Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity. Practice makes perfect. Success breeds success. Many of us have had these motivational admonitions drilled into our heads since our school days, but they can be applied equally to any endeavor.

If you read popular magazines today, it seems that society still is inclined to believe stories of overnight success. More often than not, though, it’s the recognition of that success that’s sudden. As the stories are revealed, we learn of the hard-working individuals who sacrificed to perfect their craft, to build that better mousetrap or even that better business model.

How often, when confronted with a new idea, do we dismiss that idea by saying, “We never did it that way before”? As insurance agents and brokers, we’re often guilty of that thinking, or of its cousin, HWADI (How We’ve Always Done It). Unfortunately, too few businesses–whether they deal in insurance or not–view operational innovation as a key strategic objective.

Change and innovation

Operational excellence does not occur overnight. The changes take place in two distinct ways.

The first is incremental change–picking the low-hanging fruit of efficiencies. They are relatively easy to identify. And as one after another are implemented, significant efficiencies can be realized. Such changes may include development of standardized workflows, procedures and related quality control processes. Other examples may be desktop faxing, or Internet and e-mail capabilities for all employees. There are many possibilities in every agency for incremental efficiency gains.

The second type of change actually propels organizations into another realm, that of operational innovation. This is where firms stop doing old work more efficiently. Instead, they eliminate that old work and work in altogether new ways. Operational innovation, by necessity, tends to destroy the status quo. But when done properly, it serves as an enterprisewide catalyst that thrusts a company far beyond previous performance levels.

In an industry plagued by HWADI, this can be pretty radical stuff. However, it is the point where good operational companies become great and where returns realized on such innovation begin their exponential climb. And by comparing incremental change and operational innovation, it’s easy to see why.

Incremental change really doesn’t require true buy-in from all levels of the company. If one or two staff members continue to use the fax machine instead of the new desktop faxing software, there probably won’t be much fallout.

When operational innovation is implemented, taking the form of, say, front-end scanning, paper no longer reaches any employee’s desk. There is nowhere to hide. Everyone must change the way they work. They can’t pretend to work by moving paper from one pile to another, because they’ll be asked why they have paper on their desk in the first place.

Managers at all levels also must alter how they work and how they manage staff as a result of any such change. In short, every way the company operates must change as a result.

Making innovation a reality

When our agency first went to front-end scanning, we went through this very process. We planned to go paperless for incoming mail. But we learned early on that to ensure the success of this initiative, we had to change other areas of our operation. As we did, we found ways to eliminate work and improve on existing processes. And we identified areas for additional employee training.

We created an agencywide intranet, available in all offices, which served as both a communication vehicle and resource to our employees. For instance, we tossed our Rolodexes in the trash and began using a central database for all carrier contacts. We housed human resource information, including our vacation request form, on the intranet. To reinforce the notion that we operate in a paperless environment, managers now only accept these requests electronically.

Workflows also changed. For example, under our new paperless system, as vendor invoices are received, they are scanned and routed to me for approval. I approve them electronically and forward them to our controller for payment. This took some getting used to. But if we wanted our paperless initiative to succeed, everyone had to change how they worked.

Such an operational change was a shock because it represented some rather radical adjustments in how we conducted business. However, we believe that by committing our organization to the success of this initiative, we’ll reap the benefits on many levels.

Productivity is a given and will certainly be measured over time. Perhaps the pride our staff shares in having successfully learned so many new habits in such a short time will prove more difficult to measure.

Another benefit we anticipate is a greater success, over time, in recruiting and retaining Generation Y and Generation Next employees. We hope that a clean desk, with dual monitors and a paperless workflow, will be more appealing to the next generation of agents than asking them to tame the paper monsters of old.

Our agency’s success has come through a combination of incremental improvement and, most recently, operational innovation. At every step of the way, we’ve relied on the resources and contacts we’ve made in our agency management system users group and our agents association. I say to my fellow agents and brokers, if you’re not yet involved in your own affiliates of both types of organization, if you’re not tapping the expertise and experience available to you, you should be.

Join now. You’ll find yourself better equipped to begin your own journey of success. And you’ll be able to leave HWADI behind.