I started my full-time work career as an engineer at Honda of America Mfg. There are a number of things I remember well from my five years there (seven years, if you count my two year educational leave of absence). For the purposes of this article, one highlight was the suggestion program. Honda had the “drop the note in the box” suggestion program but it also had an involved, very in depth program. You could come up with an idea, get your team members to buy in, pitch it to your supervisor and other management, implement your suggestion, and track the results. Honda provided time off the line to do this. And Honda had a company wide program for the best suggestion. The contest assessed a combination of the idea, the impact, teamwork, and presentation. I thought it was an awesome program. It was a superb way to foster friendly competition while recognizing and rewarding employees for their efforts. It also inspired creativity and fostered teamwork. Winners were selected by plant location with the best teams going on to compete in Japan. How many factory workers get that kind of opportunity? Honda didn’t just do this in a recession. Cultivating employee involvement and inspiring entrepreneurial behavior at all levels is Soichiro Honda’s (Honda’s founder) legacy.
So what can you do to actively encourage employee suggestions and tap employee ideas?
First, create and nurture a working environment where all employees feel engaged. I remember when I first got to Honda I thought the strong loyalty exhibited by the workers there had to do with the level of job creation Honda provided in the middle of semi-rural Ohio. After I’d been there several months and heard people from the factory floor to the engineering test labs repeating the messaging I heard in meetings, I realized that the loyalty derived from how connected people felt to the company. When I interned at General Motors, it was rare from someone to go from the factory floor into middle management but at Honda it was a regular occurrence. It was the overall feeling that the people and their opinions mattered that led so many employees to sing Honda’s praises.
Here are a couple of suggestions others have, excerpted from the Inc.com article, How to Tap Employee Ideas:
Make it Social & Fun. “Ideas come from the interplay and free exchange between employees… Create opportunities for employees to get together and brainstorm… It doesn’t really matter how it’s done, as long as it’s done together. New ideas come from playfulness and humor. If fun is not a dirty word at your business, you’ll hear a lot more ideas every day. Nothing shuts people up faster than knowing if they offer an idea the boss or company doesn’t like, they’ll pay for it. Really good ideas almost never sound “normal.” ”
—Steven Farmer, W. Frank Barton Distinguished Chair in Business, Department of Management, Wichita State University
Keep an Open Door Policy. “Great ideas don’t keep to a schedule. As a leader, make sure your door —whether physical office or e-mail inbox—is always open to employees. When an employee approaches you and asks “do you have a moment?” make time … Keeping an open door builds trust and demonstrates an active interest in what employees have to say. Over time, employees will share their ideas as they appear, knowing that a willing audience is waiting to hear them.”
—Jennifer C. Loftus, national Director and founding partner, Astron Solutions
Have contests. Like my example of the contest held every year at Honda, your company can create and run its own contest. Focus on teams and not individuals as better ideas and quicker adoption occurs with teams than with individuals. (One person may come up with a great idea but who is going to implement?) If you are just starting out, make the contest less structured, more informal. If the contest attracts more people every year, you can add infrastructure and formality to strengthen it and ensure its ongoing appeal. People like friendly competition.