Credit Union of New Jersey leverages Connections Online to develop an organization-wide focus and strategy, and to track projects that support focus and strategy. The tool helps everyone stay on the same page.
By Mike Lawson
Communication is crucial in any organization. As the CEO of $211 million Credit Union of New Jersey, Andrew Jaeger, CCE, faced the challenge of effectively communicating strategies to his staff. A second challenge he faced was keeping the staff focused daily on the implementation of the strategies.
"Being a CEO, one of my biggest challenges is communication," admits Jaeger. "While planning a series of projects for 2005, I tried to share the strategies behind the projects to our entire staff. I found that the message wasn't reaching the staff consistently. There was obviously a breakdown in communication and as a result, many of those projects didn't get completed."
Jaeger found that the lack of consistent communication resulted in loss of project momentum. For example, each year Jaeger gathers the entire staff for the credit union's annual strategy-planning meeting, during which he outlines the projects and goals for the following year. After the meeting, the staff is energized about the future direction of the credit union and motivated to make the plans a reality. But a few weeks later, the credit union would fall into the "same old" behaviors, allowing projects to pile up, eventually falling by the wayside because the message that was conveyed during the meeting wasn't reinforced on a daily basis.
Jaeger was also challenged by a lack of resources for all the projects that came out of the annual strategy planning meeting. "We simply would spread ourselves too thin," Jaeger explains. "Our primary concern became allocation of staff to projects. I found that we took on too much because we were bad at saying 'no' to additional projects. We just didn't have the discipline. We needed to remain focused and a way to consistently communicate our goals to the staff. This was my goal for 2006."
Clarifying Focus and Strategies Equals Working Smarter
Fast-forward to today. CU of New Jersey is a new credit union in the making. Why? The credit union has recently implemented an innovative online management automation tool called Connections Online. By using Connections Online and taking a series of Connections Online training seminars over the last three months, the credit union has been able to clarify its focus and strategy, while consistently conveying its message to the credit union's staff.
"We've now discovered new ways to share our strategic message with the rest of the staff," Jaeger states. "We now have the tools that allow our organization to focus on the important projects and allocate resources accordingly. It has become the filter for every project we take on, allowing us to work smarter."
Connections Online provides logical structure to the process of building a plan. The highest-level statements, such as the organizational focus, are developed first with the senior management team. Then a strategy is developed to support the focus. All of this is entered into Connections Online. Once the framework for the focus and the supporting strategy are developed, subsequent meetings, or dialogs, are run using the focus, strategy and supporting metrics as the basis for the agenda. Projects are run using the same methodology.
There is a separate section of the software into which the project scope, constraints, deliverables and tasks can be entered. Once entered, the information is visible to everyone in the organization. Team leaders project the Connections Online screens at team dialogs.
The tool helps the credit union's executive team develop and convey the focus and strategies to staff on a consistent basis. In the end, each executive management team member knows where he or she stands. The software shows the history of each project and who is responsible for what tasks.
"Everybody who is involved with a certain project is held accountable because everybody involved with that project can see within the interface where the project stands at any given time," Jaeger explains, adding that all the project information is kept in a central area and is linked into Microsoft® Outlook™. "Everything we do now is tied back to our focus and strategy. We can go look at a particular project within the system and immediately see the status, which enables us to link our actions with our focus," he adds.
Task Filter Promotes Operations Efficiency and Better Resource Allocation
Because Connections Online has become the credit union's task filter, if the task doesn't fit the pre-established focus and strategy, it doesn't make the "to do" list. Each project starts by the CEO assigning a business case team the next potential project in the short-term queue. They have 30 days to produce a comprehensive case demonstrating how it will support the organizational focus as well as an ROI calculation.
The business case team presents to the senior team at the next monthly dialog and the senior team votes yes or no based on the business case. If the business case team cannot make the case for the project having a positive impact on the credit union's focus or strategy, the project is dropped or moved to a long-term queue for consideration at a later date. In other words, only projects that demonstrate a high level of positive impact are approved. By limiting the quantity of projects, project quality is improved, staff resources are not stretched too thin, and the success rate of completed projects improves.
At CU of New Jersey, projects now move along efficiently and are on time for completion. In fact, CU of New Jersey now only takes on the top 20 percent of suggested projects. The rest fall down on the priority list until they fit the credit union's focus and strategy. They are then moved up and readied for completion, or dropped as circumstances change. The credit union has decided that it will manage a maximum of four to five projects at a time to ensure staff is not overloaded with too many deliverables. The short-term and long-term queue hold approximately 20 projects.
