That's because the bank has cleaned up its act "" literally. It's been just 12 or 14 months since the bank began implementing Five S (a management initiative to keep the workplace in order), but compared to other quality control drivers like Six Sigma and ISO, which have been running for more than four years, Five S made a clean sweep almost immediately.
In certain cases, such as ICICI's back office for integrated operations at Mahalaxmi (central Mumbai), the company claims to have saved Rs 7.5 crore as a result of quality programmes in the current year.
However, it was Five S that contributed generously, making up 50 per cent of the savings. At another location, employees confide that earlier document retrievals would take up to two or three days.
Now even the lower rung employees boast of tracing documents in record time "" just 30 seconds (naturally, it takes significantly more time to drum up a hard copy from the store).
"Five S is a workplace transformation exercise. When we implemented it across the organisation, it appeared functional with many tangible benefits," says Chanda Kochhar, executive director, ICICI Bank.
But implementation was nowhere as easy. When ICICI Bank announced the initiative in December 2003, nearly 15,000 employees grudgingly gave up their weekends to come in to office "" and clean their workplace! Granted, they didn't scrub floors or wash used coffee mugs. But they did everything else, like emptying out filing cabinets and drawers and retaining only what was absolutely essential.
"Everybody grumbled in the beginning," recalls an employee, as we admire her impeccable workstation, adding "But we had no choice because the bosses themselves followed it."
In the process, the bank freed up huge amounts of shelf space. Consider this: in the HR department alone, throwing out old, unwanted resumes cleared up six cupboards. At the central Mumbai back office, too, employees discarded their pack-rat tendencies, freeing about 10 per cent storage space.
There was a direct pay-off consequently: ICICI Bank saved more than Rs 6 lakh a year on payments to third-party warehousing companies, since records can now be stored in the office.
ICICI Bank may be shedding excess baggage now "" and saving money in the process "" but it wasn't so full of good cheer even a year ago. In fact, ICICI's foray into Five S highlights issues that could escape the radar when companies grow at top speed as ICICI Bank did.
The bank set up retail banking operations in 1994; by 2000, it had half a million retail bank account holders. That number skyrocketed in the next few years; at present, it has 10 million retail bank account holders.
The track record in credit cards has been equally awe-inspiring. ICICI Bank claims to be the number one credit card company in the country with 2.5 million cards issued in less than five years.
In comparison, Citibank, which was the first to enter the Indian market for credit cards in 1990, has about 2.4 million subscribers. As a consultant puts it, "The bank was growing furiously in the period 1997-2001, compromising on quality. It's only later that the focus shifted from market share to evaluating the share of the wallet." ICICI Bank executives accept the charge. Says a middle-level manager, "By chasing numbers and growing too fast we were losing sight of the customer."
And customer grievances were increasing: from poor service at the branches to interminable waits for reissue of cards, the laundry list of complaints grew. Calls to the customer care helpline were of no use: it was not unusual to be put on hold for up to half an hour at a stretch.
By end-2003, ICICI Bank officials realised they needed to take action "" fast. A close look at global best practices that could help improve the customer experience turned up Five S, a Japanese concept used mainly on manufacturing shopfloors around the world.
But they soon realised that the main principles of Five S (sorting out, systematic arrangement, spic-n-span, standardise and self-discipline) could be easily imported into the services sector as well.
Another advantage is that Five S could be easily followed by everybody "" from the "peon to the president", as Sanjiv Kerkar, senior general manager, ICICI Bank puts it. Compare that to a statistics-dependent technique like Six Sigma, where all problems are broken down to mathematic terms "" implementing a concept that requires a certain degree of capability.
Says Kerkar, "The best thing about Five S is that it is extremely simple and yet powerful. More importantly, the benefits are visible immediately."
In December 2003, ICICI Bank managers from across the country participated in a one-day leadership programme that included not just Five S but also sessions on workplace improvement and change management. The aim was to help them encourage employees down the line to adapt to Five S.
"It is not enough to just engage zonal heads and branch managers. If Five S has to be successful, it must be owned by the line employees," says Debashis Sarkar, assistant general manager, ICICI Bank.
The bank followed up the initial sessions with pilot projects across 30 locations, involving 25 people at each location. The 750 employees so covered accounted for just 5 per cent of the total workforce. It took the bank close to six months to implement Five S at all its offices across the country.
How is Five S implemented practically? Take the central Mumbai back office, which has successfully cleared the two levels of Five S (ICICI Bank splits Five S into just two levels: implementation and sustenance, and continuous improvement) and is considered a model case by ICICI Bank. Here, employees navigate their way through the workplace using colours for reference (orange is for cabinets, blue for workstations, mauve for vaults and pink for storage).
The fetish for life beyond black-and-white does not stop here. Even in the dark-brown key hive (the keys belonging to all departments in the office are hung in a central key hive), each key chain is colour coded according to the department to which it belongs.
Anyone taking a key out of the hive has to sign a register, to ensure that it can be easily tracked if necessary. Says Sanjay Tikotekar, deputy general manager and head, Integrated Operations Group (IOG), ICICI Bank, "This is as user-friendly as it can get."
Life at the back office has become simpler after Five S. The biggest change has been in cataloguing. Earlier, records were filed haphazardly, strewn across cupboards and rooms.
Now, they're neatly lined up. A coloured line runs diagonally across all files. This ensures that the file retrieved is returned to its original place, without disturbing the sequence. And instead of letting files flop over, the vacant space when a file is removed is filled with a dummy, so that the other files remain upright.
There is more science to file-keeping. Files are now cross-referenced in alphabetic order, by date and by month "" making retrieval far simpler. Some regional offices also offer vernacular explanations for Five S, making it easy for even the housekeeping boys to retrieve documents.
Finally, 10 minutes at the end of each working day is reserved for a staff meeting, where employees discuss various initiatives and identify problems, and achievers are publicly applauded. Incidentally, for these 10 minutes, lights and computers are switched off to save power.
Five S is an entirely people-driven initiative and ICICI Bank hasn't been slow in recognising that. In order to sustain employee involvement, the bank is awarding individual and group efforts with certificates signed by the chairman.
There have been two such ceremonies in the past six months alone. The bank has also tied-up Five S project involvement with the performance management systems, so that no employee is caught napping at the workplace. So was it an employee who sneaked in a pillow to the men's room?