Innovation is one of those things everybody in health care agrees they ought to be doing if only somebody would tell them exactly what it is. Is it discovering a new medication? Is it building a better surgical device? Is it inventing a new digital technology?

It's all those things, of course, and scientists, major industries, entrepreneurs and starry-eyed inventors are always hot on the trail of the next big thing. But for the typical hospital, it's none of that.

"Our innovation is around processes of care, about health care delivery, not about drugs or technology," Lynne Maguire says. "We do get involved in adapting technology, but we're not trying to create it."

Maguire is chief strategy officer at 225-bed Columbus Regional Hospital 50 miles south of Indianapolis, which recently opened an 18,000-square-foot Innovation Center. The goals are substantial: differentiate the organization in the marketplace, boost staff recruitment and retention, improve patient outcomes — and serve as a model for other community hospitals looking to jumpstart their own innovation initiatives. "Organizations that can rapidly improve, rapidly adopt best practices and rapidly innovate are going to have strategic advantages," Maguire says.

The concept of innovation is nothing new at CRH. It's considered a core competency for all leadership and staff, Maguire told me recently. But hospital leaders started rethinking their approach after a 2006 site visit by representatives of the Baldrige National Quality Program, who told them that while CRH was indeed innovative, it didn't have a systematic approach to innovation. Hospital leaders began to research organizations inside and outside of health care that had embraced innovation.

"That led us to understand that when you put people in close proximity to one another, they are more likely to influence each other's work and more likely to be creative," Maguire says. Through a Regional Education Coalition, CRH got a grant to create a simulation center. Though simulation centers are typically focused on education, something CRH was eager to use it for, they're also perfect for prototyping processes, which meshes with the organization's approach to innovation.

However, one major roadblock stood in the way of creating a true Innovation Center at CRH: There was no place to put it.

And then something awful happened.

On June 7, 2008, a flood of historic proportions severely damaged the hospital; patients had to be evacuated and several critical functions including the lab, pharmacy and information systems had to be relocated from the basement. After a yeoman's effort at rebuilding, CRH reopened less than five months later.

With the basement now vacated, "a lightbulb went off," Maguire says. "We had an opportunity to build this great space that's all about simulation, education, creativity and imagining projects." The center, she says, "is about clear glass walls so people can see what's going on. It's about flexible space so you can work in teams of 4 or 40. It's about white boards everywhere. It's about technology that helps facilitate the process but doesn't get in the way of the process. And it's about a systematic approach to how you do the work. You don't just throw people into a room and say, 'OK, now innovate.' It's about having processes and procedures and toolkits you can use."

It's also about using the talent on hand. "We don't have an innovation department, per se," she stresses. "We are not adding staff. We're using our existing education staff and improvement staff" — like the Lean Six Sigma black belt, clinical nurse specialists and nurse educators — "and equipping them with new tools and new perspectives."

Now that the center's up and running, where will CRH direct its innovation energy? "For us, it's all about process," Maguire says. "It's tied to strategic planning. Where do we need to be three, five years from now, how are we going to get there and how do you use innovation to help along the journey?"

One example: As accountable care becomes a primary focal point for all providers, "we'll do a lot of work on patient transitions — department to department, shift to shift, both within the hospital walls, but more importantly outside our walls, to physicians' offices, patients' homes, nursing facilities."

Maguire proudly acknowledges that Columbus Regional Hospital's Innovation Center is an ambitious undertaking for an organization of its size — and that's partly the point. "We're not an academic medical center, we're a community health system," she says. "That's what we want to demonstrate — to show other community systems how you can do this using existing staff."

Bill Santamour is managing editor of Hospitals & Health Networks magazine.