Luke Stecklein

Assistant Director, Continuous Improvement

Solving Business Challenges with a One-Team Approach

Topics: Home.

As you can probably tell from my title, my job at Northwestern Mutual is to focus on improving how we work. One of the ways we do that is through what we call A3 Problem Solving Events, where we use lean methodologies to walk a team through a problem, collaborate and generate ideas. We've been doing this for several years with great success.

Sometimes our team comes up with ideas that require our IT department to do some development or system work to make things happen. In those cases, we'll reach out to IT to validate an idea, but that's typically the extent of their up-front involvement. It's just, "Hey, here's what we came up with. Could you make this happen?" Or, "How difficult would it be to make this happen?"

In the case of a recent challenge we were tasked with solving, however, it was clear we'd need a greater level of help from outside our team. Our goal was to improve or eliminate a manual process that was sometimes needed (in complex circumstances) to calculate commission for our financial representatives. We knew we'd need IT to be heavily involved in executing the solution, so I thought, "Let's bring them in not just as our partners, but as part of our team."

It was an amazing experience, and here's some of what I learned:

  1. Working horizontally was seamless. The “one team” approach was embraced by everyone, from leadership and the individual contributors to our partners in engineering, product and the business Like most large organizations, we have many competing priorities that we must prudently decide where to spend our time and resources, which makes prioritization and alignment critically important. This specific effort wasn't necessarily on the radar of our product or engineering teams, so as I was shopping my idea around to their leaders, I was expecting to be challenged with questions like, “Is this the best use of our resources?” I was excited to learn there was a lot of enthusiasm from cross-functional leaders to try a different way of working, even if it meant accepting a bit of risk by not having complete certainty of the expected outcomes.
  2. The people in the room were 100% engaged. While I wasn’t sure what to expect at the beginning, it turns out the team loved working in a cross-functional, collaborative, shoulder-to-shoulder approach. Just get us together, set us free and we'll figure it out! Every member of our cross-functional team took personal ownership of our challenge, generated innovative solutions, and worked together to bring them to life. If you were an outsider, you would have never known who initiated the effort, because everyone was so committed to it and focused on making it work.
  3. We got a better outcome. With the early engagement of our partners on the engineering and product teams, we ended up with a superior product. It wasn't just our business area solving a problem, then engaging IT to have them build it. They were part of the actual design and solutioning process. We spent four days collaborating, and when we came up with ideas that were system related, for example, the engineers were able to ask us questions like: "Do you want this feature? What if we tried this?" This enabled us to work more efficiently, come up with better solutions and, most importantly, turn around and implement those solutions almost immediately, because we already had all the right people in the room.

Not only was this an effective way to get results, it was also engaging and empowering for the teams that were involved. At our report-out, our Vice President of Distribution Services, Sarah Schneider, encouraged us to keep going, challenging us to “Go Bigger!” Challenge accepted!

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