As for the annual strategy meetings, Jaeger now sees that these gatherings are one-time events. Connections Online, conversely, is a continual process of reinforcing a credit union's focus and goals. This message is tied into everything the staff does project-wise, which has brought discipline to the project management process.
"We've been able to clarify our focus and strategy and communicate those on a continual basis," he says. "Now we understand project management and applying our new filters allows us to work smarter."
Working smarter means appointing each department head as the CEO of that particular area, clearly defining outcomes and outputs of each department.
Through Connections Online the project team members must document all progress on deliverables and check off completed deliverables. Anyone in the organization can view the progress of a project. The projects require regular meetings. In other words, there are expectations for project management that are clear to the entire organization and each project team is required to follow the same guidelines. It becomes evident quickly if a project is missing deadlines or not holding its status meetings
"We now have a great way to present information so people involved in the projects clearly understand their responsibilities," Jaeger says. "They're forced to have dialogs on a monthly basis, which results in people being more aware. It's consistent."
World Class Organization Creates Better Member Service
Through this management automation tool, the credit union's members ultimately benefit by receiving better service. Because of the enhanced communication throughout the staff ranks, members see a more responsive credit union. The staff is not only using its resources more effectively, it is more focused on meeting its goals—one of which is providing better service to the members.
"Our members are starting to see a world-class organization," Jaeger says. "When they see this type of quality service, they know they're getting more value from their credit union.
"Clearly defined goals won't allow us to get distracted with piling projects on top of projects," he adds. "We used to dilute our capabilities by continuing to add projects to the list. And that's where our level of value dropped. By being focused on our strategies and goals, this can't happen because of the constant reinforcement."
For example, after the senior executive team developed its focus and values during the first Connections Online training seminar, each of the credit union's vice presidents went to his or her respective department and shared this information with every employee. As a result, employees were energized, thanking their managers for the information. Now, this practice of including lower-level staff members on appropriate credit union news occurs on a regular basis.
"We now live our values at this credit union every day," Jaeger says. "The feedback from our staff has been tremendous and providing them with this type of information consistently has made all the difference in member service.
"We are measuring member feedback using the net promoter survey which asks a member if they would refer the credit union to a friend, family member or co-worker," he continues. "The score jumped over 20 percent from the baseline score we got before we implemented Connections Online. We believe the consistent message we are sending about our core values is contributing to an improved member experience. We also have developed a custom set of questions for our employee satisfaction survey that asks employees to rate how well the credit union demonstrates our core values."
Jaeger figures that his credit union will recoup its Connections Online investment in 12 to 18 months. The savings will come in the added efficiencies the management tool provides. On average, Jaeger believes he can save four hours a month for each manager just in meeting time alone. This is due to the fact that the meetings will be more productive because of the consistent, daily dialogs staffers will have regarding projects. Plus the tool allows for creation of agendas that are driven by the organizational focus, strategy, metrics and projects. There is even a follow-up tool on the agenda that integrates follow-up tasks into Microsoft Outlook.
"People now have a purpose in meetings," Jaeger says. "We come into each meeting knowing what to do ahead of time.
"People are accountable because they have to report on what has been done within the parameters of the project," he adds. "This knowledge of the project's history prior to a meeting allows us to focus more on the future of the projects instead of rehashing what has already happened."
Jaeger sees saving time as his biggest ROI. "This automated management tool really helps us optimize the way we spend our time."
A Vital Part of the Credit Union's Daily Communication
The bottom line is that people now understand where the credit union is headed. And that understanding is constantly reinforced. It's not forgotten like a one-time slideshow. The message is consistently there because Connections Online has become such a vital part of the credit union's daily communication.
Through Connections Online, each person involved in a set project can see at any time what's going on with the project. Therefore there's no guessing, no re-capping, and no tasks falling between the cracks. Staff members assigned to projects consistently update the status of their tasks so the project stays on course.
"It has energized the employees, empowered department leaders, and has developed a clear focus and strategy, which makes the credit union far more efficient than before," Jaeger says. "It also provides me with a good tool to view anything that goes on with the credit union's projects and time allocation practices. Overall, it has brought a cohesiveness to our leadership process and that cohesiveness spreads throughout our organization making it that much more valuable to our members."