A lot of us like to think we aren't stubborn, but in reality most of us are. We find it hard to take advice from anyone, especially individuals who are subordinate to us. But one of the most progressive things happening in some companies today is that top management is implementing ideas submitted by employees.
It really makes sense. Those of us in management aren't exposed to all the things that go on in the trenches. But many of our employees are. So it behooves us to listen to them because it can mean greater productivity, which in turn can mean more dollars to the bottom line.
A recent article in The New York Times makes clear that corporate managers are aware of employee empowerment. The article noted that some 89% of chief executives surveyed in 1999 by Robert Half International, a staffing service, said their companies had stepped up efforts to encourage creativity in their employees.
Lynn Taylor, the firm's vice president for research, says, "There is a renewed respect in the last five to 10 years of reality-based ideas coming from those in the thick of activity on the front lines." She goes on to say: "They have seen the benefits of opening the channels, of encouraging smart risk-taking. Better to make a mistake and to have thought out of the box than to be afraid."
The Eastman Kodak Co., the article notes, initiated the first documented program in 1898. As the years passed, programs became more sophisticated. Today, about 7% of all companies have a formal suggestion program for employees, according to Andrew Wood of Gig Harbor, Wash.-based Ideas Management, a consultancy that sets up suggestion systems.
The French company Bic takes its employee involvement program very seriously. Executives not only think it helps with employee morale, they believe it also helps to increase efficiency and, therefore, profits.
Last year at Bic, 577 out of 684 hourly manufacturing employees wrote 2,999 suggestions. Of that number, 2,368 were carried out. In one example, a worker noticed that the trash was being collected twice a week even though the Dumpster was only half full. Cutting trash pickups saved $500 a week.
Bic recognizes employees who come up with good ideas, but they certainly don't go overboard with monetary rewards. The coveted "Suggestion of the Month" award nets the winner only about $100 and a reserved parking space.
Employee suggestion programs sometimes backfire. If managers ask for ideas and then don't act on them, they can sow sour grapes among the workers, says John Kao, a former Harvard Business School professor who heads a consulting business in San Francisco. That could be bad for both morale and productivity. So programs have to be organized properly and carried out so employees feel they are contributing to the overall good of their colleagues and the company itself.
Despite potential pitfalls, the point is that employees feel involved if they have the freedom to offer ideas. Giving your people the opportunity to participate just might improve morale and increase profits. That's the payoff, and it should be reason enough to start an employee participation program.
It makes sense to listen,
Charles S. Lauer