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Want innovation? Look to your employees

Listen to your workers.

That’s the message for businesses in this age when everything’s about innovation, innovation, innovation, says management professor Alan G. Robinson.

Robinson, whose new book is “Idea Driven Organizations,” told a Franklin Chamber of Commerce audience Friday that businesses looking for ways to propel themselves forward will find it’s what’s up front that counts: the workers on the front lines.

“Front-line workers see a great many problems and opportunities that their managers don’t,” Robinson, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Isenberg School of Management told about 135 community business and service leaders.

How many?

“The numbers are astonishing,” said Robinson, who consults with more than 200 companies in 15 countries and pointed to the results of a 2010 study that looked at Coca-Cola’s top-down instruction to its divisions for quality and management planning as well as the bottom-up approach of its Scandinavian operation.

Compared to four projects generated by Coke’s top executives and 11 projects generated by middle management, altogether saving the 1,200-employee company 2 million euros over a three-year period, Coca-Cola Scandinavia’s workers generated tens of thousands of ideas from front-line employees, which saved the business 9 million euros.

Robinson’s own research showed that in businesses that pay more than lip service to employee ideas, more than 80 percent of ideas to improve performance come from front-line workers, not the top managers.

“Think about the way you run your businesses,” said Robinson, pointing out that the same is true for other kinds of organizations. “If you’re not every day getting ideas and implementing ideas from your front-line people, you’re just missing out on an opportunity to make your businesses much stronger and much more high performing than they are.”

Toyota, Robinson says, works to get a staggering 100 ideas per year from each of its employees.

Even Clarion Hotels Sweden, which generates 67 ideas per person per year, has been very successful as a business with help from its workers, especially those who work in the bars, he said.

“Get maintenance to drill three holes in the floor behind the bar and install pipes so bartenders can drop bottles directly into recycling bins in the basement,” offered “Marco,” one of the employees quoted by Robinson from one month of about 80 bartender-generated ideas.

“They’re all common-sense responses to things that management would normally not see,” he said. “Every hour, they built up a barrel of recyclables, and somebody had to go out the side door down into the basement (beneath the bar) and sort these into three different types of recycling. ... Why not just drill three holes so you could drop them in?”

Most organizations improve productivity at 2 to 2.5 percent a year,” Robinson said. Toyota consistently improves at 12 percent a year, and other idea-driven companies improves at up to 17 percent. The average U.S. organization, Robinson’s research shows, generates only one-half idea per person per year, of which one-third get implemented, while Toyota’s definition of “lean” when it comes to management is to rigorously look to all of its employees for ideas.

“These are not your mother’s and father’s suggestion boxes,” he emphasized, adding that the current trend toward online suggestion boxes for employees is even worse. If his organization had a suggestion box, he said, he would smash it.

Businesses need to look at how the high-performance idea process works and how to focus on ideas that really matter to their organization. Among the keys is to get rid of roadblocks that stand in the way of front-line workers offering ideas to further the organization and thereby to feel that they’re having an impact.

“It’s not only a matter of big organizations getting ideas to management distant from workers,” Anderson said, responding to a question about much smaller businesses, “it’s also about project management of the ideas you have.”

Another audience member asked about turning for ideas to minimum-wage workers in businesses where there’s low morale.

“The overall cycle we’re trying to create is: if we build a stronger business, we can share it better. If we do that, everybody wins.”

On the web: www.idea-driven.com

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.

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