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A 100-year-old insurance company marries Agile and Lean Six Sigma to plot the path forward

By Aaron P. Mikulsky, SVP - Business Transformation & Operational Excellence, Employers Insurance

Aaron P. Mikulsky, SVP - Business Transformation & Operational Excellence, Employers Insurance

At EMPLOYERS, America’s Small Business Insurance Specialist, we’ve long understood the value of proven problem-solving methodologies like Lean Six Sigma (LSS). To us, LSS represents much more than quality improvement or a customer-centric mindset; its principles are integrated into our leadership development program, data and analytics strategy, and our technology innovations. More recently, our Information Technology (IT) teams adopted an Agile development approach that made us nimbler in the development of products that meet our customers’ needs. Agile and Lean methodologies are woven from the same cloth and share several of the same principles; in many ways Agile is to IT what Lean is to business processes.

In 2015, EMPLOYERS launched a Process Center of Excellence that introduced a formal training and development program to certify LSS Green Belts throughout the company. Many of our best and brightest were trained in Six Sigma problem-solving tools and Lean principles. These cultural change champions were expected to maintain their current roles while assuming added responsibilities regarding process improvements. Over the course of two years, three groups of employees were trained on LSS and the fundamentals in meeting facilitation, project management, and change management. Everyone was mentored by an experienced Master Black Belt. Many successful projects were completed, resulting in both top and bottom-line benefits. Many early adopters were able to showcase process improvement successes, gaining exposure to senior leaders and advancing their careers. LSS at EMPLOYERS is a highly valued and sought-after skillset, proving to be mutually beneficial to both team members and the company.

By 2018, leaders within IT and the Process Center of Excellence realized that the company would likely gain similar benefits from the adoption of an Agile framework within IT development. In the same way that Lean transformed processes to be more customer-centric, efficient, and focused on quality, Agile used an iterative approach to project management and software development to achieve many of the same outcomes. As with any transformation, EMPLOYERS experienced some growing pains, ultimately leading to the formation an Enterprise Optimization team. This cross-functional team was able to take an end-to-end look at the customer value stream, product lifecycles, and strategic initiatives to identify the best way to deliver a premier customer experience to our Agents and Policyholders.

The new, holistic approach of the Enterprise Optimization Team paid dividends when LSS and Agile methodologies were used in tandem on a project involving a new enterprise application for our Policyholders. A cohesive, comprehensive “Blueprint” created a solid foundation for Agile development to thrive by creating a future-state vision, understanding the voice-of-the-customer, defining how success would be measured, and documenting just enough business requirements to begin work. The carefully considered Blueprint also provided the designated Product Owner within the business with a deeper understanding of the outcomes to be delivered and context for ongoing enhancements and improvements. Leveraging this pre-work, the Agile development team was able to more effectively begin their work and start exhibiting progress (in 2-week increments), soliciting feedback, and testing for quality and usability as we progressed versus waiting until at the end. This iterative approach to development delivered value much faster to our customers.

The combined use of Lean Six Sigma and Agile allowed us to improve organizational synergies by breaking down silos and developing a spirit of trust and partnership around organizational goals. Daily engagement and accountability have skyrocketed. It’s becoming the way we think and work internally, well beyond project development. The LSS/Agile approach is enabling us to be more innovative in the solutions we build, maximizing the business value we offer our customers. 

Our processes require us to take a holistic approach, and then to engage the customer for feedback and input throughout the development process, producing more effective solutions and higher customer satisfaction. More than ever, we are emphasizing the customer experience. Our organization has made an enormous transformation in the way our employees interact and approach problem solving, increasing both our quality and speed-to-market.  We’ve been able to adapt to changes in our environment and leverage the energy and wisdom of our employees to improve business outcomes.

LSS and Agile are not competing methodologies but instead are both rooted in the same core philosophies and, when working together, can produce tremendous results.

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