Peter Klett, Chairman of the Board at Weser-Elbe Sparkasse, on transforming the savings bank into an agile organization.
- We on the board felt that we weren't really getting anywhere with the established methods - targets up, costs down - and that it was time for something completely new
- Agility has many dimensions, and we are only at the beginning of a far-reaching change
- Even as a boss, I have to get used to my new role, learn to let go and only provide support where it is desired and needed.
Mr. Klett, where did you get the idea to turn your whole organization upside down?
PETER KLETT: It all started with digitalization. At the beginning, we thought: we simply need to set ourselves up to be more digital, to meet the changed customer needs as a savings bank. But we quickly realized that that was not enough. That the changes we needed to make were too significant to be achieved with conventional structures. I like to compare it to the Fosbury Flop. At the 1968 Olympics, in the high jump, Dick Fosbury was the first to no longer jump sideways, but backwards over the bar. At the time, it was a completely new technique, a radical change of methods. As board members, we noticed that we weren’t getting anywhere with regular methods such as raising targets and lowering costs—that it was time for something completely new.
And how did the cooperation with zeb come about?
We invited several management consultancies who explained to us how we could become more agile in their view. For example, one consultant came to us and presented the problem as a structural project and told us we needed to merge this and that division. When we asked him how that would lead to a more agile mindset among staff, he responded that this could be achieved through annual targets. To be honest, the meeting was over fairly soon after that. The consultants from zeb were different. They didn’t tell us what we already knew. Nor did they explain what we had to do. Instead, they showed us how we could develop our creativity.
What does that mean?
At the start of the year, we spent two months with the whole board developing guiding principles. An example regarding leadership: we decided and specified that leadership is primarily about enabling staff members to take responsibility. 99% of decisions should be made by the employees. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need any managers. But their role has changed fundamentally. It is now mainly about empowering their staff. We also defined guiding principles like these for other areas such as communication, error culture, etc. They make up the playing field that the staff members use creatively.
What does that look like?
We called on employees to take part in Design Thinking and future workshops. Aside from the guiding principles, we made no restrictions. All employees could apply. It was important to us that we didn’t just invite the usual suspects, but that the whole thing was an open process. At the start, we were concerned that not enough staff would apply, but the opposite was true. In total, 164 employees applied for 80 spots.
And what came out of the workshops?
As board members we were allowed to take a look after about a month, and when we did, we were really impressed. The head of our lending back office, for example, suggested simply abolishing the whole preferential terms matrix for our lending business! That matrix consisted of three A3 pages and defined who was permitted to grant what terms on which hierarchical level. It flew in the face of personal responsibility, so we got rid of it. Another staff member suggested that we all use the informal form of address “Du” —from the Chairman to trainees. We introduced that, too. And the amazing thing is: it is much more than a symbolic gesture, it actually changes something. And I’ve noticed the changes myself. When I’m sitting with a colleague and I address them informally, I find it easier to say what I think without beating about the bush. The same applies vice versa.
At the end of the day, agility is not an end in itself. The customers should benefit from it. What do they notice from the changes?
The customer is the only reason we exist! That is the idea behind all the changes. I’ll give you an example: when a customer got married and changed their name, they previously had to provide 14 signatures: one for their debit card, one for the creditors’ protection inquiry and so on. Coming from the internal process logic, the process made sense. But it used to drive the customers mad. That is another result of the workshop: the customer now only needs to provide one signature. We look after the rest.
Has the transformation had any impact on the company’s structure?
We deliberately decided to not begin with the company’s structure. Starting with the employees’ mindset and the values of our company proved to be the right decision. In the past, we sometimes discussed salary bands endlessly, but purpose is much more important to people. We are running a pilot project in which we are testing a completely new target system and allowing staff to set their objectives themselves. Of course, agility has many dimensions , and we are just at the start of a fundamental transformation. We will go into the topic of structure in the next future workshop.
When 80 of your staff work on developing enhancements in Design Thinking and other workshops, doesn’t your day-to-day business suffer?
This was one of our greatest concerns at the start. We can’t just put up a sign in our branches saying: “Closed for transformation into an agile savings bank.” But in reality, there was no reason for concern at all. In fact, we even overachieved our targets in retail banking. Our employees were bubbling with enthusiasm, they were just enjoying the whole process. Many of them are now forming interdisciplinary teams voluntarily to improve certain things within the company. The momentum has become unstoppable. I too, as the boss, have to adjust to my new role: learn to let go and to only support where I am wanted and needed. As an executive, I am becoming more and more of a service provider for my staff.