As mortgage product manager at a building society, it was my responsibility to develop a range of mortgages, pass them through the various stages of approval and launch them into the market for people to buy. 

The approval process was lengthy. It involved many different departments in the organisation, all of whom had their own workloads and priorities. 

The financial press and mortgage comparison websites all operated to our best advantage when they knew exactly the launch date of new products. This allowed them to generate a buzz about the launch and prime the markets. However the Building Society had suffered in the past when they committed to a launch date but failed to make it on time, there were so many levels of sign-off and so many ways a sign-off could get shoved out of priority, keeping the launch quiet until done was a safer strategy for them. 

The problematic process

The products needed approval from the finance department, marketing, compliance and operations departments. There were legal, financial, reputational, operational issues galore, making the process a drain on resource. The bigger the drain on resources, the more likely it is to slip down the priority scale because no one wanted to get wrapped up in the beast.  At the point I took on the process it was taking a whole department up to 6 weeks to complete. Deadlines were missed and time sensitive work was forced out of date, meaning it all had to be redone over and over.  

My objective was to get the process down to 1 week and make it consistently delivered every time by my team of 2. Meeting this objective would mean that pricing and market position would remain static and our reputation would be upgraded to a financial institution that could be nimble and reactive.

The steps to improvement

The first step I took was to gather the heads and team leaders of every department that was involved in the sign off process. We discussed what each department’s issues were when we requested signoff with no notice and listened to all the expected issues. Other priorities came first because they were scheduled, they never had any notice of when ours would arrive. They made their commitments to priorities a week in advance and couldn’t just drop everything when we jumped.

These were valid complaints and easy to resolve, the solution to this was two-fold:

1.      They could be notified the week before that new products were required. At the point the committee requested the need for new products, they would be given the “heads up” that something was coming. This meant they would know to expect something within the next two weeks.

2.      A guaranteed “slot” position in the approval process pipeline. I agreed that every part of the process would be mapped, with a timing slot for each departmental approval based on where they sat in the approval process. There was no point in getting compliance approval before finance, because if finance made an alteration, compliance’s approval was then void. Each department had to have a logical slot in the map with the required approvals done first that naturally proceeded it. If they knew with confidence that every time a product launch was triggered that they would be needed on day 3, and all the approval needed before them would be done, then they could appropriately plan and resource.

In practical terms it looked like this:

The need for new products was agreed by an assets committee during a meeting. If agreed, I was then notified I needed to complete the task. At this point we sent an email to all department heads and team leaders letting them know new products were on the horizon, allowing everyone to prepare. On the process trigger day, we sent out the process map with every department’s time slot clearly marked.

Another issue was the approval floating around too many desks before it got to the person who knew enough so it could be signed off. The approvals went from pillar to post before hitting the right people’s hands in the department. I was aware of this issue and wanted to make it so that the approval had the fastest route from entering the department to approval.

I asked each of the heads and team leaders who was required to view the approval before it was able to be signed off. I made sure these names were included in the trigger email to ensure those people knew when it would hit their desks. I then sent the approval directly to them and cc’d the team leader and department head.

Sometimes large organisations get log jams in department hierarchy and wading through the swamp until you find the “doers” is quite a task, I needed everyone to see the value in the approval going straight to the right person. It meant less time spent chasing and less problems finding out if the right person was available. 

Finally, my team’s resource was realigned so that one person was responsible for doing the technical work and one person was responsible for following the launch process and smoothing the road ahead. They were responsible for doing the trigger email and sending out the process map. They manually followed up if an approval seemed elongated or like it was going to be delayed, they prepared the next department keeping them in the loop as to exactly when the approval would come to them. Meanwhile the technical person made any adjustments or corrections that were requested and actioned anything that came up.

The result

The launch process moved like clockwork, from initial approval of action to the trigger of the launch process and every step on the process map. We were able to confidently tell the press when to expect our products and we hit the target every time after the first run of the streamlined process. It took understanding the other department priorities, the key staffing requirements, clear communication and creating reciprocal certainty to be able to achieve it, but these are always the elements required for a slick process.

As a result, the process went from a whole department taking 6 weeks with confusion and missed deadlines to 2 people, 1 week, and hitting the target every time. The ability for the mortgage products to be nimble would later serve the building society immeasurably when the mortgage market crashed less than a year later. It is worth considering that improvements that benefit a business during good times may mean its survival during bad times.

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