Today, we bring you the third and final guest in our mini-series of Customer Month Spotlights here on the KaiNexus Continuous Improvement Podcast with our host, Mark Graban. We'll do more of these interviews in the future—let's make every month "customer month".
Our guest for this episode is Eric Mellert, Manager of the Process Improvement Team at Christian Care Ministry.
In 1993, a formalized approach to sharing healthcare burdens began with the Medi-Share program. From small beginnings, this big idea took root. More than 25 years later, the Medi-Share program serves more than 400,000 members, and more than $2.6 billion dollars in medical bills have been shared and discounted.
In this post, you'll find:
- Streaming audio podcast player
- Topics and questions list
- Video player
- Full transcript
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Topics and questions:
- Tell us a little bit about Christian Care Ministry and Medi-Share
- How did you get introduced to Process Improvement?
- Why do you not like the word "expert"?
- What’s your approach to PI there… how do you train people, how do you conduct improvement work?
- What were some of the challenges created by Covid times, including a fully-remote workforce?
- When did KaiNexus become part of the equation and how have we helped?
- How are you taking PI “from the few to the many”?
Watch the video:
Mark Graban: Hi, welcome to the "KaiNexus Continuous Improvement Podcast." I'm Mark Graban, a senior advisor with KaiNexus. We're joined today with one of our customers. It is customer month, hence we're having these great conversations. We're joined today by Eric Mellert from Christian Care Ministry. Eric, how are you?
Eric Mellert: Hello, Mark, it's great to be with you today.
Mark: I'm glad you could be here. Eric is the manager of their process improvement team, and for a deeper introduction, Eric, I'm going to turn it to you, if you can talk about Christian Care Ministry and what you do, it's an interesting organization.
Eric: I'd love to. Just to give you a little bit of history of who we are, we've been in existence since 1993. Christian Care Ministry is actually the parent organization for our most common product called Medi-Share.
Medi-Share is essentially an innovative healthcare sharing solution that helps Christians share in each other's medical needs. We have been doing this, as I've said, since 1993 and we've been blessed to now have a membership of over 400,000 members nationwide.
As an organization, we come alongside them. We build a community of like-minded people who want to help one another with their medical needs, medical costs, and things along that part of a medical side of billing.
In so, we help them process their medical bills. We've been able to now, on an ongoing basis, process more than $50 million in medical bills every month for our membership. Since we've began, over $4 billion has been shared or discounted through the Medi-Share family.
It's incredible to be part of this organization, to watch it grow. I've been with the organization for a little over 10 years now and have seen it grow substantially over that time period. Our membership continues to grow and we continue to find new ways to serve our membership and the community as a whole. It's been a blessing to be part of it.
Mark: We'll get to hear more of your experiences there. I'll put a link to the show notes if people want to learn more about Medi-Share, and maybe quick follow-up question. It's not health insurance. It's not insurance, it's a different way of addressing medical costs.
Eric: It's actually considered a health sharing ministry. It's exactly what you just said. It's not health insurance, but it is another way for the body of Christians to come together and help one another in their time of need when it comes to medical costs. We do differentiate in that it's not insurance, but it's a community that does this together.
As I said earlier, we continue to grow and build this out. Over the last six years, we've seen exponential growth with the Affordable Care Act and different things that have come into play, and how we could help serve. Now, the nations are just sharing ministry, sharing network in the country.
Mark: I'm sure that that exponential growth creates need and opportunity for process improvement. Before we talk about what...Maybe this will just all flow together. I was going to ask, Eric, how did you personally get introduced to process improvement? Maybe that lines up with how Christian Care Ministry did as well.
Eric: It actually does. It's pretty interesting. I have been, my entire life, a problem solver. I have always been a person that people come to and say, "Hey, how can we do this better?" Even better yet, I just tend to look at things and always think, "There's got to be a better way to do this."
One of my favorite things is when someone would challenge me and say, "We've been doing it this way for a long time. There's no better way." I would always be like, "I bet you there is. I can figure something out."
