Customer Obsession13

The 22000 Persons Start-up

Paul Cobban

February 23, 2017


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Conference Video

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The session will see Paul Cobban share his insights into the transformational journey DBS has taken to emerge as a more agile organization. A journey that has led to Making Banking Joyful for both – Customers and Employees of the 22000 employee organization. A 360-degree approach that is inspired by some of the best technology companies in the world and redefines the way the bank works today, to replicate a truly start-up environment.



This presentation was recorded at the Business Agility Conference 2017 in New York. This audio file and others like it are available for free download at


Today, I'm going to try something that I've never tried before, and I am going to attempt to tell you about the seven and a half year transformation journey at DBS going towards its 22000 person start up in eighteen minutes. Here goes.

DBS, Development Bank of Singapore, we're headquartered in Singapore, and we operate across Asia and nowhere else. The 'D' is development, and that is because it was set up 50 years ago to support Singapore as it got its independence. So it is important to understand the heritage that it was a government bank, it no longer is, but it's still got this heritage of government and bureaucracy.

I joined DBS seven and a half years ago, and to lead a transformation program. On my first day I got into a cab and I said to the taxi driver, "Can you take me to DBS, please?", and he said to me, "Ah, DBS! Damn Bloody Slow!". So. Seven years later, we won the Best Digital Bank in the World Award. Here's our CEO collecting it. And we were surprised by this. Surprised but delighted. And the reason we were delighted because of this writing in yellow, that they had recognized that innovation pervades every part of DBS, which was just this recognition of strategy, which we actually hoped to have.

So, how did we go from being "Damn Bloody Slow" to being the best bank in the world? And I showed my son this slide and he goes, "Dad, will you stop trying to be cool? That hashtag, it actually stands for the Biggest Bullshitter In the World!" So we may have to change that. But one of the first things that we had put in place was a vision, we had a vision and it's a vision we feel is bold, differentiating and ambitious, a vision that when we tell those people they have a cynical smile on their face because we aim to make banking joyful. Yeah, exactly. Just say how it is! Just say how it is! 

So we're trying to make banking joyful, and I would love to spend time telling you what that really means. I haven't got time, but you clearly - it's a long way from being damn bloody slow to making banking joyful. So, how have we done it, how we done it? So, when I reflect on this, there kind of, there are these five stages that I want to very quickly take you through.

The first stage was this idea of eliminating the waste. 

And here, shortly after I joined, three months later is Peche Gupta, who's here, joined the company. And here I am on - this is the first time I met him - it's his first day, and I'm trying to impress my new boss by showing him a great transformation work I was doing, very unsuccessfully, I hasten to add.

And he very quickly put in place this strategy celebrating our Asianness. This is 2009. We're coming out of the global financial crisis, and we want to distance ourselves from those Western nasty big banks, alright? We're Asian, which is about the only part of the world that hadn't imploded. So part of that strategy was he wanted to create this idea of Asian service to differentiate ourselves by being Asian, offering this unique kind of service. Unfortunately, the Customer Sat. scores weren't really in our favor, and those of you can't remember the logo, DBS is the one on the bottom. Right. So these are our competitors in Singapore at the time. So what we did is we decided we're going to put an Asian service program in place. And he said to me, and a colleague says, "Will you go and define what 'Asian service' is?", and I said, "Yeah, give me two weeks. I'll come back and tell you." 

He says, "No, I want you to spend six months." So we went off and we spent six months defining Asian service. We spoke to employees, customers and experts. And we came up, and I went back, and we came up with 96 definitions. And I said to him, "So now what you want to do?"

He says, "Well, we're going to spend two days in a room with the top 50 people in the company, and we're going to debate those 96, and we're going to whittle them down to three.", and we ended up with this, which were these kind of concepts - I don't have time to go into them - but they spelled out RED, coincidentally, and red is an auspicious color for Asians. And it went and was very well received by people. And so I said, "Great! Now let's launch the program!", and he said, "No, I want you to spend some more months designing a substantive transformation program behind this. I don't want this just to be on mugs and T-shirts." 

So that's what we did. And a few months later, I was standing on a stage very similar to this in front of the top 250 of the company who had come together for the very first time and told them about RED. Unfortunately, on that very same day, the next year's Customer Sat. scores came out. 

Now I am a glass-half-full kind of guy. So I said, "Good news! We went down the least!" So, and this is when we then launched this program, and this is when we kind of invented this idea called the Process Improvement Event or the PIE, which we borrowed from, it's a Lean Kaizen thing, we adapted it for DBS culture. We didn't say it was Lean by Design, but essentially throwing cross-functional teams into a room for five days, mapping the current state, walking the process, finding waste, creating a new process and implementing as much as you can in a week. And these were remarkably successful. Surprisingly so. And why? Because there was just gargantuan amounts of waste in the company, and we could monitor these progress of these PIEs, and we ran five and then we liked it. So we did another 50 in the first year, and we came up with this new unit of measure called the Customer Hour, which is just a measure of wait time. So if you're waiting for your credit card for one hour, that's one Customer Hour.

