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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.

O.L.D.

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. http://wp.me/p1cOUS-9x