In the last issue of Inside Out (Proof for the profitability of engagement), I talked about what it takes to get employees engaged in systematic continuous improvement. I also cited recent research that proves the huge bottom line impact you can produce from doing it effectively.
After 15 years of benchmarking and refining a process that’s been used by several Baldrige Award winning companies, we’ve found that some of the “tried-and-true” principles for accomplishing that goal aren’t really so true after all. In fact, what actually works – what makes an improvement process a fully integrated system instead of a one-off activity – is somewhat counterintuitive.
“Bigger” isn’t always “better.”
One classic flaw in most suggestion programs is the emphasis on hitting “home runs.” It seems like it makes sense to focus on the big wins at first glance, but there are two problems with that notion. First, big things are hard to plan and implement, and not many employees are equipped to take them on. So it limits participation. Second, when employees get bigger incentives for bigger improvements, that’s where they tend to focus their attention – and they wind up walking right past hundreds of smaller ideas – the “base hits” – along the way.
The counterintuitive key is to set up the incentive structure to value every idea equally regardless of its size and impact. In our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System, we use a random drawing to accomplish that goal. For every approved improvement that an employee implements (not just suggests), his or her name is entered once into a bi-weekly drawing. Depending on the size of the organization, approximately 10%-20% of the names are pulled each time. Importantly, the value of the awards is very modest – usually no more than $50 – regardless of whether the idea saved $100 or $10,000. The value of the award has absolutely nothing to do with the value of the improvement.
That approach works for several reasons:
- People aren’t wasting time trying to cost-justify a lot of small improvements that any well-trained supervisor can see right away will make things work better, faster, cheaper, cleaner, easier or safer.
- It keeps employees focused on the little things that they have control over.
- It emphasizes the intrinsic merits of the improvements and the inherent motivation that everyone has to make things work better rather than the “prize money.”
- In the end, the most motivating factor for employees is that someone is actually taking their ideas seriously, helping them get those ideas implemented, and thanking them for their contributions.
Committees aren’t close enough to the action.
If you want to make sure that employee suggestions get evaluated and implemented, set up a suggestion committee to review and approve everything – right? Wrong! Dilbert would have a field day with that notion. Setting aside all the jokes about committees in general, let’s look at how that process typically works.
An employee comes up with an improvement idea and submits a suggestion. After going to the supervisor and probably to a manager, the idea eventually works its way to the suggestion committee. That “team” gets together maybe once every month or so to review a slug of suggestions. Of course, they’re doing double-duty. Not only do they have their own jobs to do, now they have to take on another load. What’s more, they often don’t know much about the improvements that are being proposed, so they have to do some research. By the time they finally make a decision, it’s been weeks or even months. Employees lose interest, and they aren’t very motivated to submit additional ideas.
So what’s the alternative? Keep it local – focusing most decision-making where the improvements will be implemented. You make it the job of every supervisor to review, evaluate and approve or decline the vast majority of improvement ideas. You also make it the responsibility of employees to get their ideas implemented. If they need help from their supervisor or someone else, they can get it – but they “own” it.
Here’s another benefit of that approach. It bolsters the role of the supervisor as a coach. To optimize that role, supervisors need the right kind of skills, of course. They have to learn how to evaluate improvement ideas, lead process improvement meetings, encourage employee participation, help people get their ideas implemented and acknowledge them for their contributions. Those duties also need to be included in the supervisor’s job description and assessed as part of their performance reviews.
While the principles are basic, making the shift from a “suggestion program” to a more viable and vital “improvement system” is not easy or “intuitive” for most people. But when that system produces dramatically more implemented improvements than a traditional program, the rewards far outweigh the effort.
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