HONOLULU -- It could be said that music is the fabric of life for Kelly Wheeler -- the binding fiber that connects and harmonizes her stories.
Wheeler, Regional Health Command-Pacific's Command Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, credits natural progression for leading her to the process improvement path. "Within medicine and process improvement, there is a desire to be better and to do better ingrained in you," she said explaining the link between music and her work with Army Medicine. "As a musician, you want to be a master craftsman. You have a vision and you practice perfection, always trying to strive for that perfection," she said. "You're not in it for yourself. You're in it for your audience or customer, just like process improvement."
Growing up in North Carolina, Wheeler was compelled to follow music. After graduating from the North Carolina School of the Arts for high school, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York. She then furthered her education at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, Ohio. After attaining her master's degree in music performance for trombone, she received a one-year grant to study abroad through the German Academic Exchange Service, studying and performing in Detmold, Germany.
Falling in love with Germany and hoping to continue living abroad, she explored available options as her time there neared an end. Deciding to enlist in the Army to pay off student loans and experience the world, her trombone mastery earned her a spot with the U.S. Army Europe Band, based, to her delight, in Germany. Performing at many community events, she saw music bridge cultural barriers and provide a common ground between foreign governments and militaries.
"We performed at many welcome home ceremonies, but also had a very diplomatic mission," she said speaking of international concerts at embassies and other locations throughout Europe. "We also played at joint concerts with members of other foreign military bands."
During her military service she began to explore what her next step might be. With music always playing such a large role in her life, she wanted to step outside her comfort zone and try something new. So, she enrolled in an online Master of Business Administration program, which accommodated her travel schedule. She hoped the advanced business degree would open doors to her future.
At the end of her enlistment, not ready to leave Germany or the Army, she hung up her military uniform and switched gears, serving now as an Army civilian management assistant. After a short time, she felt a need to return to North Carolina and be closer to family. Accepting a management analyst position at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center, she continued to dedicate herself both to her work and to her music.
Along the way she and married her husband, Lt. Col. Vernon Wheeler. Her new role as an Army spouse offered yet another perspective of the military's medical system.
Heeding the words of her mentor, Lt. Col. Rolando Castro, who first hired her in Germany, she charged ahead. "He told me, 'You need to go forward in the Army and continue helping the Army Medical Command,'" she said.
Her next step was applying for and being accepted into the two-year Army Baylor Master in Healthcare Administration program in San Antonio, Texas. There Wheeler said she was able to solidify her knowledge of healthcare and healthcare systems while forging important relationships. "We have some of the best of the best that we work with and we find these people throughout our system," she said.
Inspired, Wheeler looked to her next opportunity. This time, the move was to Hawaii where her military spouse was stationed. Here, she first joined the Hawaii Enhanced Multi-Service Market and then moved to the RHC-P team where she teaches, trains and mentors people throughout the region as they begin their own journeys through process improvement. "I've been very fortunate to have command support where process improvement is a priority and gets lots of project support," she said. "It pays dividends to the command."
One such project is a tri-service physical therapy referral management initiative. The team Wheeler facilitated and managed reduced network physical therapy provider costs by more than $1.7 million annually. In 2017, regional process improvement projects for which she taught and mentored Lean, Green Belts, and Black Belt candidates, provided more than $10 million in financial benefit and improved quality, cost, and access throughout the organization.
Wheeler said these accomplishments would not be possible if not for the consistent messaging from commanders. "I and other individuals leading process improvement efforts are very limited without their support," she said. "Commanders have been consistent with messaging on the importance of process improvement as well as in engaging and empowering their staffs."
A safety culture that is seeking high reliability is another thing Wheeler credits for the program's success. "People are being trained to have the competence to work in process improvement, they have support from the top, and are empowered to use skills learned in training. Each student is part of spreading robust process improvement, so that all parts of the organization are involved in achieving strategic objectives and ultimately providing readiness at best value," she said.
The process to obtain Lean Six Sigma certification is very strict. There are a series of objectives that must be met. Wheeler enjoys teaching and mentoring candidates as they progress through the program, complete projects, demonstrate their own competency and then in turn, become teachers to people just beginning the process.
"As we launch the journey of becoming high reliability organizations, I'm most excited about working with our military treatment facilities to be self-sustaining where they can then teach and train their own," she said. "By building local capabilities, we're getting all levels of leadership involved and achieving incremental improvement that happens daily. We're learning what works and what doesn't work with lieutenant colonels to specialists in classes to make the foxhole better."
Wheeler's dedication to Lean Six Sigma has not gone unnoticed. "Her vision, drive and passion for performance improvement have taken Army Medicine in the Pacific from surviving to absolutely thriving," said Brig. Gen. Bertram Providence, RHC-P commanding general. "She is an exemplary values-based leader who has positively influenced and mentored countless health professionals both in and outside the military community."
For these reasons, Providence recently endorsed Wheeler for the American College of Healthcare Executive Federal Excellence in Healthcare Management Award. Wheeler said she was honored to be nominated and humbled to be recognized with such an honor.
Providence praised Wheeler for not just her work as the command master black belt, but for her volunteer efforts as well. In addition to being a very active member of the Hawaii Pacific ACHE Chapter, she is a board member of a local Rotary Club, keeps up her trombone skills as a volunteer with the Hawaii Symphonic Band, and serves in her church music ministry.
While her volunteer time has taken her around the world, one effort close to her heart is a local elementary school her Rotary Club sponsors where 100 percent of students receive free lunches. "When you start traveling around the world, you see most of our problems are first-world problems," she said. "When looking at service projects that impact the local community, we noticed that just on the other side of the fence, there's a community with so much need. We have the ability to connect and show that community on the other side that we support them."
Wheeler said Rotary members accomplish this by teaching and mentoring students, many of whom are migrants, on things not taught in a classroom. Previously they worked with school staff to create, paint and clean up a fun new space. They also spend time with the children playing games and reading with them and are currently raising money for a playground. Soon students will have a scout troop founded by club members.
She was drawn to the organization because of its value of service before self, much like the military and her personal religious values. In addition to local service projects, she and her husband also spend personal vacation time traveling internationally through Rotary International service projects, "just trying to help make the world a better place," said Wheeler.
One trip took them to Myanmar, whose healthcare is ranked among the lowest in the world. Using Rotary connections, they traveled with a team of doctors and nurses to bring health and wellness sustainability.
Recently they spent a week in western China, providing health and wellness education, partnering with local university student translators as part of a larger medical mission. They taught classes on handwashing and teeth brushing using songs.
Wheeler said they found themselves inundated with people there for the healthcare and clinics. As she looked through the crowded space, she found herself applying process improvement principles. As team members examined the situation, she said they found themselves examining the process and asking what could be done better. How could they change the flow? "We used Lean Principles. It could be something as simple as a wristband to mark the time arrived," she said. "Simple things make a huge improvement."
While Wheeler may not be a full-time musician anymore, the fibers that connect her life and tell her stories are intertwined among her music, her love for process improvement and her humanitarian efforts. "I feel so blessed in life and never thought I'd be a trombone player, living in Hawaii and working with people all over the world," she said.