How Farmer's Insurance is Achieving Operational Excellence

Deborah Schaal is the Director of Operational Excellence for Farmers New World Life Insurance. Responsible for the strategy development and execution for the Life organization, she also oversees the implementation of operational excellence across the entire organization while supporting the robotics team. Here, Deborah provides an insight into the Farmer’s Life approach to Operational Excellence and highlights the role of leadership in creating true progress.

What are the current operational excellence goals for Farmers New World Life Insurance?

Developing and deploying a Lean Management System is part of our five-year company strategy. We have a ‘Lean Leader’ coaching program that is helping to provide our leadership team with an understanding of what it means to be as recognized as a thought leader across the organization.

We introduced the program about a year ago. It began with a small pilot group. But now we have numerous leaders across the organization participating in it. This includes our President, Head of HR, CFO, Head of Client Operations and Head of Enterprise Operations.

In your opinion, what is the criterion for a great leader?

Consistency is essential, being a trusted figure for the team and using some sort of ‘scientific’ problem-solving, so using data to drive decisions. Those are a few, but I could go on and on. Trust is particularly important as it allows teams to be open with each other and communicate what they are working on so that they are not so siloed in their behavior.

Is a siloed mentality something that you have experienced often in financial services?

In a lot of instances within the financial services industry, there is an approach where each team is only for themselves. One of the things that we have implemented is a daily Stand Up with our Executive Team lead by the President. This is an opportunity for the leaders to gain an understanding of what each team is working on and helps to strengthen the focus, increase communication and develop a strategy by which we are working all towards the same thing.

Have you experienced any pushback when introducing these new ways of working?

It has been easier than I expected. A top-down approach definitely makes it a lot easier than the experiences I have had at other organizations. In cases where I have started from the middle, even if there is some interest, it doesn’t spread as far as it can when starting from the top. Today, there are teams that are beginning to conduct stand-ups on their own and without the support of our team because they are seeing their leaders do it.

We have really good buy-in for this across the organization. However, in areas where there has been some leadership turnover, mainly because those teams were not meeting set goals and objectives, we have some work to do. Fortunately, new leaders seem to understand the value of the tools we provide.

At OPEX in Financial Services, you will be discussing the importance of encouraging ‘diverse ways of thinking’ Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Part of diverse ways of thinking is looking at operational excellence as a whole. There are tools and ways of thinking from a lean perspective, but it is also possible to pull in approaches, such as design thinking, as the continuous-improvement toolset grows.

Is that something that you have been doing quite a lot at Farmers Life?

It’s definitely something a lot newer. The tenure within the organization is fairly long and most people have only worked within this organization for their whole career, including the president, so they are eager for new ideas.

We also try to take the leaders and teams out to tour other organizations to see how operational excellence is achieved anywhere, from manufacturing to hospitals, and not just in financial services. I find that a lot of the most innovative ideas come from gaining a perspective from outside the industry.

There is a furniture company that we toured several times. They are actually how we got the executive team, including the president of the company on-board to begin the Lean Leader Coaching program.  

How do you see your approach to Operational Excellence evolving in the future?

As for financial services, a lot the ways of working are pretty old. So we are working on investing in technology changes. The challenge is that the changes that need to be made are big as they involve changing entire systems. We are progressing further in that way and robotics helps with that because the robotics kind of acts as a way so we can automate really easily and quickly, which allows us to save time. And that provides the ability to invest back into the business and improve some of the older systems

Learn from Deborah and 60+ more industry leaders at the 13th annual OPEX in Financial Services Summit. Click the image below to download the agenda and find out more.