Huddle Up: How This Structured Technique Can Bring About Cultural Change and Improve Patient Experience

September 27, 2017

// By Lisa D. Ellis //

Think back to the last time you went to a restaurant or store, and your server or sales clerk took the time to ask how your day was going or made an effort to form a personal connection. This probably made you feel welcome and left you with a favorable impression of the establishment.

Why a Personal Connection Matters

Jeff Skipper, CEO of Jeff Skipper Consulting

Jeff Skipper, CEO of Jeff Skipper Consulting

Incorporating a personal touch to enhance your customer service efforts can be an essential component of any successful business strategy, regardless of industry, says Jeff Skipper, CEO of Jeff Skipper Consulting in Calgary, Edmonton, Canada. But for health care organizations, the stakes are particularly high, since your patient satisfaction ratings will have a strong impact on your bottom line.

Customer Performance Matters: Here’s Why

That’s why Skipper, who has a master’s in organizational psychology and works with Fortune 500 companies, including IBM, BP, and Goldman Sachs, also applies his expertise to nonprofits and health care groups to help them step up their game in customer service and performance, teaching them how to apply a simple but structured communication process he calls a “huddle,” a designated time when staff engages in conversation organized around a specific theme leading toward a defined goal, that can facilitate desired cultural change over the long term.

“I’m currently working with a [large multisite] health care organization to drive a new value set in the organization,” Skipper says. This nonprofit health system with multiple locations in western Canada has more than 1,500 employees and a focus on adult health and wellness.

“We are establishing new priorities and changing the standards for the group, using the huddle technique,” Skipper says. He points out that until recently, this organization has been known for providing high-quality medical care, but delivery of that care has not met the same high standards. With his help, now leadership is adopting cultural changes more aligned with the needs and desires of patients in hopes of improving their experiences.

The “huddle” brings everyone in the organization together and gets them all on the same page in terms of goals and the path to reach them, so everyone understands and relates to one vision, Skipper explains.

This is important, since one of the biggest mistakes he often sees is clients assuming that “‘cascading’ messages through leadership or via an email blast will suffice. That’s a losing game of broken telephone, and the words never get through the way you want,” he says, adding that getting everyone on the same page is particularly challenging, especially in fast-paced health care settings, where people work different shifts in different locations and are often hard to reach by email.

The Power of Storytelling

A “huddle,” Skipper says, is really a brief, structured opportunity that leaders can build into team meetings or other regular gatherings to start a productive discussion about different aspects of good customer service, and can relate it to the health care field.

A “huddle” can last for 5 or 10 minutes and can be organized around a designated theme (such as the value of staff making the time to ask patients how their day is going). During the “huddle,” the staff members are invited to share stories about times they experienced good customer service, perhaps when a technician or waitress made conversation, and the leader challenges people to think about how that conversation made them feel good and why it mattered. By engaging around the topic with employees, an abstract concept can become very concrete. This can then serve as the starting point to get people thinking about small but specific steps they can take to better interact with patients, relating with them on a more personal level and helping them feel more valued and understood.

“For instance, the leader may say, ‘Think of a time you walked into a coffee shop and got really great service. Think about what it meant,’” Skipper says. The idea is to facilitate sharing stories to make the lesson personal for staff members, and to help them determine ways they can make small changes in their own behavior that can make a difference for the people they serve and for the overall culture, as well.

How the “Huddle” Works

“We use this technique to set the stage and lay the context,” Skipper says. For example, he says a recent “huddle” focused on the importance of staff members introducing themselves to patients.

“Saying someone’s name encourages people to connect. We talk about this and ask staff to come up with ways that this applies to the work they do,” he says.

Then leadership asks staff to come up with small ways they can integrate the concept into their daily responsibilities. “We also give examples of how this would work. For instance, the staff member could say, ‘Hello, my name is Cynthia and I am a health care aide, and today I will be taking care of you.’”

While this “huddle” is just a brief intervention, it can have lasting results if leadership follows up on it by walking around and noticing examples on the floor of staff members trying to integrate concepts that were raised in the “huddle.”

Skipper says that a staff member’s efforts don’t even have to be successful on the first attempt, but making an effort to move in the right direction should be rewarded so the idea is reinforced. “Leaders must be visible—showing up on-site and on the floor, and finding opportunities to share firsthand and rewarding people for their efforts,” he says. “The messages behind the ‘huddles’ should also be introduced repeatedly—in meetings, videos, memos, celebrations.”

Consistent Messaging

To keep all of the messaging consistent, managers are provided with a “huddle” guide that includes key points they can deliver in an interactive manner. This consistency across all of the departments and sites begins to build over time and results in changing the culture in significant ways.

New “huddles” are generally introduced every two weeks to allow enough time for all departments and shifts to get the themes and have a chance to begin implementing them. Each new “huddle” builds on the last one but takes the concept in new directions to build on progress made to date, Skipper says.

“Huddles” are also videotaped so leaders can play the same tape at multiple locations and meetings for consistency. This helps to greatly streamline efforts, although the conversations around the themes may be different in different departments and groups.

Skipper says an underlying theme is important—with his current client, the theme is creating positive cultural change—and all of the “huddles” should build off this theme, finding different small changes staff can make to build a more supportive customer service environment that hopefully will lead to higher patient satisfaction ratings. In the process, it’s likely that staff members will gain more satisfaction from their own efforts, too.

Measuring Up

While it is too early in the process to have any concrete data on results the “huddles” are bringing to the overall organizational culture and patient satisfaction scores of his current project, Skipper reports that staff members are embracing the concept, and patients have complimented the changes underway.

When staff engages mindfully with people they serve, Skipper says, it can serve as a catalyst for other changes as well, so the organization’s culture will continue to evolve in a very positive way.

How to Start Your Own Huddle—5 Tips

If your organization wants to try a similar approach to boost your customer service across multiple departments using a “huddle” technique as an agent for change, Skipper offers these five tips to guide your efforts:

  • Keep it brief. An effective huddle should be easy to integrate into your regular meetings.
  • Be consistent. Make sure the same theme is presented to all departments, locations, and shifts.
  • Solicit staff participation. The strength of the huddle lies in storytelling. By facilitating staff to share their personal examples of good (or bad) customer service, you can make abstract concepts concrete and help staff set realistic goals.
  • Have leadership practice what they preach. Your managers and leaders should make the time to walk through your floors demonstrating the level of customer service they want so staff can model similar behaviors.
  • Recognize results. Make sure to notice examples of staff members who incorporate techniques discussed in your huddles into their own practices. When staff members feel recognized for their efforts, they’ll likely be energized to continue in the same direction and work harder to accomplish goals you set.

Lisa D. Ellis is a contributing writer for Strategic Health Care Marketing. She is a journalist and content development specialist who helps hospitals and other health care providers and organizations shape strategic messages and communicate them to their target audiences. You can reach her at