Innovation and Health Insurance - The Story of CSS

In May 2019, health insurance company CSS introduced the KICKBOX program. Today, this innovation program is well-established: almost forty RedBoxes, nearly a dozen BlueBoxes, and even two GoldBox success stories attest the wide acceptance across the entire company. We took innovation manager Daniel Alzer’s pulse and asked him to talk about his experiences regarding the KICKBOX program.

Daniel Alzer, you are an innovation manager at CSS, a Swiss health insurance company. You’re working in a sector with quite a strict legal framework. That means that you can’t just reinvent the wheel for a second time.

How and where does the KICKBOX program fit into your company and in what processes is innovation possible?

Basically, innovation is always important. If you don’t strive to become better and get further, it could happen that you become obsolete as a company. The sector of health insurance is a special one as everything is heavily regulated. By innovation, however, you can adjust your company’s position and look for new and lean processes in order to optimize both the internal procedures and the services for the insured (and consequently: more favorable premiums). Within the basic health insurance sector, it is highly regulated for what services Swiss insurance is required to pay. Without regulatory changes, it is not possible to add new benefits to the portfolio - but then competitors will also have the same benefits on offer.

However, customer service offers potential for differentiation. For instance, we were the first health insurer to launch an app that allows customers to submit their bills, contact us, check their deductibles, and more. Besides increasing convenience, it is very important for us to be able to optimize our processes and services so that we can focus on the insured. We see ourselves as a health partner and do act accordingly.

What goals does CSS want to achieve with the KICKBOX program?

The CSS KICKBOX program is open to all employees and to all kinds of ideas. We enable all our employees to develop meaningful ideas and be innovative, independently. We do not only promote their entrepreneurial spirit but also strengthen our internal innovation culture. The KICKBOX program offers a great opportunity to create new approaches and business models. This, again, can help us develop a more sustainable healthcare system.


How do you make your employees aware of the possibilities and chances of this innovation program?

We post articles on the internet and publish news and updates about projects, (virtual) events, and participants on our intranet. Also, word of mouth is very important. What we’ve also been doing for a few months now: we introduce the KICKBOX program to all new employees on their induction day. Each new employee of our company is made aware of this great opportunity.


And does it work?

It does, indeed. The KICKBOX program has been available at CSS since May 2019. The interim status is quite impressive: almost 50 ideas have been submitted since then, over 30 of which received the RedBox, around 10 moved on to the pilot phase – the BlueBox – and two ideas even reached the GoldBox phase.

Experience has shown that there are many employees with great ideas. I’ve talked to a wide variety of people from different departments who regularly challenge the status quo, which is key for new innovations.


What are the advantages of an innovation program such as KICKBOX?

With KICKBOX, we have the outstanding possibility that everyone who has an idea can try to realize it. Normally, we’re all absorbed by daily business and routine – and when one has an idea, someone else must take the time to a look at it if your own role doesn’t allow for it. But with the KICKBOX program, you can take the reins. You validate, you pilot, and you implement yourself.

We now have a decentralized generation of ideas – and this helps the participating employees a lot, in terms of personal development. We can clearly see cultural transformation taking place. Many employees don’t have the right methods and skills required for a KICKBOX program when they start. They have different daily tasks and are experts in what they do – but not in validating ideas. The tools and the mindset that can be acquired and learned with the KICKBOX program can support them to become, however, even better in what they do. It also makes them see things from a different perspective.

With the RedBox, our employees receive a starting credit of CHF 1.000, a time budget of 20 percent of their working time, contacts with both internal and external innovation experts, and a manual that explains the entire validation procedure, provides valuable tips, and guides them through the process. After two months, progress is presented to a committee of representatives from all company divisions. If the idea makes it beyond the pilot phase of the BlueBox to the GoldBox – the market implementation – the entire working time can be used for bringing things further. The entrepreneurs then must make the decision whether they want to implement their idea as a project within CSS, or whether they will establish their own start-up as a spin-off. An additional budget of up to CHF 100.000 is made available for market implementation.

Some employees are quite passionate about the innovation program, others are still hesitant, doubt their ideas, or are uncertain for other reasons. We talk to them, dispel their doubts, and allay their fears. Thanks to the program, they are closely supervised and surely not left to their own devices. This surety helps them gain confidence. A survey has also shown that all those who have taken part in the KICKBOX program would do it again and would recommend it to others. Overall, the program is very well received. However, we still face the challenge that there are many employees with great potential who do not dare to participate in it yet.


You mentioned two GoldBox stories. Could you tell us a bit more about these?

The first GoldBox was submitted for making ordering medication as easy as ordering a pizza. Every person should have the option of ordering medications online and picking them up at their local pharmacy with just a few clicks. This means an increase in convenience for both the patients and the pharmacies. The second GoldBox deals with what a trustworthy customer service could be like. This project goes into the direction of a voice assistant.


What effects are noticeable among the KICKBOX participants? What feedback do you get from the KICKBOXers and what are your own experiences?

I consistently got good feedback in the discussions with the intrapreneurs. All participants stated that they had never done anything like this before. But from now on, they all know how to tackle such a project. They added that these experiences will also help them in their daily work because they are now capable of asking certain questions much earlier or tracking down the essential points a lot faster (before diving straight into the project). The participants also declared that by now they know that it is crucial to include the relevant target group – after all, you have to know whether your idea will meet someone’s interest or whether you’re just imagining that something is important.

For my part, I have learned that the KICKBOX program is a persistent challenge. You don’t just introduce it, and it becomes an instant success. You need to continually talk about it and remind people that there is something else going on besides their day-to-day business. In addition, you absolutely need the backing of the company.

What I also realized: You don’t just introduce the KICKBOX and are immediately showered with ideas. You must explain to employees how it fits into day-to-day business and corporate strategy so that they understand that their contribution is an important factor in the company's ability to innovate. You may also have to motivate your employees to dare to submit their idea. We have to make that specific point clear again and again. Also, we know that the potential project will never look like the original idea. It’s always changing and evolving. This is also one of the reasons why we are very interested in allowing all ideas: the employees can thus move on themselves.


I can recommend the KICKBOX program because employees as well as the company benefit greatly from it. The valuable experience they gain in this innovation program can also be incorporated into their normal day-to-day work. The transformation effect on the entire company is quite impressive.

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