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Keep Calm and Ask a Human

Innovation From Within

USAA has grown from humble beginnings almost a century ago, when 25 Army officers met in Texas and agreed to insure each other’s vehicles, into a multifaceted financial services company serving millions of members. Perhaps the one constant is that it has been innovating every step of the way.

One of the people championing USAA’s continual evolution is Janelle Dziuk, executive director of the company’s Employee Innovation Program. She leads various efforts, such as coding competitions, academic partnerships, and internal crowdsourcing of innovation ideas—all in an ongoing effort to keep USAA on the cutting edge. 

Her purpose at the company, she says, is two-fold: to engage employees and motivate them to innovate and take risks, but in a way that ultimately benefits members.

Founded in 1922, USAA provides a wide array of financial services and insurance products to military members, veterans, and their families. It consistently tops the list of customer-focused organizations, with member retention rates of more than 95 percent. Employees are happy too—a whopping 92 percent of employees say their workplace is great, according to 2016 research from Great Place to Work Institute. And it was most recently ranked 35 on Fortune’s 2017 list of 100 Best Companies to Work. 

The company specializes in insurance, banking, investments, and retirement, and Dziuk motivates employees to think outside the box whenever they can. 

Under her leadership, USAA has cultivated “innovation leads” in its regional offices and created a company-wide culture in which employees feel encouraged and supported when pitching a new approach. Among other things, Dziuk, who works with all of the company’s business areas, instituted a new matrix that evaluates employees’ ideas based on cost, benefits, risk, strategic fit, member value, and originality, then assigns them a score that can be used for quick evaluation and comparisons.

Dziuk knows USAA’s mission well, having worked in various positions at the company since 1997. In her current job, which she has held since 2009, she strives to help the company provide superior customer experience by keeping employees innovative.

Customer Strategist: What are your role and responsibilities at USAA?

Janelle Dziuk: My job is to help inspire, engage, and lead all 30,000 employees at USAA to participate in innovation. We believe that every employee at USAA is an innovator and innovation isn’t something that should be squirreled away in a secret lab somewhere. 

My role is to create the structure, provide the resources, and be a champion for all employees with an idea. We have engaging programs and competitions that help our employees learn and grow. The results from our employee innovation programs have included many new-to-the-world innovations for our members.
CS: What are the strategic goals of the Employee Innovation Program?

JD: Everything we do at USAA is aimed a delivering the service and products our members need and deserve. The goals for employee innovation are no different. We want to tap into the creativity of our employees and give them a platform to share ideas on ways we can improve. Those ideas may address needs of employees as they serve our members, or they may be new products and services aimed at making our members’ lives better.

CS: What are the biggest challenges you face?

JD: Honestly, we have such great engagement from employees that vetting the thousands of ideas they submit keeps us very busy. But that is a great challenge to have. Last year, employees submitted more than 10,000 ideas and we implemented more than 1,206 of those. I feel challenged to ensure we are always responsive and working to implement the great employee ideas we receive.

CS: How do you connect your activities to corporate goals and the customer experience?

JD: USAA’s mission to help our members achieve financial security truly guides all our efforts. All of the hacks, competitions, and programs we offer are aimed at solving problems or innovating new solutions to serve our members. Regardless of how our members chose to contact USAA, we want that experience to be great and to answer their questions the first time. Innovation has a role to play in doing that.

CS: How do you encourage and formalize employee innovation activities at the company?

JD: We have made a concerted effort to engage employees. And we have had the support of senior leadership to take risk and make innovation a function that is embedded throughout the company. 
In addition to our 24/7 employee innovation platform, we offer dozens of programs throughout the year providing employees the opportunity to think creatively to solve a problem. We offer them protected time each week to work on these projects and provide internal recognitions for the best ideas.

CS: What do those programs look like?

JD: We use a toolkit of various innovation programs to engage employees from across USAA to help solve strategic challenges, including: challenge-based innovation; hackathons; coding, design and analytics competitions; and education/training.

At USAA we empower our employees to not only share their innovative ideas, but also to use their skills to prototype and help bring ideas to life though our Volunteer Innovation program (VIP). As we evolve we are also partnering with our members to innovate at Members can opt in to provide feedback and to beta test some of our latest innovations, allowing USAA to constantly update and refine new innovation concepts.  

CS: Are there any results of which you are particularly proud?

JD: I am most proud of the engagement. More than 90 percent of all USAA’s 30,000 employees participate in our employee innovation initiatives. They submit more than 10,000 ideas a year and voted hundreds of thousands of times on those ideas as they moved through the process. 
Over half of our employees participate every month. It is always great to see employees leveraging our innovation education resources and competitions. They learn through hands-on experience and I enjoy seeing them develop and grow.

CS: Is there a particular innovation that stands out to you?

JD: Our passionate employees developed a prototype during an IT innovation week program and were able to refine the concept and receive innovation funding to launch “Voice Deposit@Mobile” last year. Our goal was to allow accessibility of remote check deposit to disabled veterans, the aging population, and visually impaired members. We believe that if you design for members with the greatest need, you ultimately make the experience better for everyone.  

The technology was highlighted at Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference 2016 and spotlighted for achievements in accessibility. Voice Deposit@Mobile has successfully been accessed and used by hundreds of members.

CS: What impact does employee innovation have on the customer experience?

JD: The employee innovation impact is two-fold. The most obvious benefits are the ideas and solutions we implement to better serve our members. For example, we leveraged an employee’s passion to make our members lives better to be the first in the industry to digitize the life insurance claims process, taking it from a best-in-industry 31 days down to 18 minutes with financial advice.  By thinking about aging members and disabled veterans, we were first to have employees develop remote-deposit capture for visually impaired members. In providing employees an outlet like this, they are more vigilant for areas of improvement and empowered to act. That is the second benefit.