My journey to process improvement officially was part of being part of this ministry here, Christian Care Ministry. As we were growing, we had a need to build more processes and to make them go from serving a smaller membership a whole lot less employees to doubling and tripling our employee size and membership every year for over a few years. It did make it quite difficult.
About six years ago, I was working here at the ministry doing something completely different. They pushed me about a new team that was being started specifically focusing on process improvement. As part of that, I'm like, "You got my interest. I'd like to make things better."
I came on. They hired myself and one other person to be in this role. The other person was already Lean Six Sigma Black Belt who trained and was certifying other belts through Lean Six Sigma. He brought me on under his wing.
As I started my path of learning about what process improvement is and, at the time, studying for my Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, what was wild is I'm sitting there in the class learning the methodologies of Lean Six Sigma, all kinds of different ways of looking at process improvement, [laughs] the whole time, I'm sitting there going, "That's what I was already doing, but there's a methodology to it. I never knew that this existed as a clear path and a career even."
It just became even that much more exciting to find out something that was naturally part of who I am started to come out and to see that there's a path that I could take. I could use this in a business organization to be able to make things better and to take this as a career path.
Never in my life would I have imagined that this is the path I would have taken or been able to be a "expert" in where I'm at in process improvement. It's been pretty wild. It's been an exciting journey to take me through that process, and then also in the same methodology, to take the business here through a process of learning what it is to be continuous process improvers.
Mark: We share the belief that everybody can participate in continuous improvement, everybody should. There's a group of people who are just wired, is what I call, intuitive continuous improvement thinkers who really gravitate to it, who don't need any prompting to do this type of thing. Your story is very similar to that of our KaiNexus CEO, Dr. Greg Jacobson.
As a doctor, as a resident, he was wired that same way. Somebody, I think his department chair, gave him a copy of Masaaki Imai's book, "Kaizen." Like you said, Greg said, "Oh, there's terminology, and methodology, and frameworks," to describe the way you both think. It's great to hear.
Eric: What's wild about that is you always think that you're unique, and find out that I'm unique. There's a whole world of people out there that think like I do and go down that path. It's definitely been an exciting journey all the way through.
Mark: One follow-up question, you said "expert." What's some of your hesitation to use the word expert?
Eric: The biggest thing with process improvement, as I'm sure you're very aware and hopefully many of the people who are watching or listening to this also, is process improvement, like so many industries or so many ways of doing things, is always evolving. There's always something to learn.
I am never, in my own mind, do I look at myself as an expert. People here look up to me as being a leader in process improvement. I enjoy teaching in process improvement. I enjoy mentoring. I actually manage a small team of process improvement analysts here at the business.
The word expert is the word that I don't like, because we always constantly keep learning. To be an expert of something, in my mind, says, "You've reached the pinnacle. You know all there is to know about it." I'm always constantly learning, and I want to continue to do that. Part of who I am is to be always learning.
Mark: I'm with you. I thought that was going to be [laughs] the answer to the question, knowing a little bit about you and your background and your experiences. That humility to recognize...Yeah, you can feel good that you're helping others. Clearly, you have something to contribute to helping others.
Representing that is helpful when it comes to working with others and bringing them along in improvement. To me, expert implies that you're going to come in and have all the answers instead of coming in and engaging others. That ties into, I was going to ask if you can share, what is your approach to process improvement? How do you, at a high level, go about this within your organization?
Eric: You nailed it right there. If you are an expert, you come in with all the answers. What we try to do here is help people understand is we don't have all the answers. We have a methodology, we have tools in our toolbox, we have things that we can assist with, but we know that the people who are doing this process day in and day out, they're the experts.
They're the ones who know what's going on, and they're extremely intimate. It's like some of those old TV shows that you...I'll avoid giving the name of it necessarily. When someone's working on a car and they are really intimate with that car, that car can make a little noise and they know exactly what's going on because they're driving it all the time.
The same way when we work with people around the business, they're the experts. We are just the ones who come in and say, "Hey, we can lead you through this path to figure out how to make your process better." Our approach here has morphed over the years.
Again, we started the official process improvement methodology and approach in the last six years. We've been building it and changing it. We've had some changes in leadership. We've had some different ways of looking at things, but the system has always been getting others to understand how they can make their systems better and how we can help walk them through it.
