A common lament that I hear from most companies, incluing my old company, is the difficulty they have getting employees to frequently contribute quality ideas (suggestions) to improve the performance of the organization, and even their own work.  The good old “suggestion box” has been around for decades with varying degrees of success but mostly ineffective.  Suggestion boxes mostly include suggestions for what somebody else should do.  I have also experienced many other mechanisms for employees to offer ideas and again the effectiveness varies widely.  The absolute number 1 reason I hear from employees for not offering ideas is that they don’t get feedback or their ideas don’t get implemented so they stop trying.  It strikes me that companies would never willingly fail to implement “good” ideas which suggests that a failure to implement ideas is the symptom of greater problems.  I believe employers don’t get quality suggestions that they would willingly implement for 3 primary reasons, in no order of importance.

  • We don’t give all employees, regardless of function or level, the skills to contribute.  Often it’s management, CI specialist, or employees with certain technical capabilities that have the best skills to contribute.  Suggestions from “specialists” or management are typically good, but also are typically more sophisticated, and require more analysis which often prevents easy and rapid implementation.  The key is to provide all employees the skill to offer suggestions that can be easily and rapidly implemented at low to no cost.  What company wouldn’t implement rapid no/low cost ideas that contribute to the success of the organization?  Developing these skills is easier than you might think.  Two simple skills to develop are: waste elimination (identifying the 7 wastes) and the skill to directly observe work to stimulate ideas for improvement.  The idea of the Swiffer Sweeper was discovered by observing hours of work and realizing that it took longer to continually and finish cleaning the mop than it actually did to mop the floor   Neither skill requires advanced degrees or years of experience.  They are “everyperson” skills.
  • Having the skills to identify opportunities isn’t much help in the absence of structured mechanisms for the employees to contribute.  Identifying an opportunity is one thing, the ability to surface the opportunity is another.  Again, sophisticated mechanisms are not needed, although I have seen many very sophisticated and layered mechanisms.  It could be as simple as a flip chart, waste elimination documentation sheets, structured direct observation, waste walks, or an agenda item on a team huddle.  It could be dedicating time specifically for offering ideas.  One company we work with gives the employees 1 hour per week for offering, discussing and hopefully implemented their ideas.  The preference is to have individual ideas offered to a group.  When ideas are shared they become more valuable.  Often the idea itself is often less important than the idea it spawns.  However, I am not a fan of traditional brainstorming as a means to generate ideas.  Traditional brainstorming actually suppresses creativity.  Working alone and pooling ideas is better.  We use a simple card exercise similar to Affinity Diagramming that is extremely successful in generating quality ideas.
  • Lastly, it is unreasonable to ask employees to contribute in chaos.  If all they are trying to do is “just get through the day” it will be impossible for them to use their skills to generate new ideas.  The best ideas come from a stable environment.  Toyota employees generate thousands of ideas each year because they come into a stable environment every day and they can focus on improving work and not on how to perform their work.  Standardization is the means to stability; it takes the “noise” out of the work.  I often hear from employees, when trying to implement tools and techniques of standardization that we are trying to make robots of them or we are stifling their creativity.  It’s actually the opposite.  With standardization comes stability and with stability comes opportunity.  Routine has its blessings, it is freeing.  It’s always when I am on “cruise control” and there is an absence of distractions that I come up with my best ideas.  There is a reason that we keep note pads beside our beds.  It’s because that’s when we often come up with our best ideas.  It is often the most stable part of our day.

I’m sure none of the above is new or revealing.  What was revealing for me was an opportunity for a controlled experiment that tested my hypothesis.  We are working with a very large organization in the UK that has had a long history and an embedded culture of employees doing simply what they are told.  Employee contribution was actually discouraged.  Over the last 16 months, reasonably stable pockets of the organization were given the skills (waste elimination, direct observation) and the opportunities (control rooms, Walk-Out-Wednesday for direct observation, waste walks).  There has been remarkable success.  Not only are there many quality suggestions, there are many small suggestions that are being rapidly implemented and are contributing to improved performance.  The change from no suggestions to many small, easy and rapidly implemented suggestions is remarkable.  The evidence for me was when an employee said “he could never go back to the old way of doing business”.  Leadership asking and expecting employees to contribute without stability, skills and opportunities is unreasonable.