Boosting bottom line and employee morale with Kaizen

Three Steps for Improving your Organization with Employee Input

While waiting one day to shred sensitive patient information, one of our employees had a bright idea. Instead of 30 patient representatives individually making trips to the shredder bin, why not have one person collect and shred all of the paperwork at the end of the day?

She had just the right place to make that suggestion: Our weekly Kaizen meetings, where teams of patient experience and client service representatives discuss anywhere from 5 to 20 ideas for solving specific issues they’re seeing in their day-to-day work. We vote on the ideas, with each team member having an equal say. Our goal: If a good idea that benefits patients and the company is approved by 8 a.m., it’s implemented by noon.

Proven and powerful
Kaizen, a Japanese word meaning “good change”, focuses on continuously looking for ways to streamline and enhance performance. It’s a proven and powerful way to leverage your greatest assets—employees.

Since adopting Kaizen in 2014, we’ve saved many thousands of dollars, increased productivity and collaboration and improved customer service. Just changing how we shred paperwork saves $26,000 annually in staff time. It’s boosted morale and loyalty by showing a commitment to employee ideas that also often eliminate mundane tasks that can turn off many great staffers.

We’ve also incorporated Lean Kaizen, which marries the Lean goal of increasing efficiency and reducing waste with Kaizen’s continuous improvement approach. Using Value Stream Mapping, our call center team identified a primary issue: Employees were expected to be expert in every call center activity, leading to long customer wait times and frustrated employees trying to do it all. Based on employee input, we restructured so staff now focus on specific tasks such as onboarding new account holders or handling billing questions.

The entire initiative took just under three weeks, and the results have been nothing short of phenomenal: Wait times dropped 300%, call abandonments fell tenfold and errors in creating new accounts are now minimal. Employees are happier. Customers are happier.

Adopting Kaizen
Leveraging employee insights can deliver substantial value for your organization and customers, too. Here are three guidelines for implementing Kaizen at your organization:

Inclusive and equal. Rather than relying on managers who may be blind to a problem, Kaizen leverages the valuable insights of the staff doing the work. It’s important to make sure all employee input is valued, sought and recognized. In addition to weekly meetings where everyone has equal say, regardless of the employee’s tenure or position, we offer small stipends to employees whose ideas are implemented.

Visible and consistent. Too many employees can attest to company initiatives that are announced with great fanfare and then disappear. To be effective, companies should embed their Kaizen initiative into their employees’ work routine and make the Kaizen program continuously visible. For example, at HealthFirst Financial, we have a Kaizen board posted in our call center where we track ideas from initial presentation through implementation. Everyone can see an idea’s progression.

Actionable and achievable. Kaizen programs should focus on ideas that can lead to quick improvements, leaving other types of continuous improvement initiatives to tackle longer-term change initiatives. Here are some examples:
• Our representatives work with about 24 different hospital payment systems. The longer it takes them to navigate any one system, the longer customers wait on the phone. To improve responsiveness, an employee suggested making one person responsible for capturing and sharing shortcuts for all systems.
• We extended our call center hours at no additional cost through a Kaizen suggestion: Our employees now work one Saturday morning shift every 6 to 8 weeks while getting a weekday afternoon off.

Kaizen offers a platform for those closest to the customers to be heard and validated with swift corrective action. At too many organizations, saying your employees are your greatest asset is a mere platitude. Kaizen is a proven process for making the most of your most valuable assets.

About the Author
Lisa Smith is vice president of operations for HealthFirst Financial, a national leader in patient financing based in Springfield, OR. She has extensive experience in process improvement, project management and behavioral change management and is certified in Basic, Intermediate and Advanced Lean Applications.

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