Why can't Pittsburgh be perfect?

Local leaders should pick a couple of big problems and solve them.

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Reading the newspaper in Pittsburgh this past year has been like watching a dark version of Groundhog Day.

Incident after incident on Penn Avenue has killed and injured bicyclists and motorists alike. Anyone who drives this road could predict these events -- the road produces exactly the amount of harm it is designed to produce and it will not produce less until it is redesigned.

Flooding on Washington Boulevard occurred several times before finally killing four people last year. These events highlight in the most stark way possible a fact that shows up in more subtle ways every day -- Pittsburgh's leaders have not set us on a path to learn from and eliminate our most serious challenges.

Now, imagine a city that gradually learns to avoid and correct every cause of harm. Every vehicle accident. Every fire. Every worker injury. Every medical error.

How about one where we learn to teach every single child to become proficient in all necessary life skills? Where every person has meaningful work that is environmentally sustainable because human activities absorb more carbon dioxide and other pollutants than they emit?

Who wouldn't want to live in a place like this? A place that so outperforms its "benchmarks" that it attracts and retains jobs, builds the world's best infrastructure and generates buzz not through marketing, but through accomplishment.

If such a continually learning, correcting, improving city is hard to imagine, it might serve us to consider examples at a smaller scale -- a single company or organization.

Around the world, there are organizations with leaders who help the hundreds of thousands of people they touch achieve equally "impossible" futures by aiming for perfect and by making it safe to surface and solve problems.

Toyota, despite its recent failures, still produces more reliable, safe and value-laden cars than anyone else by a substantial margin because it set a goal of zero defects. Workers at Alcoa are 40 times safer than their peers in the industry where I work, health care, because Alcoa set a goal of zero workplace accidents. The U.S. Nuclear Submarine Corps has not had one fatality related to its reactor operations since its inception. Southwest Airlines uses the same principles to dominate its industry.

Pittsburgh used these ideas to launch the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative in the late 1990s, proving that solving problems in real time and using the best known system designs could make more than 50-percent improvements each year toward perfect patient safety while reducing costs substantially. This was the largest scale regional test of these ideas, proving that rapid progress toward perfect results is possible.

But PRHI's other legacy was equally informative -- substantial resistance from many regional leaders. Leaders of health systems, insurers and political jurisdictions pushed back, often lacking the courage and conviction to aim for perfect, even when thousands of people's lives were at stake.

It was easier to lead in the way they always had than to aim for excellence. Many would not empower front line workers to change their work habits when they encountered problems, opting instead to issue rules and edicts from above. Most refused to be transparent about errors, instead hiding them and claiming unsubstantiated greatness.

To overcome these barriers to regional excellence, a group of us at the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project formed PUMP Futures. We engaged our committee, board and members to answer a challenging question: If we were to aim for perfection at just one goal to make Pittsburgh the best place in the world to live, what would it be?

In the end the group came up with six nominees, selected for their potential to have the most impact by influencing many other aspects of community life:

• 100 percent student proficiency

• Zero safety incidents

• Zero net CO2 emissions

• 100 percent voter participation

• Zero poverty

• Zero obesity

Despite the value of aiming for any one of these as a unifying purpose, or picking a different set of aims, not one political leader has yet adopted a goal of this kind. Achieving any one of these would put us well on the path to regional excellence. Making substantial progress on two or three would truly be a vision for regional transformation.

We know this involves hard work and would be a departure from traditional leadership. But we also know that leaders cast a long shadow, and without a leader who will step up to take this kind of risk, Pittsburgh will not maintain and build on the momentum that has us emerging as a top-tier American city.

To become the best city in the world to live, work and play, our two most valuable assets -- our people and our physical environment/natural resources -- need to be carefully developed. We should not compromise on this vision as we work to create a coalition and an environment that generates new and re-invigorated leaders of rare courage and vision, leaders capable of leading transformational improvement in the region.

This brings me back to the beginning. If every citizen can be safe and educated, we will amaze ourselves with the community we can become. If we create meaningful and sustainable work for people while aiming for zero waste, Pittsburgh will become the urban envy of the world. But if no one demands these achievements of our community so we can reach to be better each day than the last, we will not learn to become the community we are capable of being.

Vision is not nearly enough. Our political leaders also need to learn proven methods for achieving a vision from the most successful organizations in the world. But, as Michelangelo said, "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark."

As citizens we must demand leaders who avoid this self-limiting danger by supporting those who help us aim high and then empower people to achieve those aims.


D. Geoffrey Webster is managing director of Value Capture LLC, a consulting firm that works with the health care industry to improve safety and performance, chair of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project's PUMP Futures committee and chair of the PAC for Pittsburgh's Future (geoffwebster@comcast.net).


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