Communicating the business benefits of process improvement: Interview with Prudential Retirement's VP of Process Excellence (Transcript)

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Donna Dunn

Process improvement -especially the tools and methodologies - can come across as a little esoteric to those in the rest of your business. But process is something that we all do - so why is it so difficult to communicate the value of improving them?

In this PEX Network interview, Donna Dunn, VP, Process Excellence, Prudential Retirement discusses how to communicate the benefit of process improvement and ways to gain the commitment of your business stakeholders.

Editor’s note: this is a transcript of a video interview and has been edited for readability. Watch the original interview here.

PEX Network: Process is something that we all do. What do you think we can do to communicate the value of process improvement to the business?

Donna Dunn: When we go into non-production type areas we often hear the misconception that process improvement isn’t for me: "I don’t make a widget, I’m a relationship manager or I’m in sales, and I can’t forecast what comes in my door and I don’t really have a step by step process".

But what we have found is that you do have a process – no matter what we do day in and day in work, in life, in every day, there’s a process to what we do. There are some things that we do standard and we do them all the time, so it’s just a matter of getting staff to recognize and agree with that and then start tracking what they’re doing. Even though somebody may not come in every day and follow a process step one through ten, there are likely certain activities that are happening everyday. For instance, they may receive a phone call or have a conversation with a customer every day. What are the outcomes of those conversations? Can you start to really dig into what it actually is you do in a day so that you can start building some standards around it and making it a more efficient process?

PEX Network: What do you find works that really helps to communicate the value of doing this to the business executives?

Donna Dunn: We usually start by observing them. When it’s the non-production type of activities we’ll still sit down and see how many calls are they getting a day that they can’t forecast and what are they delivering on those phone calls. Then we’ll start to show them that there is actually a method and a process to what they do. It’s a lot of visualization for them so that they can actually see and realize that, wow, "I do actually have a process and I could put some standards around what I do".

Then we also do a lot of getting people to meet together as a team. This helps because the person who takes phone calls from a customer finds that the person sitting next to them is also dealing with a lot of the same type of requests; together there are ways that they can tackle what they do to create consistency. Some of it is efficiency and a lot of it is communication: sitting with them and making them self-discover.

PEX Network: A little while ago you and I actually did an interview as part of one of the research projects that we were undertaking at PEX Network and I think you had just started the journey at Prudential. One year on where are you in that journey?

Donna Dunn: Oh, it’s so different – I can’t believe how far we’ve come! When I first spoke to you I had just started a continuous improvement program within Prudential’s retirement business unit. Now I’m leading continuous improvement for all of Prudential’s US businesses because we quickly recognized that each of the US business units was doing some form of continuous improvement, whether it was Lean or Six Sigma or some sort of combination.

We realized that there’s some benefit in us coming together and sharing best practices and sharing resources and trying to create some sort of consistency, maybe not in the methodologies because the business units are at such different levels of maturity, but a consistent continuous improvement mindset at least.

That’s where we are today; we’re just building this new centralized continuous improvement function.

PEX Network: What have been some of the biggest challenges so far?

Donna Dunn: The challenges so far have stemmed from the fact that each business unit is so different. They’re different not only in the products that each of them sells but also in their overall objectives and strategies.

It was crucial for us to understand the differences, and then try to create consistency across their objectives. They may all have different products and different strategies but at the end of the day we all have a customer. The whole reason that all of this was centralized to begin with was to look at the customer experience across all of our business units and find out how to make it better.

That’s been a challenge, in terms of understanding the objectives and the strategies of each business unit. Then, the next challenge is how do we take continuous improvement and create some consistency so that they can meet their objectives? There again, understanding the different methodologies that are being used in each of the business units – some are working really well, some aren’t – and then ultimately bringing them together to use some sort of combination. We want to steal from this one and that one so that we’re actually deploying the best methodology for the unit.

PEX Network: Final question: where are you going next?

Donna Dunn: When I think of where are we going next with continuous improvement at Prudential, we are taking it to the next level in terms of an enabling organization. We’ve centralized not only continuous improvement, but quality and workforce management and metrics, as well as learning and development. Those four functions are now centralized and the reason is because all those things are so intertwined and dependent on each other. The next step is how do we take all of those enabling functions, optimize them, and then share and have this wonderful enabling organization that really helps all the US businesses continuously improve.