Just Say Yes: The Benefits of Letting Your People Drive Improvement

dreamstime_m_25742703Google has become a powerful example in driving innovation by providing employees with time to work on whatever they want on a regular basis.  I read a great article about this on Inc.com, “Why You Should Let Your Employees Do Whatever They Want, by Michael Schein dated February 18, 2014. I admit, when I heard about this idea some years ago, I initially  viewed it as applicable to certain groups of exempt employees, only.  But I discovered through experience that with a little tweaking this idea can be modified to be doable and successful with non-exempt direct and indirect employees as well.  Here’s an example, from a New England manufacturing plant, where hourly manufacturing employees showed us what they could do if management let them.

I was the H.R. Manager at this small metal-working plant.  Here, as I walked around and visited people, employees, including some of our most negative and outspoken people as well as some of our more quiet folks, told me they were systematically ignored by management when they brought up improvement ideas or pointed out problems with imposed changes.  I decided to become a champion for employee participation in identifying and implementing change, and was successful in gaining management commitment and support for a new  program to pilot employee suggestions as a means of trying them out before committing to plant wide adoption.

In our piloting program, we utilized teams made up employees in affected functions along with a manager who helped the team to set up working sessions during regular work hours and who approved purchases and other resources needed to set up trials of new ideas. The ideas came from the suggestion program and the lean initiative (which were being integrated).  An employee making the suggestion was on the pilot team for his/her suggestion.  We found that on these teams, people worked together to try out and to tweak suggestions with an objective of seeing how the idea could work to drive improvement.  As people participated on pilot teams, their enthusiasm grew and their work relationships became much closer.  Our initial efforts brought about process improvements that were quickly apparent and this success lifted the spirits of people throughout the plant.  Within a short time, many piloted ideas were standardized, and we learned from those that failed the pilot.  The plant’s performance on a few key metrics began to improve within weeks — scrap reduction and quality improvement improved. While not measured specifically, people noted time was saved due to simple changes as well.  Our plant culture began to shift to one of high participation and inclusion, and the impact on employee performance was significant.

Following are 6 key steps we believe drove success in this program:

1.  We integrated our new suggestion program with our Lean continuous improvement initiative, creating a funnel of ideas.

2.  A suggestion evaluation committee reviewed employee suggestions to determine which ones were likely to impact our performance results in key metrics.  The turn-around was days vs. weeks. The committee included a manufacturing engineer, production manager, cost accountant, human resources manager and other individuals from different departments as appropriate.  All suggestions were analyzed thoroughly starting with the committee talking through the suggestion with the employee who submitted it.

3.  Communication was done weekly in plant meetings, where all employees were informed of each suggestion and its status.

4.  Approved suggestions were assigned to suggestion pilot teams for an average of 90 days.  Pilot team  members were excused from regular work assignments to work together and on their own to complete action items.  When the pilot teams completed their projects, sometimes ahead of schedule, occasionally with approved extensions of time, they reported back to the suggestion evaluation committee.  With the input of the piloting team, the suggestion evaluation team made decisions about standardization.

5.  Employees received $25 gift cards for suggestions approved for piloting, and a second $25 gift card for suggestions once approved for standardization following successful piloting.  This simple reward system was immediately accepted by our people, and was cost-effective enough so that our program could be easily sustained.  People were delighted to receive their gift cards in plant-wide meetings that were full of applause for one another.

6.  We celebrated, purchased suggestion program t-shirts, and posted suggestion program activity and results weekly.

We found that when the people who were involved daily with doing the work were the ones charged with piloting improvement ideas, pilots were completed thoroughly and with lots of enthusiasm.  Our success was also enabled by leadership’s dependable follow-through with each of these 5 steps.  Management commitment is critically important to build and sustain the enthusiasm and energy of employees.  This is a commitment that can be time consuming; as you can probably imagine, lots of behind-the-scenes activities are required to make it all come together  using work time while still meeting business goals.  But, as far as a return on this investment is concerned, we found the results were visible both in our metrics and in our ability to simply observe people becoming more and more charged up about coming to work each day.

Could a similar initiative work for your organization?  How would you tweak this strategy to fit your culture and business needs? 


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