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How To Challenge and Involve All Employees To Improve The Bottom Line


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									How To Challenge and Involve All Employees To Improve The Bottom Line

By Charles W. Prather and Mark C. Turrell

Challenging and involving all employees is a key to setting an improved climate
for innovation and improving the bottom line, but has been impractical until now. Using
efficiencies provided by your organization’s internal computer systems running cutting
edge ideas management software, and new streamlined processes for creating
breakthrough yet workable solutions to especially critical problems, all employees can
now be challenged and included in the innovation process with bottom line benefits.

One of the key dimensions of the Climate For Innovation is, “Challenge and
Involvement.”12 Although leaders agree with this wisdom, few have been able to find
effective ways to make this happen in practice because there are two opposing problems
that must be solved when involving employees in problem-solving. They are: (1) giving
everyone a genuine opportunity to submit their ideas without overloading the system, and
at the same time, (2) getting truly innovative ideas that go far beyond the useful but usually
ordinary ideas that are produced by employee suggestion systems.

                                               The usual “suggestion systems” of the past
                                               almost always failed because the administrative
                                               workload was so great they crumbled under their
                                               own weight, and yet on the other hand, it is simply
                                               impractical to include everyone in focused
                                               innovative problem-solving workshops. Imagine
                                               trying to involve thousands of employees in
                                               workshops on a regular basis!

Thanks to the efficiencies enabled by Information Technology, this dilemma can now be easily
resolved for the first time. Using your intranet, it is now possible to allow everyone to submit
ideas in response to important business challenges. For those critical issues where truly
breakthrough ideas are required, employee teams can participate in special intensive
workshops to develop breakthrough yet workable ideas to especially difficult problems.

The best ideas can come from any employee, any time, anywhere; people
naturally think of ways to make their jobs easier, faster, and more productive. Although
these words are a truism, few organizations have effective systems in place to solicit
ideas and then implement the best ones. In many companies when ideas are accepted
from employees, it happens because the idea creator was persistent and vocal, and
exerted a lot of personal energy. Unfortunately, few people are willing to fight such
battles to be heard. Having a system that makes it easy for employees to contribute ideas
increases the likelihood that good ideas will be submitted. Strong, visible support by
leadership lets everyone know that individual thinking and ideas are valued, and allows
everyone to be more involved with the business. This in turn sets an improved Climate
For Innovation.

Suggestion systems typically are conceived and kicked off by leadership with
high visibility “hoopla” and eventually fall into disuse and are quietly abandoned. One
company we know became so disenchanted with their system that they formally
abolished it! Suggestion systems fail most often because the human side of the system is
ignored, or because the added work to administer the system becomes so burdensome that
it falls under its own weight.

For example, in systems where participants are paid money or money equivalents
(gift certificates and the like), people have resorted to stealing each other’s ideas,
generating ill will toward each other and diminished cooperation. It also caused people
to withhold their ideas from each other, thereby squelching debate on the issues, another
one of the dimensions of the Climate For Innovation. The rewards resulted in unhealthy
competition rather than the needed collaboration that characterizes innovative
organizations. These behaviors are not surprising to those schooled in Systems Thinking
technology or in Knowledge Management and human behavior (see Alfie Kohn3), but
came as a complete surprise to the well-meaning leaders.

In systems where responsibility for serving on the ‘idea evaluation team’ is a
never-ending task, members get worn out, they feel overworked and often resent being
required to do this added task. As a result they may delay making an evaluation, and
when they get around to it, they may give it little thought, quickly rejecting every idea.
Still further, many ideas are submitted to solve problems that don’t exist, and therefore
have no built-in acceptance. If most ideas are rejected, people stop submitting them.
Ideas need a receptive ‘home’ and yet typical idea suggestion systems aren’t set up to
provide that.

Many suggestion systems don’t adequately inform idea authors about what is
happening with their ideas. During a phone call if the other party stopped responding,

you would eventually hang up. Likewise, employees ‘hang up’ on suggestion systems
that are poorly responsive, and the systems just aren’t used.

Overcoming the limitations of traditional suggestion systems has at last been solved by
application software that can form the backbone of an effective ideas management system. The
best software was created by experts in knowledge management who understand the human
side of the equation and who also are skilled at leading others to convert concepts into
computer software. It is far more than a computerized version of the old suggestion system
concept. One of the most innovative approaches adopted is the ‘event mode’ of soliciting and
evaluating ideas. An ‘event’ is a campaign of specific length, usually 2-6 weeks, during which
ideas are solicited from everyone to meet specific challenges of particular interest to leaders.
Because most ideas are submitted in response to specific challenges, they are met with a
receptive audience because the ideas are needed. The ideas submitted tend to be highly
relevant and useful, more tactical than strategic, and more immediately practical and more
easily implemented.

Beyond Employee Suggestions
However, when dealing with old problems that were never adequately resolved,
ideas contributed by employees tend to be restatements of old ideas and therefore have
little capacity to solve the problem. Breakthrough ideas are needed that have never
                                    before been put forward. In these cases an intensive problem-
                                    solving process is called for. Generically called “Creative
                                    Problem-Solving,” these workshops dig deeply to get past all
                                    the easy and obvious ideas that have already been addressed.
                                    Only by emptying the box can one get out of the box, so
                                    attention is paid to really and truly emptying the box completely
before attempting to use any of the “out of the
box” techniques. The techniques to force
thinking out of the box generate truly
innovative ideas that have never been raised
before. A simplified diagram of a Creative
Problem-Solving process is shown in Figure
1. Notice that the three sections are identified
as (1) Problem identification, (2) Idea
Generation, and (3) Idea Selection and
Implementation Planning. This process pays
special attention to clearly defining the right
problem, and then goes far beyond traditional
brainstorming by using “Pattern-Breaking
Thinking” which creates breakthrough ideas.
Sears Roebuck found a highly innovative way
to convert non-purchasers into purchasers in
their “Sears Brand Central” appliances
departments from one such workshop. An
internal audit revealed that one single idea
increased revenues by some $200 million in 2000 alone. The idea that they selected, creation of
the “Sears Tear-Away” program, came only after ‘brainstorming’ techniques had “emptied
everyone’s mental box” and there was nothing left. Pattern-breaking tools were then used on
the same challenge to yield the highly innovative idea that was so very successful. In the “Tear
Away” program, the Sales Associate completes the “Tear Away” form with the customer, making
sure the customer knows that Sears will match any price any time. The Sales Associate can
search the Internet with the customer on the spot to find the lowest price, which Sears will
match. Non-purchasers quickly become purchasers.

Pattern-Breaking Thinking tools work better in a team or group setting than with
a single person using them alone. Their power rests in highly interactive sessions in
which a skillful facilitator helps the group use the thinking tools and guides discussions
that lead to breakthrough ideas. The personal face-to-face interaction and constant
Inter-play is required to get the best results.

To more easily reach consensus on the best ideas, criteria are used to make the
selections. Some processes take the unusual step of working to improve each selected
idea to increase its chance of success. For each idea that makes the final cut (4-6 ideas), a
project plan should be created with names of those who accept responsibility for taking
the next steps and the dates expected to complete the next steps.

In summary, Employee Suggestion Systems and Creative Problem-Solving
Workshops are complementary ways that together can overcome the dilemma of
involving every employee in solving business problems while finding breakthrough yet
Workable solutions when required.
Table 1. Complementary Processes of Employee Suggestion Systems & Creative
Problem-Solving Workshops

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