If two of you are waiting for your credit card for an hour, that's two customer hours. We ended up taking 250 million Customer Hours out of the system in the first year. That is a lot of time. If you get into this machine and you type in 250 million hours and go back in time, where do you think you end up? You end up in the Stone Age. It's a lot of time. So customers started to notice a difference.

One year later, this is what happened to our Customer Sat. score. In one year, some remarkable turnaround. We started winning awards, and people started running case studies about DBS. But then something happened during one of our PIEs which changed the course of history for DBS, which leads me onto the second phase, which was this idea about designing everything from the customer back. And what happened was we ran a PIE to improve the processing time for when we replace a lost credit card. 

It was taking five days, and we wanted it to take one day. And we ran the PIE, we were successful, and we, in accomplishing our target. And then we did something we had never done before. We phone the customer and we said, "Madam!", to the lady, "How did you like getting a credit card back in a day?" And she says, "Fantastic! Thank you very much. Where's my debit card?" and we are - "I lost my handbag in the shopping mall." and this massive light bulb went on. 

I said we completely got the customer problem wrong. We thought about it from our perspective, right, and so it was just fortunate that one of the people who joined my team had a background in design thinking, and this was before design thinking was a thing. So he taught us how to go into shopping malls and speak to people. We listen to phone calls, etc., and really immersed ourselves in the problem. And we came up with some core insights about what happens when you lose your, your handbag or your wallet in a shopping mall. 

And on a basis of those learnings, we made three simple changes to our call center script, and one of those was, the first one was to empathize! Somebody's just been through this traumatic process. "How are you? I'm sorry to hear that. Are you OK?" Rather than launch into authentication questions, the implication being is 'you're a criminal until you prove to me otherwise', right? Second thing we change was we just told people about the process that we about to take them through. And finally, we just asked them if we could send some useful phone numbers to help you get your life back in order. On those three changes, the Customer Sat. went through the roof, the simple changes.

So we realized we were onto something and we pivoted the PIE program to really focus on customer journeys, and rather than taking waste out of internal processes, we focused on taking friction out of customer journeys.

The other thing we started to focus on was this idea we borrowed from Clayton Christensen, which some of you will be familiar with, this idea of understanding the customer job to be done. And that really means is really understanding what the customer need is. To explain that I borrowed an idea from another Harvard business professor, a guy called Theodore Levitt, and most of you or some of you at least will have heard this story. He was a marketing professor and famously was addressing a group of executives from a power drill company, and he said, "Hey, guys, the problem is your customers don't want to drill. They want a hole." Right? But, Theodore, how wrong are you? I don't know about you guys, but I don't go around at weekends randomly drilling holes in my wall. What I want is a picture or shelves. But that also isn't enough because what really happens is why, think about why I want the picture. Maybe I want to show off to my friends what great taste in art I have, or maybe - or more likely in my case - my mother-in-law came around and said, "Where are the pictures of my beautiful grandchildren?" And so really what I'm doing is pleasing my mother-in-law. But then I'll post-rationalize, tell everybody, post-rationalize and tell everybody I wanted a picture. Of course, that's how human behavior works. So on the back of this, we ran a massive campaign around customer journeys and job to be done. Last year - this is the top 250 people in the company - we trained all of them for a day on how to sponsor customer journey projects. They all committed to run at least one customer journey project this, last year now, and we've run about 400 of these things. 

We break every rule in Agile. Our WIP is enormous. Why? Because we want to change the culture of the company. We actually don't mind if some of these fail at this point. Heresy. OK, so that's the end of the second phase, but what we noticed now was that we were doing all this stuff and we were a bit lazy on measuring, and we weren't very good with data. So we really wanted to become more data driven. 

And to do this, we partnered with some people, had some proper data experts, some data scientists, and they not only told us how to measure more effectively, but they told us the power of data. Banks have a spooky amount of data on each of us, right? And with data, you get superpowers, right? First of all, you can see into the future. And at DBS, at the moment we have, we can tell with remarkable accuracy when our relationship managers are going to quit and take, potentially take the clients with them. 

We can also predict which branch is going to have the next operational error, to around about 82 percent accuracy. We can detect branch queues, A.T.M. queues, and mechanical failures of A.T.M.s. But you also get the superpower of being able to see, all-seeing, so we can detect suspicious trading behavior through data. And those bad I.T. guys who access our production support systems, we can see what they're up to also, using data. It was quite remarkable, but the real insight was this: that you get the data scientist telling you the data insights, you get the ethnographic is showing them that the customer insights. 

But the real magic happens when you combine the two, and I'm going to give you an example of this. It's a trite example. It's a bit fun, but it makes a point. DBS has the biggest A.T.M. network on the planet, and we have to take our A.T.M. networks very seriously and we are continually upgrading them. More recent innovation is we've implemented these things called A.T.M. Plus machines, and the difference between an A.T.M. Plus Machine is that both, you can withdraw cash and deposit cash in the same machine, and it just reduces the need to refill. Right?

