George Halvorson was chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente from 2002 to 2013. In a recent oral history, he outlined his support for the role of the organization in celebrating and sharing its heritage.
“History is an asset to Kaiser Permanente for a number of reasons. One, it’s a good thing for us to have a sense of who we are and what our values are. I’ve talked about culture a number of times, but when people are making decisions in their day-to-day context, if people have a sense of what the culture is and what the historical legacy is, that helps guide the decisionmaking in positive ways. It’s good for people’s morale to have a sense of being part of an organization that has a history and a culture and a legacy. It gives people a sense of us, to be part of a culture and to be part of a legacy.
“I gave a talk in Washington state a short while ago … I said, ‘Anybody in this room from Kaiser Permanente?’ A couple of people raised their hand. I said, ‘Do you know the story of Sidney Garfield and the nails?’
[This is the anecdote about how Dr. Garfield’s commitment to accident prevention for the workers on the Colorado River Aqueduct Project in the 1930s led him to have staff pull dangerous nails from boards on the site, a preventive routine he carried forward at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington.]
They both said yes. They got it, and I said, ‘I should have you tell the story,’ but I told it. The story is told often enough because it says, ‘Sidney is our founder, Sidney is our giant, Sidney didn’t just look at after-the-fact heart attacks. He looked at how you go upstream.’ The nail story is a good story.
“Another thing that really is positive about the history is because we’re an organization with history, people in important jobs actually will periodically do important things in a good way because they’re thinking of their historical record. I’ve heard many people talk about my role in the history, when the history of Kaiser Permanente is written, I want it to show that I did this.
So, people knowing that we have a history—a legacy and a history—care about what their position’s going to be in that history. I think we benefit from that because I think some people do better, smarter, brighter, more effective things because they’re positioning themselves for their description in the history of Kaiser Permanente. So, I think our history benefits us as an inspiration for doing good things.
“We have a department that provides historical pieces. You could have a staff meeting and use the history of Kaiser Permanente as an example of why we should do a particular thing. The fact that we were the first people to put medical information on punch cards comes up with some regularity, and it’s used as evidence that this is a good trajectory for us to be on, and in fact, it’s one we’ve been on for a long time.
Those stories get told deliberately by people to make their points, to illustrate their points, and they also get told in the internal publications. It’s one of those things that once you read one of those stories, you’re likely to remember it. It’s a paradigm-changing story, to know that we had rooms full of punch cards as we were trying to build the very first generations of medical records, that is a memorable thing and it makes the point that this is a good thing for us to do. It’s the right context for us to be in.”
Excerpted from “George Halvorson: Kaiser Permanente Leader and Health Care Advocate” conducted by Martin Meeker in 2013-2014, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2016.
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