Yes, We Need Staff Ideas – But, How to Manage Those Ideas?
It's always great to see stories in the major media outlets about engaging front-line staff in improvement ideas. Recently, we had a piece in USA Today that I blogged about and now we have one in the Wall St. Journal titled: “For Bright Ideas, Ask the Staff.”
The article starts on a very promising note, saying, “Companies are moving beyond the suggestion box.”
Amen to that. The traditional suggestion box might be well intended, but in practice it's “where good ideas go to die,” as a client of mine once said. Suggestion boxes are slow, batchy, opaque, and non-collaborative. Most of them just don't work. But, thankfully, we have alternatives, including the Lean “kaizen” model of Masaaki Imai and Toyota.
From the article:
In an effort to cut costs and create new products and services, firms are seeking ideas from their own employees on everything from money-saving strategies to product design.
This is true in healthcare and it's the focus of my upcoming book on “Healthcare Kaizen” (or continuous improvement).
Again, from the article:
It's often the employeesâ€”rather than outside consultantsâ€”who know a company's products and processes best. According to management experts, many of the most innovative companies tend to solicit ideas from staff throughout the organization, not just the executive ranks.
As an outside consultant, my role is to teach healthcare professionals and managers about Lean principles and Kaizen principles — and they come up with amazing improvements that make for better patient care and better workplaces — and better financial results for hospitals.
The article also sites a professor who is one of the inspirations for our Healthcare Kaizen book, where we cite and quote him.
But it's often hard for rank and file workers to be heard: Research has found that the average U.S. employee's ideas, big or small, are implemented only once every six years, says Alan G. Robinson, a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
But, the article focuses on new technology-driven solutions that are more like the old fashioned suggestion box than they are like modern Kaizen.
The article describes software systems where employees submit ideas (that's a good start), but the downsides include:
- “a team of senior managers will review an idea within 30 days of its submission and notify the employee of its status.” (that's much slower than Kaizen, where ideas are often evaluated and implemented COLLABORATIVELY within a few days)
- At PriceWaterhouseCoopers, only 140 of the 3,300 submitted ideas were implemented (with Kaizen at Toyota or my co-author's hospital, up to 90% of ideas, or some iterative variation, are implemented)
140 out of 3300 is only 4.2% What gets people more engaged and excited about improvement – 4% or 90%?
I'm not sure I like the trend of employees “voting” on the ideas of others. Kaizen is not a popularity contest where only the top few “best” ideas get implemented. Kaizen is built upon small, low-cost, low-risk local improvements that can be implemented quickly by a team and their supervisor. We don't need or want everything to run through a huge bureaucracy.
In the WSJ comments section, somebody wrote that we should just pay employees more for ideas and then we'll get more. But Prof. Robinson counters there and there is data (from Robinson's book “Ideas Are Free”) that suggests BIGGER rewards lead to FEWER ideas (due to jealousy and dysfunction that comes from payout systems that are inevitably deemed to be unfair by employees).
Some companies pay financial rewards for ideas (typically as a percentage of cost savings, which can be tough to measure) but Dr. Robinson says that isn't usually an effective tactic for drawing submissions on a continuing basis. What drives most people to submit ideas is a real desire to make their work easier and cut through hassles, rather than monetary rewards, he says.
I know some healthcare organizations that pay for implemented ideas (usually just a small token, like a $5 gift card) and some that only give non-financial recognition, including thank yous, newsletters, and bulletin boards. In an effective Kaizen system, people generally want to make their own work easier and they want to improve things for their patients or customers. You don't need to pay people if you have an effective system and culture that helps them get their ideas implemented quickly.
Our upcoming Healthcare Kaizen book talks about these practices and principles. Our healthcare improvement software from KaiNexus (where I am “Chief Improvement Officer”) is built around the model of implementing MOST ideas, quickly and effectively, not just a lucky few that survive a voting or “American Idol” type process.