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“A company is only as big as the problems it can handle.” – Unknown

July 16, 2012

By Laurie Clarke, COO, The Tatham Group

If this is true, what is more important than an effective and easy to use way of solving problems?

Nothing.  A problem solving method that can be used at every level of the organization and use the customer/strategic direction of the company as its compass is essential for growth.  It is also something very few companies spend time and money on ensuring is a consistent habit among leaders and employees not just an internal group of consultants.

Which is why it was all the more surprising when the CEO of one of the largest mutual companies in Canada decided to ensure that there wouldn’t be any problem too large for the company to handle.  This meant investing a significant amount of resources into building a new way of thinking about problems and how to solve them.  It is an effort that had paid for itself within the first year and continues to yield returns.  Despite poor economic conditions the company is experiencing growth by building a culture of innovative problem solvers.

The Problem

The board was getting frustrated with slow and arduous change and the rigidity of the organization.  They wanted growth and needed someone who could drive change quickly.  They welcomed a CEO, a 25-year veteran of the insurance industry, who was known for his ability to execute and had a direct and focused style.  This kind of leadership was just what was needed to move performance to the next level.

However the CEO’s pace was not being met by the organization. As a senior leader comments, “There was no sense of urgency or competitiveness and people were still stressed.”  He needed a way to ignite the change in thinking and engage the employees.

Gaining Momentum and Results

The first step was shifting the way his team viewed the organization.  As he puts it, “I knew it was a solid company with lots of great people, but it was very internally focused.”  Having worked with Tatham in previous years, he knew that the Boot Camp experience was what was needed to get everyone focused on the customer and potential within the organization.

Building on Boot Camp’s momentum, the team agreed to redesign two core business processes.  In six short weeks, the ‘Claim’ to Fame team dropped delivery time from eight days to 1.5 days, adjudicators went from processing 51 claims per day to 148 claims per day and the company saw a savings of $2.29 per claim.   Within a few months, a 40% capacity gain resulted from the work on the new business development process for Individual Life. Great results were achieved and the organization started taking notice of a new way of operating and solving problems.

These successes were literally written all over the walls: posters, boards, sticky notes, rooms full of charts and process maps – all evidence of tracking progress and performance and a clear signal that effective and systematic problem solving was there to stay.

Sustaining the Efforts

It was also a sign to the CEO that the company was turning a corner.  During his career he had been part of enough change efforts that started off with just as much gusto only to later lose steam and fizzle.  He had to imbed this way of thinking and executing into the culture.  And the quickest way he knew to do that was to incorporate results from these efforts into the short-term incentive plans for leaders at every level.  After all, he knew that what gets measured, gets done.

The risk paid off as they achieved more than a 30% productivity gain in the nine key processes.  With operational results being capitalized on, it was time to turn focus to the leadership team and the work they do.  He knew that tying their compensation to a common pool wasn’t going to last and decided to tackle the problem head on.  It was time to change how leadership approached problems.

The CEO also knows that to change the culture one must lead the way.  And that means doing the work himself, not just delegating.  For him, this is a way of thinking. “I will stop doing this work when I see improvements stop or slow down.  And I don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future.”

Customer satisfaction has translated into record results for the company.  Both the Individual and Group lines of business continue to break records in sales levels.  The premiums and deposits are growing at a rate of 5%, despite poor economic conditions.

These are results to get excited about.  And the employees now see this type of bottom-line results as the norm versus a project that may end.  They appreciate the investment and belief in their individual contributions.  It’s the shift in culture to being execution focused, empowered, flexible and successful that gets the company rated as a top employer for three years in a row.  In fact, there is an employee fan page or two online.