DBS’ transformation team: Agents of change

DBS has gone from a bottom-of-the pile bank to being crowned the world’s best. Its transformation team shares that 10-year journey.
By: | July 31, 2019

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When Paul Cobban joined DBS Bank in 2009, both his ambitions and the bank’s were relatively modest. The IT engineer had worked with two other banks previously, in similar project-based roles, and had been convinced to join DBS as a transformation leader.

“It was a little bit counterintuitive because at the time DBS had this perception of being highly bureaucratic – which would make transformation very difficult,” he tells HRM Magazine Asia today. But he greatly respected the leader who brought him over, and who remains his immediate boss today. “David Gledhill (current Chief Information Officer) said that I would be encouraged to apply all the things I’d learned up until then in a greenfield environment,” he says. “So I joined – and he was right.”

DBS Bank did not stay the slow and difficult to deal with organisation for long after that. Indeed, its customer service and impact metrics improved so much that it began to win some serious recognition from the industry around it.   It was named World’s Best Bank by Global Finance magazine last year, having previously taken out the Best Digital Bank accolade from the same gala ceremony.

It has been a fascinating, ambitious, and far-reaching journey, and Cobban has been helping to lead that transformation every step of the way.

Scaling up the prototype

Did Cobban and his team foresee such a wide-ranging and successful transformation for DBS Bank back in 2009? Not exactly, he says. At that stage, the goals were much humbler, and were aimed simply at “getting the bank off the bottom” of customer service rankings in its key markets.

“The number one problem we had when I first started was operational excellence, or a lot of waste in operation processes,” he recalls. “We put in place a series of workshops called Process Improvement Events (PIEs) aimed at taking processing waste out of the system.”

Paul Cobban, Chief Data and Transformation Officer, DBS Bank

The first of these looked at the time taken to open a standard banking account with DBS, which was then done by mail and took around three weeks. “We set ourselves a target: wouldn’t it be great if we could do it in five working days,” Cobban says. “We put in place a team with some very bright people and we quickly got an outcome.”

It was during Cobban’s third PIE in 2010 that the newly appointed CEO of DBS Bank Piyush Gupta first encountered his work.

Having been brought into the business with his own ambitious transformation agenda, he immediately bought into the PIE strategy, and backed a rapid acceleration.

“In that first year, and this was 2009, we were going to do five (PIEs),” Cobban says. “Gupta asked me to then do 50 in 2010!”

The success in those early years was measured in terms of “customer hours” – the amount of waiting or other time customers saved because of the process improvements.  “We initially set ourselves a target of taking 10 million customer hours out of the system on an annual basis,” Cobban said. “But we ended up taking 250 million out.”

That initial success unlocked significant energy throughout the team and the organisation. It gave people a self-belief, and empowered them,” Cobban says. “They could see that if you put the effort in, you could get results.”

Getting organisation-wide buy-in

One of the keys to a transformation of any scale is to ensure there is buy-in across the board. All staff – even those only peripherally associated with the process being redesigned – need to feel a part of the project and should have regular communication with the implementation team.

Cobban says there are always naysayers; and people who will steadfastly hold on to old ways of doing things. His strategy of passing ownership on to the end users early has helped to mitigate these issues for DBS over the last 10 years.

DBS’ Transformation Team (left to right)

  • Paul Cobban, Chief Data and Transformation Officer
  • Alice Lim, Assistant Vice President, Technology and Operations
  • Jack Heng,  Assistant Vice President, Technology and Operations
  • Gordon Goh,  Assistant Vice President, Technology and Operations
  • Linda Lee, Head of PeopleTech and Future of Work

Photo by Armond Yeo, [email protected]

“The first thing to note is that my team doesn’t do any of the ‘doing’,” he says. “They do the coaching, education, and the training – the things that make it as easy as possible to make change happen.

“All the work is done by the line itself.”

Helping each of these teams is what Cobban calls the “T-Shaped transformation” methodology.  “We create a mechanism where as many people as possible can participate; we make the barriers for entry very low so they clear the training quickly and get going to make their improvements; we reward participation and enthusiasm, regardless of the results.”

That full population involvement is represented by the horizontal bar in a capital ‘T’. The vertical bar, meanwhile, represents where the teams involved go much deeper in a few focus areas where the results do have an important impact.

“We apply management oversight, funding resources, and more, to make sure that we do get those outcomes,” Cobban says.

The awards eight years in the making

In July this year, DBS Bank was named “World’s Best Bank”, by Euromoney magazine, the first time an Asian-based bank had received the respected publication’s top award.

That follows on from a similar accolade by Global Finance magazine at its World’s Best Global Banks Awards in 2018.

And those best-of-the-best prizes in turn followed on from DBS being named “World’s Best Digital Bank” by Euromoney in both 2016 and 2018.

Paul Cobban, Chief Data and Transformation Officer, says the prizes had been in the company’s sights as a goal since 2010. “Back then, we wrote a mock-up of a major business newspaper, with the headline ‘DBS named As Asian Bank of Choice’, and then we spelled out each of our strategic areas in a separate article, which provided a checklist of what we needed to do to achieve our goal.”

“By 2013, and 2014, we had ticked off each point,” and we then did the same again for the Best Bank in the World prizes.”