Process Excellence at Elevations Credit Union

Following the opening keynote at Building Business Capability, I attended the session about Elevations Credit Union’s journey to process excellence. Rather than a formal presentation, this was done as a sit-down discussion with Carla Wolfe, senior business analyst at Elevations CU being interviewed by Mihnea Galateanu, Chief Storyteller for Blueworks Live at IBM. Elevations obviously has a pretty interesting culture, because they publicly state – on their Facebook page, no less – that achieving the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award is their big hairy audacious goal (BHAG). To get there, they first had to get their process house in order.

They had a lot of confusion about what business processes even are, and how to discover the business processes that they had and wanted to improve. They used the AQPC framework as a starting point, and went out to all of their business areas to see who “Got Process?”. As they found out, about 80% didn’t have any idea of their business processes, and certainly didn’t have them documented or managed in any coherent manner. As they went through process discovery, they pushed towards “enterprise process maps”: namely, their end-to-end processes, or value streams.

Elevations is a relatively small company, only 260 employees; they went from having 60 people involved in process management (which is an amazingly high percentage to begin with) to a “much higher” number now. By publicly stating the Baldridge award – which is essentially about business process quality – as a BHAG, they couldn’t back away from this; this was a key motivator that kept people involved in the process improvement efforts. As they started to look at how processes needed to work, there was a lot of pain, particularly as they looked as some of the seriously broken processes (like when the marketing department created a promotion using a coupon to bring in new customers, but didn’t inform operations about the expected bump of new business, nor tell the front line tellers how to redeem the coupons). Even processes that are perceived as being dead simple – such as cashing a $100 bill at a branch – ended up involving many more steps and people that anyone had anticipated.

What I found particularly interesting about their experience was how they really made this about business processes (using value stream terminology, but processes nonetheless), so that everything that they looked at had to relate to a value stream. “Processes are the keys to the kingdom”, said Wolfe, when asked why they focused on process rather than, for example, customers. As she pointed out, if you get your processes in order, everything else falls into place. Awesome.

It was a major shift in thinking for people to see how they fit into these processes, and how they supported the overall value stream. Since most people (not just those at Elevations) just think about their own silo, and don’t think beyond their immediate process neighbors. Now, they think about process first, transforming the entire organization into process thinking mode. As they document their processes (using, in part, a Six Sigma SIPOC movel), they add a picture of the process owner to each of the processes or major subprocesses, which really drives home the concept of process ownerships. I should point out that most of the pictures that she showed of this was of paper flow diagrams pasted on walls; although they are a Blueworks Live customer, the focus here was really on their process discovery and management. She did, however, talk about the limitations of paper-based process maps (repository management, collaboration, ease of use), and how they used Blueworks Live once they had stabilized their enterprise process maps in order to allow better collaboration around the process details. By developing the SIPOCs of the end-to-end processes first on paper, they then recreated those in Blueworks Live to serve as a framework for collaboration, and anyone creating a new process had to link it to one of those existing value streams.

It’s important to realize that this was about documenting and managing manual processes, not implementing them in an automated fashion using a BPMS execution engine. Process improvement isn’t (necessarily) about technology, as they have proved, although the the process discovery uses a technology tool, and the processes include steps that interact with their core enterprise systems. Fundamentally, these are manual processes that include system interaction. Which means, of course, that there may be a whole new level of improvement that they could consider by adding some process automation to link together their systems and possibly automate some manual steps, plus automate some of the metrics and controls.

So where are they in achieving their BHAG? One year after launching their process improvement initiative, they won the Timberline level of the Colorado Performance Excellence (CPEx) Award, and continue to have their sights set on the Baldridge in the long term. Big, hairy and audacious, indeed.

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