Find It, Fix It, Own It

A new take on innovation puts employees in control of everything from fixing glitches to building branches.


Whether they’re too complex to tackle, or too minute to get noticed, every institution has a wish list of improvements and pet projects that never get done.

Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($1.5B, St. Paul, MN) has tackled this issue head on by creating Make A Change For The Better. The program requires individuals, supported by teams of multi-departmental peers, to uncover and spearhead changes or initiatives that improve some aspect of the credit union, whether member facing, online or back office.

The program builds on the co-op's unique style of operational organization called Synergy. Synergy takes the eight to nine silo operational groups that exist at a credit union and integrates them to the point that individuals from the departments don’t even sit together, keeping communication effective and democratic across the institution. Make a Change helps further shake up top-down organization structure and gives the employees themselves a say in the company’s future.

“We’ve always been an open institution,” says Tasha Dahl, Synergy leader. “But in the past, employees would submit ideas, then a small group would determine if we would do anything with them.”

Some ideas made it through the gamut, like an employee-recommended program called Stash Your Cash, which rounds purchases up to the next dollar and puts the change in the member’s savings account. Yet employees submitting ideas were never involved with long-term vision or execution.

“Employees should have ownership in everything that they do, but there wasn’t really any,” Dahl says.  “Employees would submit it, then say, ‘I did my part and passed it on to the right person.’”

And then there were the ever-present practice of idea-killers.  “We’d say ‘Someone already tried that and it didn’t work,' or ‘Someone else is already working on that,’ or ideas would just fizzle away,” she says.

If improvements were everyone’s job, it was no one’s problem. Now, identifying problems and individually tackling them to their resolution through Make a Change is part of the job description for all 350 employees.

“Even the executive team has their own Make A Change group, and they have the same responsibilities,” Dahl says. “So were not losing their ideas.”

Ideas are presented and tracked in groups and are vetted by a group moderator, usually supervisor status or higher. Bigger projects may require the consultation and guidance of a member of the executive team like the CFO, but there is no limit in terms of time or financial commitment in what employees can undertake.

“It’s a question of what possible, not what’s likely,” says Dahl. “If it’s possible, we’re not going to squash it.”

Once the group has helped the individual hash out their idea, that employee becomes a project manager. They’ll find a team to help them execute and work with those employees to create timeline. They’re also responsible for keeping the project on track, communicating the change to the entire organization, and measuring post-change impact three months later.

“There’s no expected timeframe from projects,” says Dahl. “If you have a lot going on one week, you may only have five minutes, but the expectation is that every single week you have to spend time on it and provide updates at every single meeting.”

In the short time the program has been around, it has yielded some impressive results. One employee’s project consists of opening up a branch for Affinity Plus in a completely new city. She scouted more than 50 potential locations, met with two commercial real estate brokers, got information on branch expanses at other locations to create financial analysis, and even drafted a long term plan for construction of a second level to host a call center.

“She’s a member advisor, so she knows what members want in a branch,” says Dahl. “While she partnered with someone on the senior team for guidance, she actually spearheaded everything herself.” Affinity Plus expects to open the branch within the next six months.

“Problem solving is another form of change or innovation,” says Dahl. For instance, the credit union had an ongoing glitch that caused incorrect birthday dates for members. “It had been happening for a while and employees noticed it but assumed it was somebody else’s area.” Because of Make a Change, the issue was finally owned and resolved.

It’s not just good for the credit union, it’s good for the employees as well. “We do employee engagement surveys every year and while the program was just rolled out this year, we expect our scores to go continue to go up in many areas,” Dahl says.

“We’ve also identified employees who normally we wouldn’t have thought of before, as far as being able to lead and take ownership because of this program.”




Nov. 7, 2011


  • I love that this bubble-up approach to process improvement is alive and well at least at Affinity Plus. We at Filene published research last year about Employee Voice at credit unions and found that there's little statistical correlation between the quality of an idea and a person's role at the organization ... so credit unions that walk the talk of putting ideas from all levels to the test, make me pretty happy.
    Ben Rogers
  • I thought the article was great and the process employed very well thought through. In particular , I appreciated the respect that forms the basis of the program given that any employee's idea will be considered but what made it a real positive for me was the inclusion/ requirement of that employee in researching, executing and measuring the uplift. Truly an excellent way to build our future leaders.

    I would have also liked to see ...perhaps a second article...a financial analysis relating to the end result of some of these projects....that would have made the examples more powerful
    Mike Mastro
  • Love this article. One concern...not all ideas are feasible or realistic. How does the group maintain control and keep employees and ideas from going crazy?