There is an urban legend that claims the head of the US Patent office either closed the office or recommended that it be closed because “there is nothing left to invent.” Suggested years for this outlandish quote are 1875, 1890, and 1932, among others.
We can laugh at the idea that there’s nothing left to invent. But many companies act as if it’s true. That’s because they don’t listen to their own people.
Woody Morcott was chairman and CEO of the Dana Corporation when he visited Japan to see what he could learn. Among other things, he probably saw the difference in the way that ideas of frontline workers are used.
In Ruthless Focus, we report on a 1980 study that compared the suggestion system at General Motors to the one at Toyota. The GM system generated less than one suggestion per person per year and accepted about a quarter of them. The Toyota system got 17.9 suggestions per person per year and implemented 80 percent.
That means 1,000 GM workers offered slightly less than 200 usable suggestions per year. A thousand Toyota workers came up with more than 14,000. Since Toyota workers probably aren’t 17 times more creative than GM workers, there must be a difference in the systems to explain the difference in output.
When Morcott returned from his visit he asked a very simple question: “Why did we hire 55,000 brains and use only three of them?”
Today that would be an even more important question. As Jack Welch says, to succeed today you have to have “every brain in the game.” But it does no good to have those brains suited up for play if you don’t listen to what they have to say.
Morcott’s idea was to expect every Dana employee to submit two ideas every month. He expected an 80 percent implementation rate.
That worked for him and for Dana. What can you do to cure Idea Deficit Disorder (IDD) on your team?
Remember human nature. Human beings are natural idea generators. At work they usually have plenty of ideas. They don’t share them because most of their bosses didn’t want to hear new ideas.
Encourage new ideas. Tell people you want them to share ideas. Make it explicit.
Thank them. When someone shares an idea with you, say “Thank you.” Do not comment on the idea. Do not tell them why it will not work. Just say, “Thank you.”
Remember this. If you kill one idea with a roll of the eyes or a hasty dismissal, you also kill the possibility that you will get another idea from that person.
Share ideas with others. Most ideas are just the start of something good. By sharing ideas you can improve them.
Understand how innovation works. Innovation is what happens when you take a good idea, modify it, and turn it into a change in the way you do things. Here’s how it happens at Nucor, as described in Ruthless Focus.
At Nucor, everyone is expected to contribute ideas. But no one at Nucor expects all the ideas to work.
Nucor accepts the premise that half their investments in new ideas and technologies will yield no usable results. That’s why every plant has a storehouse for the equipment that was tried and rejected. They’re kept around so Nucor’s people can learn from things that didn’t work or maybe get an idea about how to make it work in a different situation.
Boss’s Bottom Line
New ideas are the lifeblood of improvement. Let them bubble up naturally. Modify them and try them quickly.