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Quality to the
Front Line

Susan Peryam leads SunTrust's crusade to instill a passion for quality among the ranks

by Susan C. Peryam

Imagine that your front-line managers wanted to improve company processes. They'd be driven by the same passion to obtain performance data as upper management and equipped to make key decisions. As a result, your company would save millions of dollars through tremendous quality and productivity gains--and you would become more valuable to your company. An executive's dream? Yes, but at SunTrust Service Corp. (STSC), an operating subsidiary of SunTrust Banks Inc., it's becoming a reality. How?

Front-line ownership

 The most recent phase of STSC's quality improvement journey started in 1994. Although the senior and executive managers had a proven track record for generating outstanding quality and productivity results, they sensed that they were hitting a plateau and started looking for new methods to generate breakthrough improvement. When I first joined STSC in 1994 as first vice president of quality assurance, senior managers were seriously considering building a new performance management system that would give them real-time quality and productivity performance data, state-of-the-art indicators to facilitate quick decision making, and a more effective way to measure productivity.

 Senior management assumed that if they were able to measure performance, their employees would be held accountable--and thus would be motivated--to improve results. Senior management also assumed that if they were to receive performance data more quickly, they would be better equipped to make the fast decisions that boost results to the next level.

 Although this proposed solution, tailored as it was to the executives' needs, seemed feasible for producing some improvement, we still needed to test it: Would it generate the breakthrough results we were looking for? To begin our test, we had to figure out what senior management really wanted. They wanted a method to take quality and productivity improvements to the next level--and reduce costs in the process. My experience in manufacturing, however, taught me that to achieve this objective, we would need to engage every employee--not just senior management--in the quality improvement process.

 Prior to joining SunTrust, I had worked in a change-agent role, facilitating the transition of a manufacturing facility into a high-performance organization (HPO) by implementing design elements like self-directed work teams and skill-based pay. The philosophy behind HPO design is that if you focus on balancing customer needs, business results and employee needs, you optimize overall performance. It was the "employee needs" part of the equation that we had yet to fully address at SunTrust.

 What, then, was an alternative solution that would give senior management what they wanted and also meet the employees' need to have ownership in the performance improvement process? It seemed to me that we had to look deeper into the organization, down to the point of control: front-line managers. Why? Front-line managers are close to the action, making them the "experts" on the day-to-day operations that drive business results and customer satisfaction. And they're responsible for ensuring that critical processes, like check processing, get done in a timely and accurate fashion. If we were to build a new performance management system around not only senior management's needs but front-line managers' needs as well, we would help them all do their jobs better, enhancing their job security and satisfaction. Front-line managers get to take ownership in senior management's vision and thus become more motivated to initiate and implement projects that improve performance and save the company a great deal of money. Executives get the improved results and cost savings they really want. In this way, the entire organization wins.

The process

 Although this concept of instilling a passion for quality on the front lines seemed to make sense from a manufacturing perspective, it wasn't easy to sell to either senior management or front-line managers at first. Executives were skeptical that front-line managers could build a database as useful as one that business analysts or outside consultants could develop. And front-line managers believed that spending time attending workshops or applying new knowledge in their work environments would actually detract from their day-to-day tasks. Here's the process we went through to overcome this inertia to get our initiative off the ground.

1. Choosing the right technology tools. We wanted a system that would track information on product volumes, quality data (accuracy and timeliness), productivity and expenses. At first, we had hoped to form a joint venture to develop the system in-house. But after the first eight months of the pilot phase, we found that the development cost to complete the project would be too high and decided to scrap it to look for an existing system that we could customize to our environment.

 That decision led us to INTEGRATE, a PC-based performance management system designed for financial institutions. INTEGRATE was developed by The Impact Organization Inc., based in Seattle. The system has given us:

  A framework for communicating productivity and quality that's understood from the employee/supervisor levels to the executive vice president. This way, all levels of the organization can participate in and take ownership of the improvement process.

  A new productivity and expense indicator. This is one of the key elements that senior management was looking for.

  A train-the-trainer program for database development that builds sustaining internal knowledge in the organization. This proven implementation process includes one-on-one coaching for the end users (front-line managers) on how to build and use the database.

  A structured implementation approach that facilitates standardization across regional boundaries. This motivates the 10 regional centers to work together to define common measures and data collection methods.

  Ease of multisite benchmarking. Each functional manager can create his or her own baselines, increasing front-line buy-in and reducing the competition that is a natural tendency with pre-set standards. Instead of trying to reach the performance standards set by outside experts, STSC's front-line managers at each regional site focus on improving upon what their own departments have accomplished, keeping them motivated to continually push the improvement envelope. 

