Who are the Experts?

By M. Dana Baldwin

"Ideas are the engine of progress. Without them, organizations stagnate and decline. Yet most organizations are far more effective at suppressing employee ideas than promoting them. Every day, millions of workers around the world see problems and opportunities their bosses flat-out miss. With little chance to do anything about them, they are forced to watch as their companies waste time and money, disappoint and lose customers, and perform far below their potential." (from a review of the book: Ideas are Free, by Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder (Berrett-Koehler, April 2004)

In your company who are the experts with the ideas that can save the company money, improve efficiency and make things safer, faster, better? Who are the people closest to what your company is actually doing, from operations through finance and management, to sales and logistics?

The answer is so obvious that it often escapes the attention of those who should be seeking it: The people in your company who perform the daily tasks which make up the entirety of what your company does. Who can better make suggestions on how to improve a process than the person who performs the process every day? Who is in better position to make suggestion on how to improve a product than the person who makes it, sells it, delivers and installs it or services it after the sale is completed?

The first thing to look at is the atmosphere within the company. Are your supervisors, managers and executives setting a culture that encourages improvement ideas to be submitted, or do they have a tendency to squelch ideas, not rock the boat? In a company where the status quo is honored (after all we are very successful, why would we want to change?), why would people want to offer their ideas to improve the company? When a supervisor or manager indicates his/her displeasure at being bothered by a suggestion, what do you think will be the inclination of the employee with an idea the next time he or she thinks of a proposal for an improvement? Why would an employee endure having ideas quashed repeatedly with no consideration of how each might help the company improve its service, processes, products or services and bottom line? The better companies do a good job of listening to those people, both within and outside the company, who can contribute positive improvement ideas.

First, why should we be interested in having employees make improvement idea submissions? Some experts suggest that when employees find their ideas to be well received and considered, there is a corresponding increase in morale, efficiency and improved performance. There is higher employee involvement and a more positive atmosphere in the work place. On the other hand, in companies which apparently specialize in squelching employee input and suggestions, morale often is lower, participation is less, personal involvement declines and employees appear to be more apt to take the attitude that they just have a job, and 'I just do what they pay me to do'. Which company would you rather be a part of, one which suppresses ideas for improvement, or one which honors, validates and investigates those suggestions for increasing results at any level?

How can we take advantage of the many ideas that our employees can come up with to make what we do better, lower cost, quicker to market, etc.? This attribute (and possible change in company culture) needs to start at the top. The executives must indicate, through continuing actions, that the company is interested in pursuing suggestions which will help the company improve one or more aspects of its operations, sales, service and financial results. The executives must also measure the results and hold their direct reports responsible for listening to and encouraging people from all over the organization chart to submit improvement ideas.

One further consideration is that the atmosphere within the company should be one that encourages employees to take some risks with ideas. At the concept stage, all the company will invest in a suggestion is a little time and effort for a team to analyze the suggestion. Even proposals that do not work out are worth considering, because they may contain the core of a very good idea. A culture which encourages risk-taking within controlled circumstances may reap significant rewards from the process.

The next key is follow-through. Ideas need to be filtered and responded to, fairly and in a timely manner. The employee does not need to have every idea adopted, but does need to have every one considered and evaluated fairly. Timeliness is also important to an employee. Once a suggestion is submitted, there can be no obstacle larger in the employee's mind than the thought that his/her idea is just sitting on someone's desk gathering dust. Reasonable communication about the idea, its progress and potential can be a significant boost to the morale of the idea generator. This does not mean that he/she needs a bulletin every day or every week, but on a periodic and predictable schedule, an update should be given. This includes telling the employee that no progress has been made, but the idea is still active and under consideration.

When an idea is rejected, the response should be straightforward and honest. When the gain from the idea is not large enough to justify the change or the investment, the company should say so. When the idea is too costly to implement, the company should indicate this, and ask for ideas on how to change the original submission so that in its new form the idea could be reconsidered for implementation. Care should be taken to respond to the ideas honestly and frankly. The employee will realize that each idea stands on its merits and is being judged on how it will affect some aspect of the company, and not on who submitted it for consideration. This will build trust in the system and in the management, and this is a key to obtaining an ongoing flow of ideas.

Effective suggestions should bring a tangible improvement to the company: better quality product or service, improved productivity, increased safety, lower costs, etc. This, inevitably, brings up the concept of rewards. As in most things of this type, there are right and wrong ways to implement a reward system. This should be the subject of a future article, as it is too important to be covered quickly or lightly.

One significant area for improvements, which is often overlooked by many companies in their search for the "home run" concept, is the idea that brings a small improvement to some process, service or product. A series of small improvements can often result in significant additions to the bottom line, but too many suggestion systems are targeted only at large ideas or great leaps. Simple ideas, such as gathering of purchases of standard items which could result in a higher total volume discount/lower price can help a company save money. While each individual item may not save very much, the total over a large number of items could add up to real money.

Suggestion: Look at how your company handles ideas for improvements. Does it encourage and welcome such suggestions with affirmative policies and positive feedback, or does it discourage such submissions subtly through inaction or neglect? Is the course of action typical of an open, reinforcing policy, or is there obvious discouragement of any new ideas or concepts? Think of the possible improvement in your company's performance and morale which could result from a strategy of encouraging and pursuing ideas for improvements. Which way is better for the long run for your company?

Dana Baldwin is a Consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc. He can be reached via e-mail at

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