Dec 14, 2011

Wearing My IHI Blue Shirt Every Day

I couldn’t look away. I didn’t know what it was or where it came from, but I couldn’t look away. Was it someone’s sandwich wrapper? Perhaps it was a sheet of paper that someone was too lazy to toss? Either way, I had no choice.

I was compelled to pick a piece of dirty, white paper off the Orlando International Airport floor and throw it away.

You might be wondering why. (Or, you might not be very impressed: “Way to go, man. You picked up a piece of paper and threw it away. Do you want a medal?”) But it’s not so much that I picked it up. It’s why I picked it up.

And the reason can be summed up in five words: I’m an IHI Blue Shirt.

If you’ve ever been to an IHI National Forum, you’ve seen us. Flocks of us. We leave Boston’s Logan Airport by the dozens in early December – all of us bright-eyed, curious, and excited. We come home six days later – all of us bleary-eyed, content, and exhausted. The long hours in between are draining and intense. Sore feet, blisters, and sleep deprivation are more the rule than the exception.

Yet after my first experience in the blue polo shirts last week, it’s something I can’t wait to do again.

Let’s back up and define an IHI Blue Shirt. Technically speaking, we’re IHI staff members (mostly from our headquarters in Cambridge, MA), that come down to the National Forum and help make the 5,000-attendee event a success. More specifically, we run registration, check rooms, greet attendees, manage shuttle buses, create signs, maintain the staff office, provide first aid, dispense conference materials, communicate important updates to hotel staff, comprise the human wall during keynote sessions, and perform any other necessary job.

In short, IHI Blue Shirts exist to do one thing: Delight our National Forum attendees. Lost on your way to your session? Right this way, ma’am. Wondering what time the exhibit hall is open? It’s 11 - 2, sir. I hope you enjoy it. Think we can do something better next year? That’s a great idea. Let me share that feedback at tonight’s staff debrief. (And rest assured that we do discuss it!)

But I learned it’s more than just the simple tasks and extra assistance. It’s more than helping attendees wheel their luggage from one end of the hotel to the other. It’s more than walking more than 10 miles every day. It’s more than the 5 a.m. wakeups, countless paper cuts, and long stares at the gorgeous Florida sun (and glistening pools) through large hotel windows.

What is being an IHI Blue Shirt really all about? Simply put, it’s about going out of your way to help others. And the biggest life lesson I took away from my first week wearing an IHI Blue Shirt was that there’s no reason to ever take it off.

Even when the event ended at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, I wanted to help. I wanted to help clean up. I wanted to help people find the hotel lobby. I wanted to pick dirty pieces of paper off airport floors.

And in a moment of clarity (in between the hours of exhaustion), I realized that even though the experience lasts only one week each year, I should always “wear” my IHI Blue Shirt under my clothes. Why wouldn’t I hold doors, greet people with a smile, or point people in the right direction? Why wouldn’t I go out of my way to help others?

Come to think of it, what if we all wore our “Blue Shirts” every day? People would smile more. People would say “thank you” more. People would connect more. And maybe, just maybe, the world would be a better place.

I do, however, know one thing for sure: The floor of the Orlando International Airport would be cleaner.

- Mike Briddon, Managing Editor, IHI Open School