says. “One of my educators, an IT educator who really functioned more like a help desk, told me there was no way, that it just wouldn’t work. I said, ‘Let’s ask the question anyway.’”

Ten days later, self-registration was working, the help-desk educator was questioning if she could do the job being asked of her, and Palmer was meeting one-on-one with the remaining four educational staff at Fairfield, leading each conversation with a question: “Are you doing the job here you really want to be doing?”

It turned out that none of them were. One nurse was teaching computer classes when what she really wanted to do—and was capable of doing—was run Fairfield’s new simulation lab. A second person was primarily doing clerical work while she longed to be an actual educator. A third was in dire need of streamlining her efforts teaching CPR, ACLS, and orientation. The fourth was struggling with her responsibilities in delivering nursing orientation.

In short order, Palmer addressed each of their issues: For nurse number one, she helped the computer classes become more self-contained so she could move over to the simulation lab as she desired. For the aspiring educator, she helped the employee take full advantage of Fairfield’s tuition reimbursement program, and the employee began to learn to coordinate Fairfield’s new student orientation program. And the life of nurse number three got a lot more productive when Palmer initiated some long-overdue discussions with nursing supervisors. And nurse number four worked hard to improve her nursing orientation work.

Then, the overall benefits of these changes kicked in. “The end result of that was that we were able to start offering a variety of different programming because the team was spending 30 percent of their time doing all the registration,” Palmer says. “We got people out of mundane tasks, got them the training they needed, and when necessary, put the staff in the right roles.”

Fairfield’s regimented HR department underwent a similar transformation when it began reporting to Palmer. She recalls one employee, a recruiter at the time, who yearned for more of a leadership role and now has one as an HR manager. And another young woman initially spent all her time doing data entry when she really wanted to help Fairfield’s staff as a benefits coordinator—which she does today.

These efforts toward efficiency and effectiveness were met, at first, with plenty of resistance. “I remember getting a lot of pushback in the form of managers saying I was too aggressive,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Things are fine the way they are. Why are you trying to shake things up?’”

She even encountered resistance with the employee satisfaction surveys, which had been executed in-house until Palmer determined it would be more cost-efficient to outsource them. But with the results Fairfield receives nowadays—rankings of fours and fives instead of twos and threes on a scale of 1–5—she knows a significant corner has been turned. And she’s more than a little excited to be a part of it.

“There are many cool things happening now in our organization,” Palmer says. “And it all starts when you get the right people in the right roles and give them the freedom to do their jobs.”