Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy was to spend five minutes with the average voter. That may be true in politics but not necessarily in the workplace. Like any organization, credit unions aren’t true democracies because the opinions of leadership will always carry more weight. Still, when devising new policies, smart leaders don’t make decisions in a vacuum; instead, they solicit ideas from the people who will implement those policies every day.
At Washington State Employees Credit Union ($2.01B, Olympia, WA), the issues that desperately needed employee input were often thorny problems that never seemed to get resolved. Denise Hagen, WSECU’s vice president of people and culture services, calls those problems “organizational dragons,” and every institution has them.
“They are the things that keep rearing their heads and nobody can ever slay them,” she says. But we didn’t want management just dictating policy and then everyone saying, “What? No one even talked to us.”
So that staff members could help kill off those dragons, WSECU and an outside consultant created a program that attacks problems with teams of solution-oriented employees from all levels and various departments. The Bi3 program, or breakthrough as it is also called, began in 2006 and especially seeks employee input about revisions to policies or processes that cross department lines. The three i’s in the program’s name stand for ideas, innovation, and implementation.
Organizing A Team
In the past eight years, the program has solicited ideas from the staff about all sorts of processes that needed improving, including corporate VISA card payments, mortgage loan closures, and employee onboarding. Even the branded clothing employees wear needed the program’s special attention.
Every problem that the program addresses has a sponsor, a senior level executive or vice president, who selects eight to 10 employees to serve on the team tasked with finding a solution. The team, which has up to 10 weeks to resolve the issue, generally includes representatives from a branch and IT as well as employees with relevant expertise from other departments.
“Everybody that is in that room has a vested interest but also a different perspective too,” Hagen says.
To keep team members with opposing views from butting heads, WSECU relies on both the sponsor and a facilitator, an employee from a different level of the organization who keeps the team focused on finding a solution. The credit union has several employees designated as facilitators who have had special training for the job. In addition, the sponsor selects a team leader who keeps track of the team’s progress, ensuring that individual members follow through on an assignment and that everyone remains motivated.
The team members’ most important job occurs the first time they convene: launch day. That’s when the problem first comes before the team, which spends nearly a full day dissecting the matter.
The team sets up a fishbone diagram to pick apart the current process and identify what Hagen calls “the pain points” or places where problems occur. Then the team determines which problems are manageable and which aren’t.
“It’s not about tackling the entire issue,” Hagen says. “That’s why things bog down and never move forward.”
After analyzing the problem, the team establishes a desired outcome or goal to strive for — one that is both realistic and worthy of their time. Ideally, the team settles on a goal before breaking for lunch. It’s a really intense process so it helps to build in some downtime, Hagen says.
After the break, team members create a timeline and a work plan identifying the lines of communication as well as any operational or technological changes that are essential for the process to improve. The team pitches its plan for improving the process to the sponsor who may ask questions, request changes, and ultimately approves the course of action.
Hagen says that in the eight years WSECU has used the Bi3 program, sponsors have always approved a pitch, which is proof that the team understood the problem, asked all the right questions, and framed a viable solution.
Successful Dragon Slayers
For the most part, solutions are what WSECU has gotten. Hagen estimates that 80% of Bi3 projects succeed, although some processes may eventually need updating as technologies and trends change.
One reason Hagen cites for the program’s high success rate is that every team includes front-line employees who really know the process that needs improving. As a result, those front-line employees are motivated to solve a problem they live with every day, and because those same employees know they will need the approval of other team members from different departments, everyone has a reason to cooperate.
Sometimes, though, the process that needs improving is one that every staff member can relate to: employee onboarding. Under the old system the credit union had in place, the hiring manager notified various departments two weeks before an employee’s start date so that computer, email, phone, and passwords, as well as building and system access, were set up and ready for the new hire’s first day. In many cases, Hagen says, that wasn’t happening because of too many moving pieces and too many parties involved. New employees would have some of the things they needed on their first day but not everything.
The problem was put before a Bi3 program team, which streamlined the process. Now, within a day of the candidate accepting the position, the hiring manager notifies the IT help desk, which is responsible for coordinating everything for the new employee. Hagen credits the new process with being 90% successful at helping new employees hit the ground running on their first day
Ultimately, the Bi3 program is a simple, effective model, Hagen says. And the proof is all those organizational dragons that WSECU has finally put to rest.