2. Garnering--and maintaining--support from senior management. Because I came from manufacturing, not banking, I needed key people with extensive banking experience on my team to enhance the initiative's viability. Looking back, the following two steps were the most critical in building support for the initiative:

  I persuaded a senior vice president of our Florida operations, STSC's largest regional center, to take a leap of faith and say, "We're willing to go give this implementation process a try." The idea of improving company results by upgrading front-line managers' skill sets made sense to him and seemed worth the risk. And it was his decision to move forward that served as a catalyst for other senior managers to come on board.

  We certified a manager who had more than 15 years of bank operations experience, someone who would understand how the new system would help a front-line manager in day-to-day operations, to facilitate the implementation process. We were trying to build the credibility we'd need to implement the new system.


 One of the toughest challenges, however, was maintaining support once we got through the initial phase of the implementation. For some senior managers, the process seemed to take too long. They wanted current key performance data at their fingertips, and wondered how we could gain by investing time and money teaching front-line managers how to build the database when we could get business analysts to do it in less time. To keep everyone on board, I stressed the importance of giving front-line managers ownership in the quality improvement process. Skill development and coaching allow front-line managers to achieve substantial quality and productivity gains. I then demonstrated to senior management what milestones we'd accomplished along the way, showing them that the implementation was on target.

3. Getting the regional centers on the same page . At the time, STSC's 10 regional operation centers all defined quality and productivity in their own way. We knew that if we were going to implement a standardized performance management system, we needed to bring those regional centers together to agree on key performance measures. This way, we could create a workplace environment that fosters continuous learning and improvement across regional boundaries. For example, if you're a front-line manager in Florida, you can compare how you're doing with a peer at the Georgia center. If he or she is producing more widgets per hour than you are at your department in Florida, you talk with the Georgia manager to see what he or she does differently to learn how to enhance your own operations. This approach mitigates competition between regional centers, because each center accepts senior management's vision of improving quality and productivity and reducing costs for the entire company.


 The rollout process for each front-line manager takes four months, with four consecutive all-day workshops spaced 30 days apart. The day following each session, the manager has a two-hour one-on-one coaching session. During the next 30 days, managers apply the concepts they've learned, building on their knowledge so they can bring feedback to the next session. Here's how the program is set up:

  Workshop 1. Front-line managers determine what their products and services are and define the data they need to collect. They also get an overview on what productivity and expense indexes are. The next day, they go back to their specific departments for one-on-one coaching sessions during which they set up the database and start collecting data.

  Workshop 2. Front-line managers learn how to establish a base productivity rate, and they gain the tools and knowledge they need to conduct a time inventory study and track productivity.

  Workshop 3. Front-line managers establish their baselines for productivity, learn how to analyze changes and identify their quality measures. They then go back to their departments to set up their quality indicators focused on timeliness and accuracy.

  Workshop 4. Front-line managers learn to calculate expense ratios and understand controllable costs and how they relate to their labor hours.



 Since 1995, we have trained more than 200 front-line managers how to use the new performance management system. One of the most noticeable differences we've seen as a result of this new system is the front-line managers' greater enthusiasm for information. They own the performance data and can analyze it to identify improvement opportunities, giving them the information they need to do their jobs better. In fact, we find that some managers can barely wait until the month ends to see what improvements they've made during the month.

 At the beginning of 1998, we followed the new performance management system implementation with a "Practical Management Techniques" workshop, also designed by The Impact Organization. The two-and-a-half day workshop introduces front-line managers to statistical process control and structured process improvement techniques. The workshop participants use the data they've collected to identify improvement opportunities, such as increasing their productivity by 7 percent or reducing a certain process error. To date, front-line managers have initiated and completed 76 improvement projects that have saved STSC $3.1 million through improved quality and productivity; 79 other projects are in process. A project is considered complete when it has made a quantifiable change in the process and has had a three-month evaluation to ensure that the change remains in place. Front-line managers must also have presented a formal post-evaluation report to senior management.

 For example, at STSC's Georgia operations center, a front-line manager has initiated projects that have reduced customer errors from an all-time high of 278 per month in late 1997 to just six in December 1998. This saved the company $264,000 in 1998 through improved productivity and expense control. Another front-line manager grappled with excessive overtime during end-of-month processing at the Miami operations center. One of his projects, which focused on improving the process and matching staffing hours to volumes more effectively, has reduced end-of-month staffing time by 500 hours per month.

 The new performance management system, focusing on equipping front-line managers, has also eased our merger with Crestar Financial Corp., based in Richmond, Virginia. Because our regional centers already agreed on how to define measures, it was easy for us to give the same template to Crestar, and within 30 days after the merger had been approved, we were already aggregating Crestar data into our scorecard. What is most surprising is that we already look at our two companies as one organization, a sentiment that would have taken much longer to create without the new system.

About the author

 Susan C. Peryam is the first vice president of quality assurance at SunTrust Service Corp. in Atlanta. You can reach her at .

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