How Big are Small Ideas?

In 1985, when I transferred to an operations role I inherited a production-only suggestion program.  I recall that we received sixteen ideas that year of which one was awarded $1,600 calculated as a percentage of one year’s savings.  The remaining ideas did not make the cut.

So I asked employees for feedback.  To my surprise many were not even aware that a suggestion program existed, even though a suggestion box was prominently placed near the time clock.  One employee told me the box was only for complaints.  Another, said she knew about the program but referred to it as an idea rejection system.  “It takes forever to hear back about ideas,” he said, “and we don’t even get a decent explanation.”

Some further investigation with the help of our HR department revealed that, though unintended, our locked-box, cost-savings, big-ideas-only suggestion system was indeed an idea rejection system.  We were, on the one hand, promoting “many small changes for the better” through our continuous improvement efforts, while our legacy suggestion box may as well have been a shredder.  Over the next year we experimented with a different approach, eliminating the suggestion box (making ideas public), clarifying criteria, and replacing the cost-savings calculations with a flat cash award of $400, and opened the idea program up to all employees – not just production. This was marginally successful. The number of ideas quadrupled, but given the baseline of 16 ideas per year this was not very good. It turns out that the idea review process was still way too long, as members of the “blue ribbon commission” (BRC) evaluating the ideas still were predisposed to award only for big ideas, that is ideas that significantly impacted product cost savings.

So we dropped the award to $100 to expedite decisions by the BRC. Once again, the number of ideas quadrupled, but still many small ideas were denied.  Employees were insulted.  Good ideas were being delayed or denied because they were “too small.” A BRC member complained, “Why should we award for these small ideas?  They won’t make any difference.”  (This point of view is unfortunately still expressed to me today by some clients.)  But from the employee viewpoint, many improvements were being rejected, improvements that together would have a significant impact on productivity and quality.

In desperation, we dropped the award once more, this time to $25.  We also added a point system for employees to accumulate points for a month-end drawing.  They received points immediately – not dependent upon idea approval.  Everyone was recognized.   Most importantly, approval for ideas could be made at the supervisor level unless the idea required an engineering change. Activity for the BRC was reduced to a low level, as many small ideas were quickly implemented and then reported for the $25 prize.   Numbers of ideas quadrupled once again, and participation rose to nearly 100%. In the process we realized that the only “small” thing about small ideas was that they were easy to implement – no time or expense.   Some of the small ideas were $1 ideas and some were $10,000 ideas, most were in between. Without fully understanding the shift in thinking, we were now recognizing the act of having an idea rather than setting employees up for rejection.

How is your idea system working?  Does it need improvement?  Let me hear from you.


BTW  Alan Robinso,n author of best-selling Ideas Are Free, will be with us on October 5-6 in at the 2011 Northeast Shingo Conference. For a sneak preview of his presentation, click on this link or the arrow below.

4 thoughts on “How Big are Small Ideas?

  1. Gary H. Lucas

    Our suggestion box works fabulously. I make lots of easily implemented suggestions with large paybacks. I know they work because I have implemented them at other companies. Just making the suggestion absolutely guarantees that they won’t be implemented. Thus the damage I’m able to do to the company has been multiplied at least 10 fold. I am trying to see if I can actually suggest us right out of business!

  2. Donna

    Wow, I love the turn-around and lessons-learned. I too have spent years trying to gain acceptance of an “ideas” program and have gone down almost exactly the same path, without your fantastic results, but I’m not giving up yet. If I could do it again I would take into account how important it is to reward and recognize people for having the ideas and the courage to put them out there instead of focusing on the result.

  3. Mike Tarsetti

    I run a kaizen program in my plant. I set goals for individuals, everyone that is willing to do kaizens will be recognized after they reach the goal I set for them with a gift.. I have two different gift levels. Normally they are nice but inexpensive gifts, coffee mugs, totes bags, back packs and fleeces. One for when they reach their goal and the second one for if they double their goal.
    For the departments I recognize them on an average “kaizens per person” basis. That way, whole departs have objective and it brings them together to work for a common goal. For the departments I give snacks for reaching goal and lunch if you can double the goal.
    We also hand out cash prizes as we reach milestones. Everyone that completed a kaizen during that period has their name throw in the hat and names are randomly drawn. It doesn’t matter if your kaizen was small or big. This is too stress that every kaizen is valuable. I would love to believe the employees are doing all their kaizens for a cleaner, safer, more efficient plant but I know the gifts are helping motivate the process. I do believe in time people with change. That the gift will not be the driving force as much as the culture will change and the employees will be doing kaizen because they want to, to effect change for the better.

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