So here's a picture of six, A.T.M. Plus Machines we've just put in place in our branch at Jurong Point, one of our busiest branches. So put them in and then we looked at the data. Okay, here's the data. So each of those graphs refers to the corresponding machine, and the blue represents withdrawals and the orange represents deposits. All right? Can you - if - are you awake? Can you see a trend? Can anybody analyze that data for me and tell me why? You can't do it. You're lying, sir, because the answer is if you go and have a look for yourself and you see what happens actually in the space is the signage was skewing the customers in the wrong way. So what do you do to fix it? You change the signage, right? So but, and then we fix the deposit problem. But still there's this issue on the withdrawals because we think of this A.T.M. Plus.

So my point is you need both sets of insights, and if this is happening at ATM poster level, imagine what's happening at your mobile interfaces. So understanding of both kinds of data is very important.

So what we then kind of realized is that a lot of our improvements was very incremental in nature and we wanted to have bolder steps in certain areas, and that's where we started thinking about this culture of innovation, which I alluded to earlier. And one of the, we had a couple of false starts with our innovation team. Initially we told a bunch of talented managing directors to go into a room and don't come out until they've invented time travel or something similar. And guess what? They didn't. So now we've landed on a better model where we have an innovation team that's part of my portfolio and they can do anything they want as long as they don't innovate. Why? Because we want to get them to teach the rest of the organization how to innovate, and they've done that and these guys work incredibly hard on delivering programs that drive cultural change, and we do things like use hackathons to hire people now rather than interviews. 

We ditched our executive management program, so no longer do we send them off to fancy business schools, but we put them in hackathons with real startups working on real business problems, develop solutions in 48 hours - again to drive cultural, new ways of thinking and cultural change. We have gamified ideas that solve business problems online. These are hugely popular, etc. Just loads of this stuff. But this, all this work is really to attack the HIPPO Problem -  the highest paid person in the room - which is, which we, to be honest with you, we haven't fully cracked yet, but it's about trying to drive a culture of experimentation, getting data, and from experiments and insights to make decisions and really getting it to understand this job to be done. And it's working, but we still got quite a long way to go.

Which brings me back to the final stage. Final in terms of it's the most recent and it's truly the most exciting. We've only really just started thinking about this, and I just wanted to share with you is this idea about codifying our culture, because as we've gone on our journey, we had realized that we had some great new behaviors. And in seven and a half years we'd seen a cultural shift, you can change culture in seven and a half years. But what happened is we saw some areas of the bank regress, and we saw where new people came in they hadn't got that context and they were diluting what we had achieved. And so then we kind of got some ideas from some of the big technology companies like Google and Amazon and Netflix and Apple and LinkedIn and Facebook (GANALF). All right? And what we admired them for their technology and initially we were looking for inspiration about their technology. 

But then we realized, what they also have in common is they codified their culture at a detailed level, and aspects of their culture we really like - it's not everything. So we've got a slogan now in DBS - you'll like this - "We want to be the 'D' for DBS in GANDALF", alright? And this is, so this has taken off across the company very well. But the point is, it's not just about the tech, it's about the culture and we've borrowed some ideas and we're experimenting this idea about just putting very simple statements down on cards. This is like a card that tries to capture what the behaviors and way of working that we want to have. And so what we use these things for is really to identify where we've got gaps, where we're not doing these things, and it enables us to have a conversation. And where we have those gaps, we we put in a countermeasure. And those countermeasures could be either a ritual, it could be an enabler, so that could be a policy change or a workplace change or simply changing vocabulary. 

So, for example, one of these cards says, "we want to treat our people like adults", yet our policies were not treating people like adults. Our dress code policy, for example, said 'you can wear business casual and here's a detailed description of what business casual means'. So we changed it! And this is our new dress code policy at DBS, which works very well in Asia. And guess what? Nobody has turned up to work inappropriately dressed yet! 

Right? So that's kind of the final piece of the puzzle. We have these five, five phases and you can see they're not sequential. I've drawn it this way because they are just built on each layer. 

So, insights. Unfortunately, I have not written a book, but I have written a page, and you can find my page on my LinkedIn profile if you want to do it. It's Agile, right? Yeah. Artifact reduction and all that. But, if I had written a book, I'd probably be tempted to tell you about these five phases and how you should follow them and if you follow them rigorously, then you will have guaranteed success. But of course, it's not really like that. In fact it's very messy, and it still is, and I've given you the sanitized version of what really happened in my 20 minutes, of course. So. One thing I will say is some advice that a great mentor of mine gave to me early on in my career,  he said, "Paul, just get going, dive in and get your hands dirty." 

But I must confess, at DBS its felt a little bit more like this, and with that - 18 minutes! Yes! Thank you very much!


About Paul

Paul Cobban

Paul leads bankwide transformation programs that redefine Customers and Employees experiences by building a strong culture, reimagining future of work and driving Innovation across the bank. In addition, he leads core functions including OPEX, Lean IT deployment, procurement, real estate, risk management and the technology hub in Hyderabad, India for the bank.

Paul and his team’s work has been extensively applauded by HBR, MIT, NTU, SMU, Forrester and ISED and he holds advisory roles with FinTech Advisory council for the IIF, SMU's FITA, IBF horizontal skills working committee and is on the Asian Banker's list of leading practitioners.

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