By Kruse Scholar Spencer Cahoon
Frequently I get asked the question, “So what does being a Kruse Scholar actually mean?” This is a valid question, since there are twenty-three students either currently engaged in the scholarship experience or who have participated prior to their graduation. I had the privilege of joining the Kruse Scholars exactly one year ago. After an amazing twelve months of growth and learning, I would like to provide some insight into the above question with a brief description of a year in the life a Kruse Scholar and what I have learned.
Our first meeting with Mr. Lowell Kruse helped me catch the vision of the Kruse Scholar program. Unlike other scholarships that are simply received and followed by a thank you letter to the donor, the Kruse Scholarship is a lifelong commitment to promoting and shaping community excellence. Crucial to this foundation is learning the Baldrige Principles of Performance Excellence, and so last February the Kruse Scholars attended the Performance Excellence Network Baldrige 101 and 102 courses. During a full day of learning the Baldrige Framework, including walking through each section and engaging in small group discussion, we were introduced to the vital principles that direct an organization toward excellence. Having worked as a registered nurse, I was particularly impressed with the Framework’s section around workforce. Employees must become more than satisfied- they must become truly engaged, meaning they feel like they belong and they want to make the organization better. This principle resonates with how I view Communities of Excellence in that community leaders and members must also feel a deeply rooted level of engagement in order for their community to thrive.
Later in the spring, the Kruse Scholars had the privilege of attending the PENworks 2016: Advancing Organizational Excellence conference. It was at this two-day event that we got to hear from actual Baldrige winners and learn how they applied the Framework to their respective organizations. I was particularly interested in the speakers from Mid-America Transplant, an organ transplant company that developed a unique process improvement design. Instead of recovering organs from donors at the hospital, the organization began transferring donors to their own organ recovery facilities. This allowed Mid-America to dramatically increase the number of viable organs harvested while also decreasing costs. Something else that resonated with me was this organization’s perseverance in their Baldrige journey, which started in 2003 and included eight Baldrige applications and five site visits before they received the award. The principles of innovation and perseverance in Mid-America’s story illustrated to me how communities must exercise patience and creativity when embarking on the Communities of Excellence journey.
During this past summer, I completed an administrative residency program with the Benedictine Health System and led a system wide initiative around process improvement and patient experience regarding Advance Care Planning. I learned a ton while using this opportunity to test out Baldrige principles I learned in the spring. Then, this past fall the Kruse Scholars organized our own monthly meetings to dive deeper into the Framework and explore specific areas of interest. For example, our first meeting was a conference call with Dr. JoAnn Sternke, Superintendent of the Pewaukee School District. During this profound conversation, we asked Dr. Sternke about the challenges, lessons learned, and rewards of her own organization’s Baldrige journey. Our next meeting was with Ms. Jeanette Raymond of the Minnesota Department of Health. She helped us understand what it looks like to bring a coalition of 34 members representing diverse organizations together to improve social determinants of health. Elements of this initiative are very reflective of how Communities of Excellence might look. Finally, we focused our last meeting on a hands-on experience of answering the Baldrige “Organization Profile” questions as a group, using the University of Minnesota School of Public Health as our organization. The specificity of this process was more difficult than we anticipated. It gave me an appreciation for this first step in the Baldrige Framework that lays the foundation for all other Baldrige sections.
My first year as a Kruse Scholar exposed me to the principles of Baldrige and helped me catch the vision of how this translates into Communities of Excellence. So, what comes next? Although my University of Minnesota academic experience will end with my graduation in May, I believe this is only the beginning of my involvement in and support of Communities of Excellence 2026. As a Kruse Scholar, I am a proud ambassador for this important work. My role is to take what I am learning and share it with others, help people understand the urgency for Communities of Excellence, and implement the Baldrige principles of excellence in the organizations and communities of which I am a part. I love my role as a Kruse Scholar, and I am excited to see where I can contribute in the coming future!
Read more about Spencer Cahoon here