We used to start off with focusing a lot of time...a lot of people getting full certifications and things along those lines. That's not bad. That's needed. You need to have those people who have the extra level of education and know-how, but what we started focusing on more and more here at the business is how do we make sure that more people can be involved in process improvement.
It becomes that culture of process improvement rather than...I'm sure you're very aware of this. You've seen it happen in business places where they do process improvement. That's one of the things that I have fought against for the last four, five years I've led this team, is that concept of, "Well, they're the process improvement people."
No, we're just facilitators. We are just the ones who lead it and getting that knowledge out, and trying to get people at all levels involved with everything from...not just come in with the ideas, but being part of the solution as well. That culture is what will change a workplace and will take you from the level of just doing process improvement to truly being continuous process improvement.
That's what we're trying to build here. KaiNexus has been a huge addition to our toolbox and has taken us a long ways towards that aim of what we can do in process improvement here.
Mark: There's similar goal...Going back to Greg Jacobson and Masaaki Imai's book, "Kaizen." Masaaki Imai says kaizen is everybody, everywhere, every day doing some improvement. We love when our customers share that vision and when they're working toward it.
What you said about shifting from being a doer to a helper is very similar to what we heard recent episode with Mary Huck and Lynn Howell from Memorial Health System in Ohio. They talked about a very similar evolution and their role as process improvement people.
That's a healthy evolution of coming in and being a facilitator instead of coming in and doing it for them. It doesn't work for so many reasons to come in and try to do it for someone.
Eric: Any time you do it for them, if something doesn't work or something falls back, they can always fall back and say, "That was because of..." When you involve them and they become part of it the whole way through, the ownership means they want to see it succeed even that much more. That's my opinion on that. I believe that's absolutely true.
Mark: I agree. It's the difference between "I'm committed to it and we've hit a roadblock, so I'm going to help figure out how to get past it" versus we hit a roadblock and we say, "Nope. Sorry. Tried it, didn't work." It makes all the difference.
I'll be curious to hear, what were some of the challenges for Christian Care Ministry during COVID times? How did you address that?
Eric: It was definitely something that we weren't expecting. So many of us were thrown off a little bit when COVID first started out and taking us for a loop. We have a large employee base. We have around 700 employees, scattered primarily office in Florida, one in Colorado, and then some remote workers. All of a sudden, we had to go to our entire workforce being remote.
I will say we, living in Florida, have to have a plan and preparation in place for hurricanes. We're familiar with how do we shut down, relocate, and transfer some of our contact center and other services to other locations so that we can keep operational.
To do that with our entire landscape, including our backup site that we have in Colorado where our contact center there to be able to take over, doing all that at one time, it was pretty impressive. Believe it or not, our IT team worked amazingly in transitioning people to remote work. We never had to shut down even for one day.
Our customer base never saw a difference. We actually continued straight on through the whole thing and maintained the service levels that we wanted to keep. A lot of that credit was due to the IT team and their hard work to make sure everyone had what they needed, get things set up, and then the teams here working together to support one another.
We made the transition initially to remote work. That opened in and of itself a whole new world of challenges as we're all very familiar with. We become very familiar with how to do video conferencing, how to do things in a remote setting over that period of time. It's a bit different, especially someone like me who is, I am a trainer, a teacher, and instructor, and how we transition to some of that.
For a little while, we were all like, "This will pass. We'll only be home for a month, two months maybe." [laughs] When it started to get into three months, six months, eight months down the road, we're like, "OK. What do we need to do to adapt and start bringing things to some sort of normality in regards to keeping things going forward?"
We adapted. I adapted my classes to be able to teach them online, how to do those virtually through webinars and things like that. We adapted to how do we projects, how to bring people in and how we can set up things so that there's homework where they can do it in between, and bring that to be a little bit more productive.
The entire business stepped up and figured out how to continue going forward so that both our employees and our membership never saw a gap. Just really proud of the work that has been done. It's been an adventure.
We're just now starting to bring some employees back to the office and try to see how we can continue to move forward, but we definitely learned a lot of lessons. Talk about process improvement. There were a lot of lessons to be learned through this time.
