Leisa Bryant: Winning by learning
At a Glance
Administrative Director of Food & Nutrition Services
Harris Health System in Houston
791,000—Inpatient meals served in fiscal year 2016, along with 1.1 million retail meals
Oversees food and nutrition services for a system with three hospitals and 20-plus clinics within Harris Health
- Established new policies and goals for the department from scratch after a contractor exit
- Switched vending services, which resulted in a profit of $250,000 in subsequent 10 months
- Launched new initiatives to improve patient experience, including a birthday treat program and preference tracking for return patients
After working her way up from dietitian to associate director to director in hospitals and health centers on the East Coast, Leisa Bryant set out for a change of scenery in 2013. “I wanted to spread my wings a little more,” she says.
But what Bryant found in at Harris Health in Houston was more upheaval than she had anticipated. Just three months after coming on as director of clinical nutrition services, the position of administrative director of food and nutrition services suddenly opened—and Bryant was asked to serve as interim director.
Now permanently positioned in the role, Bryant makes sure thousands of patients and employees in the Houston area are eating as well as possible. Tasked with rebuilding the program from scratch, she’s been busy—and up to the challenge.
“In a time when we absolutely needed someone to step in, she stepped in very gracefully,” says Chris Okezie, vice president of operations for Harris Health. “[Bryant’s position] has quite a large scope and breadth of responsibility. She is one of the most dedicated, engaged and committed leaders that I have worked with.”
Starting from scratch
Bryant had her work cut out for her, as 10 years of management by an outside contractor had just come to an end. “My team and I, at the time, we had no policies, we had no program. We had no strategy. The department had no vision,” Bryant says. “The contractors left and everything went with them, so I had a clean slate. There was nowhere to go but up.” Leading with a positive mindset was crucial, especially in the beginning. “What kept us really stable, at least for me, was I told everyone: I don’t lose. I win or I learn,” she says. “So during that first year, we didn’t win much, but we learned.”
Her first order of business was to determine a structure. “If you don’t have your policies, you have nothing; we’re just keeping the balls in the air all the time,” Bryant says. The learning curve was steep—not just for her, but with a new culinary partner that provides management across all foodservice facilities. Because about 50% of Harris’ foodservice positions were vacated when the former contract ended, the group brought in temporary staff to bridge the gap until Bryant was ready to recruit permanent hires.
With no formal training procedure in place, Bryant, along with Harris’ culinary partner, drew up an onboarding checklist and training program for new permanent staff. “Every employee gets a minimum of 40 hours of training, of which half is for the job duties itself, buddying with someone else,” Bryant says. “The other half is learning the operation—learning our vision, getting to know where they take their break time, how they get their paycheck, the bus route.”
Bryant’s effort has paid off with lower employee turnover—from about 30% in 2014 and 2015 down to about 14% presently—and better understanding of and compliance with policies and procedures. “[The training is] a culture change in not just how we manage or supervise, but also how we teach our employees—telling them the reason why we do the things we do.”
That relationship with employees goes both ways. “[Bryant] is respected by her staff as well as her peers,” Okezie says. “So not only is she, I think, a really, really smart lady—but most importantly, I think she is very passionate about what she does.”
“Our first year was learning; the second year was building,” Bryant says. Armed with feedback from surveys and focus groups, she and her team looked for opportunities to invest in improving their operations. One major improvement: the introduction of tablet-based software for bedside meal orders. “With [Bryant’s] oversight and knowledge and experience, we have been able to introduce the technology, and as a result, raise our patient satisfaction scores,” says Sarah Lauer, patient services manager at Ben Taub General Hospital. “It’s been very well received by the staff and patients.”
Bryant has always been interested in fresh foods; growing up on her family’s farm in Newfield, Jamaica, “We didn’t purchase vegetables; we didn’t purchase meat,” she says. “We harvested our own.” Feedback from Harris diners indicated they shared Bryant’s interest in healthful options, but those items weren’t selling. To cut back on waste, Bryant began upselling healthy. “For example, as part of a combo meal order, instead of a roll, we will offer a side salad,” she says. As a result of Bryant’s new marketing plan, sales of items such as fruit, nuts, and water increased by as much as 300% as of August 2016.
Even baby steps are a move in a healthy direction. The new cafe has two fryers instead of four, a major step in a city where “they fry everything,” Bryant says. “We’ve started baking more, like for [chicken] wings, something that’s a high-selling item. We are selling the naked [baked] wings instead of a breaded version; it’s a subtle introduction.”
Not just serving, but caring
“I can serve you without knowing you, but I have to know you to care for you.” This motto from a recent staff retreat is a driving force behind training at Harris. It’s the sentiment behind many of Bryant’s recent initiatives, including custom-made treats for patients on their birthdays. “No one wants to celebrate their birthday in a hospital,” Bryant says. “If there’s a birthday in the house, we have our chef along with a dietitian put together an individual birthday cake or cupcake that is just for the patient. It looks like something you would get at a five-star restaurant.”
Bryant also saw an opportunity when it came to serving repeat patients, many of whom are unhappy about being back in the hospital. Dining services tracks these “returning stars.” “Many times, our long-stayers or our return patients ... might not be as excited about their services,” Bryant says. Her team utilizes an ambassador program to track guests’ preferences from the previous stay, and includes special extras like condiments or spices with the meal. “The idea is getting to know our patients,” she says.