In Search Of Savings? Try Tapping Employee Talent.

An internal group tasked with reducing expenses and maximizing efficiency at TruWest Credit Union finds bright ideas in employee suggestions.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • TruWest Credit Union launched its Brilliance Squad at the end of 2018 TOWHAT.
  • The seven-person team vets employee suggestions for how to improve processes or save time or money for the credit union.

Process improvement initiatives at TruWest Credit Union ($1.4B, Scottsdale, AZ) have historically been a top-down proposition. Although the credit union continuously hunts for ways to reduce friction or gain efficiencies, it was typically senior-level employees who identified operational changes.

That approached worked fine, but it didn’t fully tap into the insight of employees who had direct experience with processes that might be outdated or inefficient, says Sarah Hancotte, TruWest’s vice president of strategy.

“We weren’t capitalizing on the ideas from employees doing the job every day,” Hancotte says.

The credit union changed that at the end of 2018 with the launch of its Brilliance Squad, a new team that gives folks a voice and opens the credit union to more ideas than before.

A Brilliant Idea

Seven members holding management-level or higher titles — each reporting to a different senior leader — comprise the squad.

“Together, they represent all the business units in the organization,” Hancotte says, adding that cross-departmental representation ensures the squad can fully vet ideas from all perspectives.

CU QUICK FACTS

TruWest Credit Union
Data as of 12.31.20

HQ: Scottsdale, AZ
ASSETS: $1.4B
MEMBERS: 93,767
BRANCHES: 13
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 13.1%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: -4.0%
ROA: 0.88%

To encourage employees to submit ideas, a team of in-house developers built a portal on TruWest’s intranet that acts as a front door through which employees can easily submit full-, half-, or unbaked processes improvement ideas. It’s a wide net, and the squad vets accordingly.

“Some of the ideas can be broad,” Hancotte says. “It can be necessary ask the submitter to tell us more and dig a little further to find the savings.”

The squad meets each week. Before the squad meets, however, TruWest’s strategy team reviews each submission to determine whether it accomplishes one of two things: Does it save employee time? Does it reduce expense?

Maximum Return, Minimum Effort

The Brilliance Squad is principally looking for ideas that save the organization money, such as identifying an unnecessary vendor relationship or duplicate expenses. Hard-dollar costs like that are fairly straightforward to calculate. But for employee productivity, time is money, too. TruWest has run the numbers, and based on hours worked and compensation, it knows how much a given employee’s time is worth per hour.

“We are after those expense savings, but we have to remember that labor is valuable as well,” Hancotte says. “The less time they’re wrapped up in unnecessary tasks, the more time they’re with members or working on new projects.”

“We’re looking for those things that will give us maximum return with minimal effort. If it meets that criteria and saves us time and money, it’s probably something we want to do.”

Sarah Hancotte, Vice President of Strategy, TruWest Credit Union

When reviewing ideas, the Brilliance Squad also considers how much time will pass until it sees a return from an investment. According to Hancotte, the ideal payback period is less than a year. If it’s more than that, the squad might need to more deeply consider the benefits. The squad won’t outright reject an idea; however, it will archive them with the understanding that time or circumstance might increase their practicability.

“We’re looking for things that will give us maximum return with minimal effort,” Hancotte says. “If it meets that criteria and saves us time and money, it’s probably something we want to do.”

Once the Brilliance Group vets the idea, it pitches the idea to the senior leadership team. Ideas that reach the highest levels typically have had a lot of pre-work, so the senior team usually signs off.

A Call For Ideas

TruWest collected 119 ideas through the Brilliance Squad portal in the first quarter of 2021. The quality of each idea, however, varies depending on how the credit union incentivizes participation.

As a rule, the credit union gives the submitter 5% of the net expense savings, which encourages activity. In the case that two employees submit the same idea, however, the duplicate idea is closed out and the incentive reverts to the original submitted.

So, too, do calls for submissions. For example, TruWest pushed departments in February 2021 to submit ideas. If the organization reached its pre-set threshold, all eligible employees would win $50. In a typical month, employees submit 15 to 17 ideas, Hancotte says. In February, that spiked to 89, and everyone took home the $50.

In 2019, the first full year that the Brilliance Squad was in place, the credit union set a goal to attain 180 idea submissions; instead, it received 883. Most of those ideas were good; however, there were fewer ideas directly related to expense reduction than the credit union anticipated. Such ideas have increased over time.

“75-80% of ideas now have true time or hard dollar savings behind them,” Hancotte says.

In recent months, those ideas have included re-evaluating a paper-heavy instant issue card process whereby the credit union asked members to complete a form with information it already had, then scanned the document and transferred it to the records department. One employee discovered a way to remove time and expense from the process while still meeting compliance requirements.

“We’re not printing or scanning, and the member doesn’t need to wait as long for a replacement card,” Hancotte says. “It was a big change that benefitted everyone.”

Beyond that, the squad has helped the credit union renegotiate contracts with vendors, found ways to transition paper-reliant processes to digital, and spurred the removal of printers from the credit union’s offices to cut down on paper consumption.

Once ideas graduate to completed process improvements, TruWest sends an all-staff alert signaling the completion of the project and offering kudos to the original submitter.

“It celebrates the employee, generates new activity, and reminds people that they, too, can submit an idea to benefit the credit union,” Hancotte says.

Savings in 2020 totaled $1.3 million, split evenly between expenses and time, Hancotte says, calling it a healthy balance wherein one side does not overload the other.

Looking forward, TruWest will search for savings by tapping more employee talent. Last year, it launched its Brilliance Advisors program, which provides professional development opportunities to front-line staffers. Opportunities such as sitting in on Brilliance Squad meetings give employees a wide view of different departments and a behind-the-scenes look at the production process while offering firsthand experience on smaller projects as they wait for openings on the Brilliance Squad.

Brilliance Advisors is still new, Hancotte says, but TruWest has high hopes.

“We’re trying to open their eyes to the whole organization,” the strategy VP says. “We’re also building our bench strength for the future.”

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