In some ways, we figured out that certain things that maybe were a little more difficult, but we figured out new ways of doing things that are a whole lot more efficient in many areas, and we'll benefit from those going forward. Our membership will continue benefiting from that as well.
Mark: That's great. I'd love to hear more. I'm sure this is part of the pandemic story. When did KaiNexus become part of the equation for you there? How has the software and the approach and the people helped in the important work that you're doing, the important improvement work on top of it?
Eric: We initially found out about KaiNexus little more than two years ago. It wasn't we were researching for it or necessarily looking for it. Honestly, I didn't even have an idea to go looking for something like KaiNexus.
We were trying to look at ways of how we might able to do some new reporting to our executive level. One of our executives found a blog article that someone at KaiNexus had written and sent it onto myself and my director, and said, "Hey, take a look at this. You might be able to glean some ideas."
I was reading through the article. It was well-written and it really spoke my language. It was speaking to who we are and what we do. I started thinking, "If they're writing blogs like this, let me find out more about who they are."
I did exactly what I guess the blog was probably there to do. I clicked the link and I started looking into it. I started getting really excited about the possibility of what KaiNexus could do. Over the years, we have tried to find other avenues of how do we vacuum in our process improvement? How do we keep things together, organized, and everything else?
We've had product managers here for a long time. They've had various software that we've tried to fit our process improvement process into a project management system.
It was OK, but it never fit. When I started looking into KaiNexus and finding out that, they basically saw the same problems that we did. They started designing a system for process improvement. I started getting very excited, and my team started getting very excited.
We got to go -- Man, it was two years ago now -- to the KaiNexus conference, and see what it's about, talk to some of the customers. I actually got a chance to sit down with multiple KaiNexus team members and talked to them about what's it like and connected with the culture, the family as it were.
Not only the employees, but how they reached out to their customers, and took care of them. It took off. Just to be honest, we were sold. We knew that this is someone we wanted to partner with, and we wanted to move forward with.
Before COVID all started, we had about a year in KaiNexus that we were starting to set it up learn about it to build it, working with representatives. I'm sure by now that the people at KaiNexus have gotten tired of all the questions I keep throwing their way.
Mark: They don't get tired of it. Trust me. It's good. It's fine.
Eric: It's been awesome being able to work with them and to ask those questions, to get answers, to see how they're developing and be part of the KaiNexus story. Not just a customer. A part of their story.
As we had to adapt, as we had to then take and go, how do we better take in ideas, how do we better push these out to where they need to be looked at, and then to work these projects. On top of that, as every business knows, there's no cookie-cutter methodology to what your business wants to do with the data, how they want to see things.
We started throwing in customizations, working with the KaiNexus team and gathering information from them and what we could potentially do, as well as working with our executive level and saying, "OK, here's what we want to see." The relationship has been amazing.
Being able to work with them and adapt what we're doing, and not only adapt in what we're doing here internally, but now use the KaiNexus system to take it so it's so much easier for the person doing it to absorb and to walk through the steps and to see it in one location.
That's something that we were missing greatly before we found KaiNexus was...There was process improvement going on, but it was a project happening over here, a project happening over there. Everyone was in their own Excel spreadsheets. There was no centralized system, and we were tracking everything.
If we were trying to, it was done by a few of us trying to push it into this project management system. KaiNexus now has opened up the ability to many employees to be in the system, to be adding things, and to be tracking them. We can see it in one big picture.
It's been outstanding. The growth that we've had over the last year, especially the last six months with how we've developed and what we're using and the ability to get more people involved, has been exponential. A lot of that is in part to the aid that we've gotten from KaiNexus, the system, and the people.
Mark: We like saying that signing up to be a customer and partnering with KaiNexus, it's not just software. It's a team of people who help you get up and running and support you through that entire journey.
They don't get tired of the questions. We love it when customers reach out for help. That's why we're here.
Eric: Even early on, we say, "Hey, what about this? Can we do this?" We know some of it has gone into tickets.
