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Continuous improvement. It’s a major trend that’s captured the attention of senior leaders throughout every industry around the world. And it makes sense. Companies that embrace a continuous improvement mindset don’t just execute a handful of process improvement projects and move on. Instead, they drive sustainable results over time and embed new ways of customer-focused thinking into the DNA of their organization. The benefits can be huge – including innovative products, new markets, increased efficiencies and streamlined processes.

So, what’s the best way to get started? There are plenty of methodologies to consider. It comes down to finding the right approach that works for your organization. XL Catlin’s Justin Gress, is a big proponent of the GE WorkOut approach for continuous improvement. From his college days as a GE Intern to leading strategic operations for North America Construction, Justin has seen the positive business impact of using the WorkOut process. “You can empower colleagues and align your organization around key initiatives that support your customers,” says Justin. Here’s how he makes it happen.

How did you get interested in continuous improvement?

Gress: It goes back to my college days when I interned with General Electric Corporation.  I spent two summers at GE Insurance working in Strategic Operations and Marketing and was motivated to learn as much about GE’s strong leadership/operational improvement culture in those two short 90-day windows. During my internship, I participated in my first WorkOut and realized what a powerful tool it can be to uncovering continuous improvement opportunities. I remember sitting in a conference room with several different disciplines represented, more importantly various levels of the organization. Everyone spoke openly and knew they had a job to do. It was part of the GE culture to drive change and they had a large Six Sigma team down the hall from where I sat. It was considered a bit unorthodox to apply manufacturing concepts to an insurance environment, but it produced new energy and a different way of thinking in the company. 

Fast forward almost 10 years, I joined XL Catlin, and I quickly heard that we also used WorkOuts. It made me realize I was going to work for another company that had a continuous improvement culture and wanted to find new ways to improve what is one of the world’s oldest industries.  Most importantly, it showed a sense of urgency both internally and externally on finding ways to improve.

Tell us more about WorkOuts.

A WorkOut is simply a problem solving process and methodology. It can be many things – a change agent, a focus on process, a way to promote productivity and remove bureaucracy, or a set of values supporting ongoing critical questioning and improvement. This methodology creates an opportunity for leaders to become more candid, demonstrate flexibility, and work together regardless of organizational role.

WorkOuts have three key stages – Plan, Conduct, and Implement. For planning, you first need to determine the logistics – the theme, the people, and a location. Communication is so important at this stage. You need the people to show up, focus, and be ready to work. The second phase is conducting the actual WorkOut. This should be held in person over 1-3 days. This is the true opportunity to analyze the issue, build an action plan, and have the sponsor give a “go/no go” decision. Lastly, “Implement” is where the action plans are put in place, preferably in 90 days, which could result in some Rapid Results Initiatives.

How can this process help customers?

Our North America Construction business was actually formed through the WorkOut process. We built this multi-line team to serve the industry’s unique needs – across coverage, claims and risk engineering. This allows us to be highly responsive to what our clients need. We’ve also used it to drive continuous improvement in our underwriting processes. This means looking for new ways to do things, align resources and increase efficiencies – all with the goal of improving customers’ experience. On a global level, we’ve used them in international regions. Back in 2017, we formed a team of various stakeholders and put together a comprehensive plan for Monaco. This was a new market for our company and we wanted to make sure we were best positioned with the right resources and expertise to serve clients. Starting strong was critical and we used the WorkOut process to make that happen. 

What are the benefits?

WorkOuts can eliminate barriers between functions, promote thinking in an open environment – regardless of role/title in the organization and drive cross-functional teamwork. They also give participants a voice at the decision making table, can eliminate bureaucracy in complex organizations, create recommendations through team problem solving, maximize productivity, and generate new energy on your team.

Another key benefit is the WorkOut can feed your annual Operational Plan. This means identifying the specific projects and initiatives that can drive your top and bottom line performance. You can also use this process to begin to identify your next set of leaders in your organization at various levels.  Our North America Construction team has been using WorkOuts for years. It keeps the team focused on our goals, and helps us to take action on what matters most to our customers.


WorkOuts can eliminate barriers between functions, promote thinking in an open environment — regardless of role/title in the organization and drive cross-functional teamwork.

What are some best practices?

For a WorkOut to be successful, it comes down to bringing the right people around a shared goal with sustained focus.  We’ve learned a lot over the years. Here are some best practices that can help:

  • Make sure you have an engaged, demanding business leader sponsor who will expect results and be supportive of change
  • Pre-work, Communication, and Logistics — It’s crucial to get this part right!
  • Get the right people in the room (in person)
  • Aim for 6-14 participants, any less it is a struggle to have all stakeholders represented. For larger groups 15+, break the team into smaller groups to focus on specific results.
  • Stick to things the team can control and roll out in 90-days
  • Use the “Parking Lot” to capture other good ideas
  • Assign Process Owners to continue to monitor/drive change
  • Choose a strong facilitator who will keep WorkOut running on time and produce a high level of ideas/communication amongst the participants

Who do you think should use WorkOuts?

Everyone. To keep a competitive advantage, all business leaders need to embrace continuous improvement thinking. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. Competition is everywhere, and the WorkOut process is a proven method to help keep you ahead.  A WorkOut is as much about the process as it is about the results. You can empower colleagues and align your organization around key initiatives that will drive the results you need. Ultimately, it’s a proven path to execute on continuous improvement!

About the Author

Justin Gress is director of strategic operations for XL Catlin’s North America Construction business. How do you make continuous improvement happen at your company? Send Justin your thoughts at

  • About The Author
  • Director of Strategic Operations, North America Construction, AXA XL
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