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How an Agile Approach Helped Aflac Extend Its Industry Claim to Fame

By Julia Davis, CIO , Aflac

Julia Davis, CIO , Aflac

Every CIO has been there. We’ve all gotten a request that seems impossible at the time and have been tasked with doing something beyond conventional methods. When my CEO Dan Amos first brought up the idea of paying eligible claims in a single business day, I knew it would be quite the challenge. For one, Aflac was already the industry leader in quick claims processing, delivering cash benefits to our policyholders in an average of four days. In addition, from an infrastructure standpoint, expediting claims further would require significant changes to our current technology and systems — and it could take a while.

“Agile software development emphasizes fast delivery, fueled by team collaboration and empowerment along with continuous feedback and adjustments”

Looking under the hood, it became clear that our claims processing technology needed some updates if we were going to achieve a one-day payment status. Legacy technologies and platforms required modernization, applications would need to be updated and processes required automation.At the same time, we needed to install new functions like direct deposit. The changes were possible, but to get it done, we needed to revamp our systems, add new components and still maintain business as usual for our policyholders —all without adding significant budget or headcount.

Historically, all IT projects at Aflac have followed a standard waterfall methodology. We would plan ahead step by step, predetermine our benchmarks and lay out long development cycles so that IT staff could juggle multiple projects. While this method has its merits, it created a lengthy timeline to update our current claims processing technology and roll out faster payments, leaving an 18-month window for a competitor to beat us to the punch.In order to move faster and be the first to market this innovation, we leveraged an increasingly popular technology strategy—one I fortunately had experience with in my career—and opted for an agile development approach.

Agile software development emphasizes fast delivery, fueled by team collaboration and empowerment along with continuous feedback and adjustments. While this methodology has become quite common in Silicon Valley, it would require a major change in the Chattahoochee Valley, which is home to Aflac.

To make agile work, we needed to refocus our resources so we could deliver as fast as possible. How fast? Well, Dan Amos was having no part of 18 months. He said he wanted it done in six months. So, we compiled a team spanning multiple departments that was assigned to the project full time. IT staffers were paired with business-side counterparts who were tasked with providing feedback. Free from other projects and sequestered in what we referred to as a ‘warroom’ the team first built the new architecture for One Day PaySM and then broke the project into pieces, handling our biggest challenges first.

Beyond processing claims faster, cutting down the process of paying out claims and physically getting money in the hands of policy holders would be a challenge of its own. Doing this in 24 hours would necessitate a move away from checks to direct deposit. This meant a change for our agents, who traditionally served as middle men and women in the payments process. We agreed that our clients would likely prefer speed over personalized delivery, and it appears we were correct.After six months of planning, development and feedback, we launched an internal pilot using employee claims to give our new technology a thorough test drive. The system launched in October 2014, hovering under the radar so we could discover any bugs or issues before introducing it to our customers.This past February, we introduced One Day PaySM to the public, ahead of schedule, and it received a rousing response. Customer satisfaction is up, and we are on pace to exceed close to 2million claims paid.

Agile development enabled us to be the first to market with an innovative single-day payment process. At the same time, it has changed the way we manage projects. This is not only an adjustment in our planning, but a shift in how the entire business moves. As IT becomes more integral and intertwined with core business functions, the way people and teams work continues to evolve. CIOs and IT leaders can leverage agile methods not only to make projects progress faster, but to help move an entire business forward.

Common business pain points like ease of use, customer experience, speed of delivery and time to market have a commonality. They all require technology and underlying processes. At this moment, IT possesses a unique opportunity to claim and grow its stake in corporate leadership and to change the way businesses operate.

This is the time to empower your team to move away from a traditional support role to serving as a catalyst within your business. Show your leadership that your IT department is driving new value critical for overall business success and advancement.

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