We've been with KaiNexus long enough now that we get excited when we get the email that says, "Hey, that idea that you are part of because it's part of the KaiNexus family -- it's us, other customers, and the KaiNexus people -- is now going live next month. Just wanted to let you know."
It sounds so small, but that gets us excited because it shows that KaiNexus is listening to its customers.
Mark: We love when our customers connect with each other, whether it's the user conference that we host. We've been calling it KaiNexicon the last couple of years. People don't dress up like it's Comic-Con or something. It's just we use that name. That would be fun.
Eric: It'd be a whole new twist, that's for sure.
Mark: It would be. Anyway, sorry to get sidetracked on that. Connecting with other customers, you find people who have similar drive and passion for this work, people who are taking a similar approach to trying to spread this approach through their organization.
Another thing I wanted to ask you, you've touched on this, but I love when we talked before the recording. You used a phrase that stood out to me, taking process improvement from the few to the many. We love supporting that. I was wondering what else you would share about that phrase and that goal, and what that means to you and Christian Care Ministry.
Eric: As I mentioned earlier in talking about changing the culture and getting more people involved, I challenged the team this year as a slogan that we're focusing everything around that we're doing is taking continuous process improvement from the few.
Meaning those few people who are certified, those few people who have the extra level of education and training, and focusing them to do the work. Taking it to the many. Meaning as many employees as we possibly can being involved in the process.
To do that, we've had to take a look at how we do process improvement and step out of the box a little bit as far as the strict methodology and knowing that you have to have this set of knowledge and this set of tools, you have to follow them exactly this way every time.
There's a place and a purpose for that. There's times when we still have projects that require the level of attention that need someone who has that extra level of training and education, but there's so much that can be done when you get more people involved.
I remember from a previous webinar that KaiNexus hosted where they talked about the improvement pyramid. When you have your Black Belts and your Green Belts, there's only so much you can do with them. When you take that and you start breaking it down to a wider population and getting more people involved, the exponential effect that occurs is outstanding.
You may have someone in the larger group who has that next $10-million idea. Would you rather have one 10-million idea or 100 one-million ideas? That's what we're looking at. When we're talking about doing it to the many, their improvements could be the next big thing, or they could be the next thing that just makes life a little bit better for their fellow employees or for our membership.
You start adding that up, like I said, it's not just adding one to another, it becomes exponential. Not only are your improvements getting that much better and you're doing more, but the excitement starts to get there and people start looking at it and saying, "Hey," challenging one another, which ones did you work on? What did you submit?
We're turning that corner from the few, the certified ones and the people who we say those are our process improvement specialists in those teams and whatnot, to trying to get as many people involved every day. Even if it's a small improvement on a daily or weekly basis, those start to add up.
They add up for not only the value financially, but they add up for the value of what it brings to the business and the organization that get you to that process improvement culture that we all want to see happen so that we're all thinking about it. It just becomes part of nature of who we are and what we're doing.
That's where that came from. The few to the many was all about taking it out of the specialized and getting away from what we talked about earlier where they're the ones who do process improvement, and getting it to we do process improvement and we're all working to make things better.
Mark: That's beautifully said. That's a great thought. I don't know how we top that. That was just brilliant, the way you said that. Maybe we'll just go ahead and close the podcast on that high note.
Our guest, again, today has been Eric Mellert. He's a manager of the process improvement team at Christian Care Ministry. As we've learned, the process improvement team, that, in a way, is the many.
Eric: Yes. Absolutely.
Mark: Everybody in the organization. That takes leadership, that takes training and coaching and support and helping and facilitating, whatever words you would use. Eric, thank you for doing all of that and thank you for being a KaiNexus customer. Really appreciate you sharing some of your story and what you're doing here with us today.
Eric: It's been great. We look forward to what the relationship with KaiNexus continues to grow into and the great things that we both get to achieve at both KaiNexus and at Christian Care Ministry.
Mark: We'll look forward to seeing you next year in person at KaiNexicon 2022.
Eric: Yeah, I can't wait. Thanks, Mark. Appreciate it.
Mark: Thanks for listening. To learn more about KaiNexus, the company, our software, and our team, you can go to www.kainexus.com. That's K-A-I-N-E-X-U-S.com.