Engaging employees in continuous improvement is part art, and part science. To be successful, though, there are two main things that you have to keep in mind: if you're going to ask your employees for ideas, you MUST respond to every idea, and you must take action (or empower the employee take action) on most of them. If you can't do those two things, DON'T ASK - you’ll just set everybody up for major disappointment, decrease morale, and increase the barrier to adoption later when you are ready to respond and act.
Our co-founder Greg Jacobson, MD and our VP of customer success Mark Graban, wrote this commentary in 2011 that says Kaizen is, in part, a process where we “identify, report, and solve individual problems” and “all ideas are addressed and responded to in some way.” It’s not enough to just ask employees to speak up. Leaders need to help staff take action by delegated or being servant leaders, as appropriate.
In the webinar "Leadership Behaviors That Create A Culture of Continuous Improvement" (recording available here), Mark and Greg’s list included not just the need to ask for ideas, but also the need for leaders to “work to find something to implement.”
It was great to see this piece on the Harvard Business Review website: “Don’t Ask for New Ideas If You’re Not Ready to Act on Them.” It seems so obvious, but it’s advice that is worth repeating.
Big Campaign, Small Committee
The article describes an organization that had a big campaign to ask people for improvement ideas. That’s a great start. What happened next is sort of predictable: They got a FLOOD of over one thousand ideas - which is to be expected; we know that employees have lots of ideas, but often aren’t being asked. What happened next is also no surprise:
"Unfortunately, our client hadn’t expected this kind of response, and the small team charged with orchestrating the innovation event was quickly overwhelmed. It took them over a week just to sort the ideas into categories. The summary document that they put together for the senior executive committee was 30 pages long, with demographic and functional breakdowns of where ideas had come from. By the time the committee reviewed and discussed it, almost a month had passed since the end of the crowdsourcing event. It then took a couple more weeks before management finally thanked everyone and announced that senior executives would follow up on specific ideas to pursue."
Having a small team, a committee, or a group of executives like this that make all of the decisions about what to implement is the wrong model for continuous improvement. Granted, some major ideas, such as a new product line, need to be made at a high level. But, when KaiNexus customers generate hundreds of ideas, most of the decision making is left with the LOCAL teams. The people who see the problem often have the solution, and they can be the ones to test and implement changes. After all - they're the ones most invested in finding a solution! Not everything needs to be escalated. That’s an outdated “suggestion box” model and it doesn’t work - even in digital form.
As we would have predicted, “The lack of follow up also potentially made employees more cynical about future innovation efforts” at that company.
What Should You Do Instead?
- Ask for small ideas
To get the ball rolling with an improvement and innovation process, start by asking for SMALL ideas. These little ideas can be implemented on the fly, without all the hassle of huge improvement project. Of course larger initiatives are important too, but don't limit your employees' improvement potential to just the big stuff.
- Get everyone involved in implementation
It’s far easier to get EVERYBODY working on lots of improvements rather than waiting for a few things to trickle through some committee or far off group. Just think about how much more your organization could improve if implementing small improvements was part of everyone's job! Managers should keep an eye on improvements to make sure everyone is staying on track, but they shouldn't be responsible for trying to implement everything. You'll likely get better results this way too, since operational improvements should usually be developed, tested, and evaluated by local teams.