How a bank used design thinking to benefit employees and customers

Design thinking can be effectively used to restructure operations so that employees as well as customers stand to gain.


Does your organization operate along functional lines? This might be great for building deep expertise in a firm, but not ideal for encouraging collaboration and idea generation. A solution crafted in one function can often only be implemented to the detriment of another function. For example, salespeople might successfully invent new ways to sell more, but perhaps using methods that compliance finds unacceptable.

Nedbank, one of the largest banks in South Africa, offers a unique perspective on how to use design thinking to restructure operations to benefit both employees and customers.

Brinsley du Plessis and Douglas Lines, executives in business banking with Nedbank, helped launch design thinking in the company. They discovered a mutual dissatisfaction with the status quo when they were introduced to design thinking on a Duke Corporate Education programme in 2016. The two executives then agreed to champion design thinking back at the office with the goal to combine product, process and frontline employees into cross-functional teams.

“We created an organizational capability through training 45 people in design thinking,” du Plessis explains. “Combining people from diverse areas of the bank, with differing perspectives has meant that we are much more creative. This is a good thing – bankers aren’t renowned for their creativity!”

As the teams moved into action, they found that the problem they thought they were addressing often turned out to be the wrong one. The design-thinking five-step process – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test – enabled them to uncover the real challenges.

Duke Corporate Education is running Design Thinking masterclasses in Mumbai (December 10-11), Delhi (December 13-14) and Bengaluru (December 16-17). The workshops will be led by design thinking guru Justin Ferrell. Know more.

“We worked out something important – you can’t lead what you don’t understand,” says du Plessis. “Although the frontline might be the best at understanding customers’ needs, the design thinking process needs leaders who understand that employees need the time and space to make the process work. It can’t be hurried, and it involves trial and error. As a leader, you need to create the ambience where this is accepted.”

Design thinking has had a real impact on employees.

“Working in cross-functional teams allows us to learn a lot from each other,” says Lines. “And it’s important to encourage creativity, even if it’s not directly relevant to an employee’s job description. I recall that one participant, whose job is risk mitigation, came up with an incredible spider diagram addressing a completely different area. She was so excited and motivated by an approach which helps her.” at work, but also at home.” This is a bit cryptic, how does it help her at home? I suggest elaborate or drop the home reference

Impacting customers
Nedbank is using design thinking to address big, knotty internal issues, like centralizing multiple back-offices into one, to serve customers better. The big question is – what impact have they seen on customers?

Nedbank was able to see first-hand how design thinking can address such a question through its work with its customers in the education space. Banks are governed – and Nedbank is no exception – by Basel 3 rules, a regulatory framework intended to strengthen bank capital requirements by increasing bank liquidity. Schools are liquidity-rich, yet they don’t need cash on site, so helping them to reduce their cash on site and improve their overall liquidity, while getting more funding onto the bank’s balance sheet, enables a bank to lend more. Sounds like a win-win proposition. Wrong.

Using design thinking to uncover the real need, Nedbank included teachers and educators – their customers – in the process, in pursuit of radical collaboration. By doing this, they quickly discovered that holding cash on school premises (parents pay a lot of cash into schools for trips and other school services) is a risk, as it attracts thieves. But the real pain point for teachers is the administrative overhead of collecting all the money for school trips, remembering who has paid, who is going, and which parents still need to be chased. School outings enrich pupils’ lives, but the administrative burden on teachers reduces time invested in lesson planning – their core job of teaching.

Once it understood the real pain point, Nedbank collaborated with an Edtech partner to create a school app, similar to Uber. This is how it works. The parents associated with a class will receive a notice via the app and can sign up directly – no more need for signing attendance sheets. Parents’ bank accounts or credit cards are linked to the app – just like paying for an Uber cab – so the financial transaction takes place without cash. The app is also linked to Outlook, providing diary management for everyone.

The more perspectives that are included in the initial design thinking stages, the easier it is to commercialize the outcome, because you are uncovering real demand. “The parents and teachers sell it for us,” says du Plessis. “Everyone is delighted, including us – we have met a real need.”

The greater good
Anything that reduces risk on school premises and increases the time teachers spend on teaching – rather than on administration – has to be a good thing. But there’s more. Nedbank is already contemplating the wider ecosystem of the desperate need for free education in South Africa.

“Design thinking helps us to solve problems at a higher level of thinking – it makes you think wider and bigger,” says du Plessis. “This is a thin wedge strategy. It opens our minds to how an app like this might be used to offer free education in the future, especially to children in remote areas.”

Giving back and nation building are the next steps on the agenda.

Design thinking is a powerful tool. Used properly, it opens the gateway to innovation that really works for customers. But it also seems to be a recipe for cultural change – changing the way a business thinks about and manages itself.

This story from an emerging economy like South Africa serves as an example for how organizations in India can replicate similar benefits from the design thinking process.


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