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Businessweek Article on Employee Ideas

This Bloomberg Businessweek article caught my eye: “How to Get More Respect From Your Boss With Less Work.” It’s a misleading headline, almost as if it was associated with the wrong article, somehow. But, it’s an interesting read anyway.

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Researchers looked at 5,000 employees in an Asian IT company and found:

“…newer workers may have a fresh perspective on the business, but it’s the longtime employees who have the primo ideas. Younger professionals come up with slightly more suggestions than veterans, but theirs are not as good as those from the people in the organization for the longest time.”

In the Kaizen approach, we value ideas from every employee. Those who have been there the longest are the experts in the work and, in some ways probably have the best understanding of problems. At the same time, newer employees can serve as “fresh eyes” who might see problems that more experienced employees have trouble seeing anymore.

I’d argue we need a combination of experience and fresh eyes. Experienced employees might have more experience and intuition about “what hasn’t worked” or “what won’t work.” But, that can sometimes get in the way… and new employees are sometimes unburdened by this history and they don’t filter out as many “bad ideas.”

How did the researchers determine which ideas were “primo” or “not as good?”

“…researchers looked at whether the idea was implemented within the company, a sign that management deemed it good enough to try, and whether it was shared with clients, on the rationale that managers would be unlikely to present inferior ideas to external stakeholders.”

This sounds a bit like the old suggestion box process… employees submit suggestions and a committee or a manager decides if the suggestion is worth trying. In a Kaizen culture, we realize that not everything has to go through a manager’s approval. Kaizen organizations have a bias for testing ideas more often than not rather than just rejecting them. If there’s a “bad idea,” a suggestion system will reject it, while a Kaizen culture will keep iterating and brainstorming to find something that does solve the problem or at least makes things a little better.

The company being studied also tried a classic suggestion box approach – providing financial incentives to employees. As Daniel Pink wrote about in his book Drive, incentives often work… but they have side effects. Dr. Deming taught the same thing.

“The researchers also discovered that rewards (points that could be turned in for such goodies as a smartphone) inspired workers–especially lower-level employees–to pitch ideas. That sounds like common sense, but an effect you might expect rewards to have–that workers would flood the suggestion box in the hope of a reward, diluting the quality of the ideas–didn’t happen. Instead, idea quality was better overall, and incentives actually reduced the number of ideas per employee, even as they got more people to participate. What’s more, when the rewards went away, the ideas didn’t–the researchers suggested that workers keep pitching because they’d gotten in the habit of doing it.

I’ve heard the same thing in Kaizen cultures, including at Franciscan St. Francis Health. Why do nurses and other staff participate in Kaizen? The primary reason isn’t financial rewards (Franciscan does have a “points” system, as do many of the Japanese organizations I have visited). Sometimes, money is not the reason at all. Intrinsic motivation is a bigger factor. People want to provide the best patient care and patient experience and they want their workplace to be less frustrating.

The article also says:

“It has become popular for companies to set up an online suggestion box for employees. The authors point out that one in three U.S. and U.K. companies use a “suggestion system” in which employees can contribute ideas, but little is known about whether this idea even works.”

Well, there is actually some really good research from Robinson and Schroeder, in their books about “idea systems” (such as Kaizen). Suggestion boxes get very low employee participation rates and have a very small number of suggestions that actually get implemented. Rewards often get dysfunctional, as employees fight over who gets credit or over the value of the suggestion.

I state pretty directly in my presentations and training classes that suggestion box systems don’t work. Nobody ever disagrees and says, “Hey, we have a suggestion box system that works great.”

Final thought from the article, talking about “online suggestion boxes”:

“One clear benefit: A website where employees can submit ideas lets management track the progress of suggestions. Better yet, it’s transparent, letting everyone in the organization see the origin and progress of ideas, which helps stimulate employee participation.”

A website can be helpful. That’s why KaiNexus was created and why I’m a part of the team. But, web-based software shouldn’t just automate or digitize the suggestion box (although that’s what some companies try). What actually works is a Kaizen-based system… and that’s why KaiNexus is built around these principles. As people often say regarding Lean and IT… you can’t just automate a bad process.

Digitizing a Kaizen process can solve many problems. For one, physical Kaizen boards are very visible, but only to local teams. Software can provide broader visibility without removing visibility from the local departments.

The key, either way, is to move beyond suggestion boxes and that broken model. The suggestion box is dead! Long live improvement.


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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

1 Comment on "Businessweek Article on Employee Ideas"

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  1. Hi Mark

    First off rewards shouldn’t be necessary, though occasionally a suggest from someone may lead to a major benefit (those rare few do deserve an extra reward), but for the most part suggestions should actually benefit not only the organization getting them, but the workers themselves. Most of the free suggestions and ideas companies like Toyota get from their workers also benefit the workers themselves directly. No good suggestion makes it harder for people to do their jobs, nor do they lower safety standards. So making suggestions on the whole benefits not only the business, but the actual workers making the suggestion. The only real thing you need to get these types of suggestions is to create a culture that keeps trying to do better.

    As to sharing improvement via a digital system, I think it is great especially for larger organization operating in multiple location. Toyota does this, and it is often from what one location did to solve a problem that other locations adapt and improve on the idea not only to solve a similar problem to also solve other problems. Often one facility will even improve on an idea before implementing it in their place, to solve an identical problem. They do not believe in blindly implementing anything, rather they always look for an even better idea. The greater you can spread improvement ideas, the faster you can develop improvement to the improvements.

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