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Opening the Black Box: Communication, Champions Remedy Change Crisis

Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund employees working at the call center.
Credit: Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund
Brian Collins, Executive Director, Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund headshot
Brian Collins, Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, 2019 Baldrige Award Recipient
Credit: IMRF

“A small organization with a big mission” is how Brian Collins, executive director, describes 2019 Baldrige Award recipient Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF). And, like similar organizations, IMRF operates in a challenging environment, in terms of scale, changing expectations, political pressure, the COVID crisis, and, always, change management.

“We work as hard as we do and try to work as smart as we do because of the . . . men and women who are the members of IMRF, the people who work in all of our communities. The people who work in our schools to help educate our children [and] the people who make our parks beautiful. . . . It’s for them that we are motivated.” He added, “We thank them for the opportunity [to serve]. We thank Baldrige for giving us the tools.”

We Need to Open the Black Box

Among its efforts at continuous improvement, IMRF found that a recent operational change (moving from a mainframe to a point-and-click environment called Horizon) was causing low staff morale.

“Not only are we changing the way we do things,” said Collins, “we are going to be changing, from one degree to another, almost every job along those pathways, so it’s going to impact not only all of our members [customers] but it’s going to impact all [of our staff members].”

The organization needed to open the black box of decision-making and share its contents.

When staff members became concerned about how the change would impact them, Collins said, “We had to actually stop and take a step back. Morale was low, and we were in a bit of a crisis about where we were headed. . . . Fortunately, at the same time, we were on our Baldrige journey."

We took a look at what [the Baldrige Criteria have] to say about change management. . . . It requires dedication, involvement of employees at all levels, and constant communication. . . . It requires the active engagement of the whole organization. At a glance, you could see that . . . we were doing [the opposite]. We had a small group in a black box, and no one knew what was going on, and everyone was getting more and more nervous.

Collins said the organization took the Baldrige Criteria to heart; “We said let’s open that black box and get everybody involved. . . . We started communicating like crazy.”

Change Champions

Every two weeks, IMRF began issuing briefs about Horizon, explaining how things were progressing and what the new system would look like. In addition, IMRF conducted town halls and surveys to solicit feedback.

Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund presents a change curve diagram, showing staff members went from skepticism to enthusiasm
IMRF change curve, part of its Quest for Excellence plenary presentation
Credit: Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund

“You can’t just communicate,” he said. “You have to have feedback. . . . We not only surveyed the team working on the project, but we surveyed everybody in the organization about how they felt about the project. We got lots of information that not only helped us in the design of our new system but in how people felt about their jobs and viewed the future.”

IMRF even created a group called change champions; “one of the best things we did,” Collins said. The group brought together 20 people who didn’t work on the project and provided them with extensive project updates and information on what the organization might look like in the future. The change champions then shared the information with their peer groups and brought back feedback, “creating a virtual circle of information going out and responses and feedback coming back.”

Collins said IMRF now constantly celebrates the success of projects and ensures it understands how everybody feels about them.

We are “now seeing fear turned first into learning . . . and then into enthusiasm, [which] has been incredible,” he said.

According to the latest survey, 90–94% of staff members agree or strongly agree that they feel excited about the changes that Horizon will bring and believe that they added value to the workshops they attended. Collins added,

There’s nothing like feeling that you added value and you have a role and a voice.

Vitally Important Work

With just 215 staff members, IMRF serves over 3,000 municipal governments across the state of Illinois, cares for 440,000 individuals and their families, and manages over $50 billion in funds to provide for the future disability and pension claims of stakeholders. For this reason, the defined benefit pension plan knows that its mission and core values of REACH (respect, empathy, accountability, accuracy, courage, honesty) are critically important.

Collins said it’s important to understand that IMRF can’t innovate and create products set by statute, but it can innovate around service. “How well we do what we do . . . that is the focus of everything we do and especially our Baldrige journey of excellence,” he said, adding that the organizing started using the Baldrige Criteria 10 years ago.

Collins said that today the average retiree from government service served for 20+ years, had an annual salary of $40,000, and an annual pension on the average of $20,000. IMRF pension payments are part of their security in retirement.

“So you can see . . . that what IMRF provides to these really terrific people is vitally important, and it’s at the core of what we do and why we do it,” he said.

Pandemic and Baldrige Preparation

Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) graphic shows how Baldrige helped the organization deliver results through customer service, health, and well-being
IMRF results graphic, part of its Quest for Excellence plenary presentation
Credit: Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund

“Baldrige really prepared us to deal with that pandemic,” Collins said. “For those of you out there, who are Baldrige aficionados, you know that you need to be a planner if you are to be successful.”

IMRF had disaster recovery plans for earthquakes, floods, and “everything else you can think of,” he said, including a plan for pandemics. To go with the disaster recovery plans, IMRF had communications plans and associated technology, such as laptops, underlying technology, and backup locations. Collins said all of that was ready to go, so that when the organization had to go remote, it could do it over a weekend.

“All of this made us very agile,” said Collins. “We went from 100% in the office . . . and could go up and down [in staffing levels] as the pandemic goes up and down.”

IMRF already had digital services for members and employers, so it was able to continue workshops and other meetings. In addition, Collins posted a blog and videos every other week to update the team on everything that was going on.

“Despite all of the difficulties, we have been able to react and continue to deliver on all of our promises,” said Collins, adding that during the pandemic so far, IMRF has processed more applications and paid more pensions than in the prior year, and has not yet missed a payment.
 


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About the author

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program and involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies...

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