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How to make planning for your department’s future an ongoing process

An annual retreat where EMS leaders reflect on what they’ve learned from employees and patients helps one agency set a clear direction and establish priorities for the coming year

Updated June 2015

The leader of the D-day invasion, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” He spoke these words long after D-day, in a 1957 speech about the importance of planning being a process.

Some of the best organizations I know are practicing planning as an ongoing activity and process. One such organization is Lakes Region EMS, located an hour north of the Twin Cities. During the past eight years, this not-for-profit rural provider of 911 ALS services has consistently grown, improved its employee engagement, expanded its level of services and strengthened its financial position. With more than 60 employees, operations in two states and 7,000 annual calls, the service is nothing like the struggling consolidation of three volunteer services that it was a decade ago. In addition to great leadership, a key ingredient to its success is an ongoing process that includes a deep curiosity about what matters, an annual multi-day leadership team retreat and several one-day gatherings throughout the year.

It’s important to note that this organization does not spend time creating a written strategic plan or agonizing over its mission or vision statements. Instead, it focuses on what matters most in fulfilling its commitment to its four pillars: state-of-the-art patient care; outstanding customer service; dedication to the communities it serves; and financial health and responsibility.

“The foundation of our planning is the feedback we get from our employees and customers,” says operations director Ben Wasmund. Using a combination of surveys, an outside assessment and continual interactions with frontline staff, Lakes feeds its planning process with a relentless curiosity about what needs to change, be different, be created or be stopped. Lakes is unique in that it actually believes frontline employees and customers have valuable information that the leadership team needs for planning.

Every autumn, the leadership team—which includes the executive director, operations director, ambulance manager, financial officer, supervisors, and the quality and education coordinators—takes several days away from operations in a comfortable hotel retreat setting to reflect on what they’ve learned from employees and customers and consider the future. “It’s one of the most important things we do,” Wasmund says. “It helps us remember where we’ve been and talk about what’s impacting us now and what we should focus on in the coming year.” The goals of the retreat are simple: Get clear about the direction and priorities for the coming year and strengthen the team.

The retreat setting affords the team the luxury of time not available in busy day-to-day operations and brief team meetings. During this concentrated time together, they talk in depth about the organization and its challenges. They share meals and discuss and debate what’s working and not working and what matters now. They have time to listen and understand their differences and build trust among themselves. According to Wasmund, the process is not only effective, it’s efficient in that it results in the team leaving the retreat unified on the organization’s direction and priorities and telling a unified story.

But like any EMS operation, the Lakes leadership team is not immune to the reactive and changing nature of emergency work. In past years, the team has lost focus on its priorities, so it now plans for this inevitability. Several times throughout the year, the team regroups away from operations for a meal and several hours of remembering and rekindling the commitment to their priorities.

When asked how an ambulance service can afford the time and money for such a planning process, Wasmund doesn’t hesitate. “In seeing the results, we can’t afford not to do it,” he explains. “It’s what leadership is all about.”

John Becknell, Ph.D., is the founding publisher of Best Practices. He is a consultant, co-director of the EMS Leadership Academy and a partner at SafeTech Solutions, LLP.

Produced in partnership with NEMSMA, Paramedic Chief: Best Practices for the Progressive EMS Leader provides the latest research and most relevant leadership advice to EMS managers and executives. From emerging trends to analysis and insight, practical case studies to leadership development advice, Paramedic Chief is packed with useful, valuable ideas you simply can’t get anywhere else.
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