Where Is Your Company's Next Big Idea Coming From?

March 28, 2007
There is no limit to the profits innovation can generate.

Lucrative opportunities which scaled new heights of achievement and profits often first appeared as problems.

For example, Thomas Holley a paper mill worker had an idea to take paper scraps and bind them into pads, inventing what we now call 'legal pads.' Problems, like what do to with all this wasted paper are really opportunities.

Creative ideas, based on innovation, have long been recognized as tools that make a huge difference in any business enterprise. If only businesses would have enough of them.

A Shortage of Ideas Or Just Poor Planning?

One reason for the shortage of creative ideas is that it takes too long to formulate the big ideas that revolutionize a business. This is especially true when relying on a handful of already very busy senior managers to generate the ideas. Yet this need not be the case. If a company can simply enlist and incorporate its people into the task of generating ideas for improvement, it will make a big difference. With dozens and maybe even hundreds of people seriously and enthusiastically focusing their minds on finding ways of improvement the big ideas occur quickly.

Incorporating ordinary staff in the generation of ideas is actually the real secret behind the amazing productivity of the greatest manufacturing companies in the world. People are, of course, assets. Too often, they are looked at only as a cost and in that light it's difficult to both invest in their development and tap into their creative ideas.

Tony Kerwin, general manager, Canadian Blue Bird Coach Ltd., a 2005 IndustryWeek Top 25 North American Manufacturing Best Plant Finalist, has led such a transformation. "At Blue Bird we were the typical manufacturing organization where the ideas generally came from management and the shop floor just worked and grumbled at some of the 'not so brilliant' changes that sometimes got redone many times. However, we have transformed. Three years ago we generated about a dozen ideas, this past year we generated over 400 ideas which were implemented. It is important to realize that as a result of changing our product mix we have less than half as many people as we had three years ago," Kerwin noted.

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"Some of the ideas we have implemented have been quite simple saving us a minimal amount of money, but most certainly affecting someone's quality of work life; others have been substantial. The key is that every manager and supervisor has a target they must meet through working with their teams. This quota is part of their performance assessment and is charted and graphed monthly. This way we are putting muscle behind our Kaizen approach making it habit forming. Team members are encouraged to work with their colleagues and other technical resources to vet out their ideas and only get credit for those implemented."

Acclamating Employees Into Innovative Environments

Looking at how people 'flow' through an organization there are three stages; recruiting and integration (now being called onboarding), development and retention. During each stage people can contribute -- from fresh perspectives during recruiting -- to a better understanding of customer needs during retention.

Each stage provides opportunities to create an environment where workers feel safe suggesting ideas both good and bad. For example, during onboarding ask employees to walk the plant floor and write down any problems they see or things they think could be improved. Do it before they understand the processes.

During recruiting and integration, a lot of time is spent having new employees learn about the enterprise policies and procedures, code of conduct, what is expected of them and what they can expect from the organization. Many times this can be perceived as "this how you need to conform." It can be more effectively communicated as places where input is welcome.

In the retention stage, create an environment where supervisors catch people doing something right, rather than focusing only on catching mistakes. Make idea implementation part of every leader's role. It should involve building an environment that encourages ideas, helps employees develop knowledge and sharpens employees' problem-solving skills to increase the quality and impact of their ideas.

Humor can be one of the most valuable tools a leader can use for cultivating ideas. Humor can help to relieve stress and help people find ways to enjoy work. People are naturally drawn to humor and want to engage in laughter. A company could hold quick break "parties" to celebrate ideas, give out fun awards.

Creating A Conducive Environment

A company can make the decision to change the culture in their organization and to create an environment conducive for enthusiastic enterprise participation. Tony Kerwin gives this example, "The maintenance manager was besieged with issues during the winter months as a result of snow clearing. The cost and inconvenience of calling in our outside service provider prompted him to look at an alternative solution. We had an older tractor that was no longer needed in our business and we had been looking to dispose of it. He took it upon himself to speak with his maintenance team to see if they would be interested in taking over the responsibility for snow clearing. It might involve some overtime and it would require them to work at times in very inclement weather. They were very interested and agreed to his proposal. He then started to visit local equipment dealers looking for a workable solution to acquire acceptable snow clearing equipment in exchange for our idle tractor. He was successful in his quest and this resulted in over $25K in annual savings as well as the added convenience of having the snow removed in a very timely manner by people who had a vested interest in the operation."

Training Employees To Be Innovative

It's important to develop employees, but too often companies look at training as an event or series of events. It's really an ongoing process, starting in the recruiting stage and throughout each and every employee's tenure. The training events are typically classes or "on the job" episodes, but training also occurs by trying out new ideas, working with teammates, participating in productive meetings and in other ways on a day-to-day basis.

There are many tools that can support people and ideas to generate innovation just as there are organizational structures and cultures that can inhibit it.The key is to have a system. Quick & Easy Kaizen is a good example, any organization can use. People have an idea, test it, implement it and share it.

Leadership And Communication

The single most important factor in developing an innovative culture is leadership. Observe someone who supervisors people or manages an enterprise and what do you see them do most of the time? They talk with people, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in meetings, or on the phone. They write letters, emails and notes.They are engaged in communication.

Leaders need to communicate problems and view them as places to improve. Employees need to be aware of problems, especially serious problems so they can be seen as opportunities. What is done with these opportunities can become the path to increased profits.

Chuck Yorke is an organizational development and performance improvement specialist, trainer, consultant and speaker. He is co-author of All You Gotta Do Is Ask, a book which explains how to promote large numbers of ideas from employees. Yorke can be reached at [email protected] http://www.peoplekaizen.com

Jim Garrick is an industry consultant with FedEx Services. Garrick is a Lean process improvement professional with over twenty years of consumer packaged goods, HVAC, automotive and consulting experience. Garrick can be reached at [email protected].

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