The Power of Everyday Frontline Employee-Driven Innovation


By Andy Brophy
The management of ideas is, in many organisations large and small, a huge untapped or poorly underutilised resource. Yet ideas are the prime source of improvement and innovation. Moreover, good Idea Management brings with it a change in the culture of an organisation. Employees see problems and opportunities every day in their immediate work areas that their managers do not. When employees are not given the opportunity to be heard and the time to implement their ideas they lose faith in management and are thus not fully engaged in their work.

The foundation of a good idea system is based on the realisation that there is far more capability/capacity in our people than is actually being harnessed. The essence of the Lean Philosophy is developing within each employee an improvement seeking and waste elimination mindset. If everyone even improved their job 0.1% everyday that adds up to a 24% improvement per employee year on year. That equates to a colossal competitive advantage over time and competitors cannot copy these compounded small improvements.

Operational waste can take many forms including waiting, excess walking, unnecessary services, rework and defects, energy, excess inventory, etc. There is no end to improvement opportunities if we become sensitized to waste as the thought provoking quote from Shigeo Shingo reveals:

“If the nut has fifteen threads on it, it cannot be tightened unless it is turned fifteen times. In reality, though, it is that last turn that tightens the bolt and the first one that loosens it. The remaining fourteen turns are waste.”

Idea Management’s purpose is to deliver continuous incremental innovation, employee involvement, and up-skilling to the workplace. Employees are coached to put forward ideas that make their job easier, can be implemented quickly, eliminate the cause of problems, save money, and don’t cost much to implement.

We commonly hear; “That’s already happening here, we just don’t write the ideas down”. However is there anything else that we do that is important to us like, for example your expense system that you don’t have a process for? Ideas are too important to be left to chance and in the absence of a defined process they will be pushed to the back burner due to urgent day to day pressures.

Traditional methods of attempting to capture ideas such as suggestion boxes don’t work. There is the story about the suggestion found in the suggestion box; “Can you get rid of the suggestion box? Nobody ever uses it!” Employees feel they would be better off dropping their ideas into a paper shredder if they never hear about previously submitted ideas. Suggestion systems also get stuck in their own bureaucracy. There are long implementation times, low participation rates (typically < 5% of workforce) and high rejection rates, partly because some are duplicate suggestions which have already been paid for. Most traditional suggestion systems fall prey to ideas for other people to do something about, rather than the originator of the idea. If all you have to do is suggest an idea for someone else to implement you can say whatever you like. Lean uses the Kaizen approach to Idea Management where emphasis is placed on total workforce participation. Idea activity is an expected part of the job. There are high participation (typically > 50% of workforce) levels in comparison to suggestions box type approaches. This is because roles and responsibilities for the idea system are outlined at all levels. Ideas are visually displayed on boards, implemented fast, and recognised. New skills are learned by employees through interacting with support functions when implementing their ideas. People are coached to recognize “hidden” waste and the idea system is integrated into daily problem solving. Idea activity is also measured. The employee’s direct manager mentors and supports the idea originator during implementation. Small ideas don’t take enormous time and resources to implement and are not a burden on management, the opposite in fact.

There are also very high approval rates for ideas put forward. Employees are coached as to what constitutes a good idea. “Bad ideas” are viewed as training opportunities; the intent behind the idea is teased out and put forward again. Peer accountability is expressed through employees posting their ideas in the work area. Ideas are often tested and implemented prior to putting forward into the idea system.

Well run Idea Management Systems are realising substantial returns. Subaru’s employees, save over $5000 per employee. American Airlines IdeAAs System saves on average $55 million a year. In 2009 the Idea System at The Baptist Healthcare Hospital in Florida realised over $25 million in cost improvements.

Surprisingly the best performing Idea Systems don’t pay a percentage of savings for ideas. With monetary rewards there are winners and losers, to overcome this you should make ideas and creativity part of the job.

The key is to tap into people’s intrinsic motivation, the natural desire that they have to make a positive difference. It is the buzz got from making an improvement. The greatest reward for employees is to see their ideas used. An example of recognition is a variety of token items and monthly raffles for implemented ideas.

In closing, the personal and organizational costs of failing to fully engage the passion, talent, and collective intelligence of the workforce may be far greater than our comparatively high wage cost base. Idea Management Systems run to their capability in best-in-class organizations are providing the solution to this and are a non transferrable asset.

Author profile:
Andy Brophy is the co-author with John Bicheno of Innovative Lean A Guide to Releasing the Untapped Gold in Your Organisation, to Engage Employees, Drive Out Waste and Create Prosperity. For more information contact andy@lean2innovativethinking.com or visit www.lean2innovativethinking.com

4 Comments

  1. Joseph

    June 23, 2010 - 3:02 pm

    Jon.
    Many Idea Systems start with a clean sheet of paper. This is wrong.
    All new Idea meetings should start with the none implemented Ideas from the previous meetings. As time passes Ideas that were raised and turned down because they did not meet the Total Cost Criterion could some time later fly. If you discard them you rely on some one thinking them up again. This a waste of Gray Matter and time. A quick review of the previous failed Ideas will quickly show the ones that may now be cost effective.
    A good way to get people to put forward Ideas is the give those who raise new ideas a sweet. At the end of the meeting all those who are not sucking a sweet should be told to do press ups for ten minutes. This exercise will loosen their tongues for the next meeting. I am joking just sack them.
    Ps. I have just seen my answer to one of your Blogs on a Google Search. Have you got any Idea why. If you can answer this question you can have a sweet.

  2. Jon

    June 23, 2010 - 4:12 pm

    Hi Joseph
    I need to do more push ups so here’s my take on Google. Their motto is “don’t be evil” so your comments must help them somehow fulfill this mission.

  3. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    June 24, 2010 - 3:41 am

    Hi Jon,
    Another great post! Thank you.
    The question which does not get asked often enough is why, after three decades of awareness of Lean and kaizen, should we be trying to convince the vast majority of today’s business leaders of the power of “mobilising and pulling together the intellectual resources of all employees in the service of the firm” (Konosuke Matsushita). I suspect that there is a cultural (Grand?) canyon between the natural sciences and engineering on one hand, and the dark arts and fashions of “management sciences”.
    There is a discussion in LinkedIn (Kaizen Group) about whether Lean and kaizen are based on things cultural. You may like to visit the discussion and see my post at:
    http://bit.ly/bnwGFc

  4. Steve Halpin

    June 24, 2010 - 3:59 am

    Jon / Andy,
    Thanks for another interesting Blog.
    I always found that the problem with suggestion schemes was that they lacked any focus. There is usually an initial cluster of great ideas and then over time the suggestion box becomes an outlet for all sorts of issues (food in the canteen, overtime, work environment). While these issues may have some merit, they are often a distraction and eventually the system falls into disrepute. When Kaizens request the involvement of the employees to address business critical performance and receive the support of Senior Management, a whole new scenario is created. However, sometimes the issue is that the Senior management haven’t defined, measured or communicated the business critical issues. But that’s for another day……….