Startups are no longer the little brothers of big corporations. They’re not only competing, but in some cases, they’re winning the battle for market share. Many are following the lean startup model, which incorporates a “work smarter, not harder” mentality to eliminate bureaucratic headaches and constantly improve. 

Just like agile startups, insurance agencies must constantly learn and iterate to improve their base products. Becoming a lean organization begins with addressing inefficiencies and ensuring that constant improvement is the status quo. 

These four strategies can help agencies stay lean and keep improving:

1. Build a culture of introspection 

Inertia is one of the most challenging barriers to process innovation. If you don’t regularly take a step back and examine whether a process is necessary or optimized, you run the risk of continuing to do what you do because that’s how you’ve always done it. Benefits are too important to people to keep things stagnant, so if something doesn’t work, change it. Never get attached to a sunk cost. 

2. Automate inefficiencies and manual processes 

Paper-based businesses should not exist in 2016. Agencies must find ways to cut the paper out of their workflows and bring their records and communications into the digital age. Not only does automation make processes faster and less labor-intensive, it also makes everything more accurate — and that’s a big deal in benefits. 

Any job that doesn’t require brainpower should be automated, as we discussed in part one of this series. Systematic tasks like prospect emails, employee communications, customer service requests and technology implementation are all opportunities for automation. If you have to hire someone new to service every group you bring on, you’re missing out on an opportunity to dedicate resources to more important things. 

3. Optimize your people potential 

Startups often rely on agility to compete, and whether a brokerage is big or small, it has to cut through red tape. The best way to do so is to keep people motivated, engaged, aligned with the company mission and accountable. The first step is making sure that you have the right people dedicated to the right jobs. 

Lean companies get ahead by remaining open to change and optimizing processes and schedules for the people performing them. By remaining introspective and measuring time spent versus the ROI of every activity in the business, brokers keep their agencies agile without getting attached to inefficient processes and sunk costs. 

Any job that requires discretion and intelligence is best left to a person. Assuming that humans have nearly unlimited potential, there is always a way to optimize someone's workflow and increase their value to the company. 

4. Customer insights over intuition 

One of the biggest insights to come from the lean startup methodology was the concept of the minimally viable product paired with a cycle of iteration. Lean startups understand that as an organization building something, you don’t always intuitively know the best way to solve your customer’s problems, because you don’t live their problems every day. Instead of investing time and resources up front to build something “perfect,” agile companies build a minimally viable product — a product that will solve a customer’s basic problems — and then innovate and iterate based on customer feedback until they create something people love. Gathering customer insights rather than acting on intuition is critical to this process. 

Brokers must provide HR tools that give employees the power to fix issues on their own. No one has time to make phone calls and wait two business days to get an answer on a benefits question. Brokers need to spend their time bringing in new business, negotiating better products for their groups, and recruiting and retaining top talent. Better systems have higher upfront costs, but the opportunity costs of wasting time in outdated processes are much higher.

The most competitive benefits advisors learn from the most innovative startups of our time: the ones that have always been lean and work hard to continually get even leaner. You can weave lean practices into your consultancy services and enable the companies you work with to get lean as well. Be introspective, go paperless, optimize your people, and value your customers’ insights so you can spend more time growing your business.