Helen Keller captured the importance of the so-called “little things” in the workplace with great insight and eloquence when she said:
“I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”
We’ve all heard the old saying, “It’s the little things that count.” As Keller wisely observed, that maxim applies to business as much anything else. With rare exception, though, it’s mostly discounted as a trivial bromide in the workplace. Going for home runs is much more fashionable than cranking out base hits.
Linking Lean to Little Ideas
Now, a new report provides compelling evidence that focusing on the micro things is not just a worthy pursuit. It actually has a big impact on improvements at the macro level, too. Performance improvement experts, Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder, first wrote about that premise in their book, “Ideas are Free,” published in 2004. Recently, they provided more evidence for it in a paper entitled “The Role of Front-Line Ideas in Lean Performance Improvement” published in 2009 by the American Society of Quality in their Quality Management Journal.
According to their research, “the critical component that often is missing in underperforming lean initiatives is the ability to get large numbers of smaller improvement ideas from front-line employees.”
Bigger Doesn’t Equal Better
Going against the grain, most lean initiatives engage small numbers of people in working on short-term big improvements. The most popular method for these big projects in the United States is the “kaizen event” or “kaizen blitz.” In many companies, that’s their only method for lean improvement. But the impact is often limited. Aside from not being able to get many employees engaged in big kaizen events, the improvements typically don’t have much staying power. One study cited in the paper showed that up to 90 percent of the benefits of kaizen events disappear within six months.
By contrast, systems in which small, front-line-driven ideas were the main tool for improvement produced the most successful long-term lean operations. According to the paper, it was this “ongoing and regular engagement with daily problems and opportunities, and the companies’ process-focused approaches … that built their lean cultures.”
Getting Employees Engaged
In fairness, many companies realize how valuable employee engagement in continuous improvement efforts can be. The challenge is how to get people tuned in and turned on to doing it as part of their daily work routine. Here are some features we’ve discovered that generate greater employee engagement in making improvements as part of our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System:
- Create an incentive structure that places equal value on small and large improvements
- Place the responsibility for approving and implementing smaller improvements with front-line supervisors, not a suggestion committee
- Respond to the majority of employee ideas within 24 hours
- Focus employees on small improvements within their own areas of responsibility, and give them responsibility for implementation, seeking assistance as needed from their supervisors
Based on their research, the authors estimate that in failing to focus on small, front-line ideas, a company could be ignoring as much as 80 percent of its lean improvement potential. In the end, it is both ironic and counterintuitive, but “small is big” when it comes to creating a culture of continuous improvement.
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