Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

The best indicator of successfully developing a continuous improvement culture is your ability to engage people. Because “engagement is all about participation,” according to communications consultant David Sibbet, it is critical that you create a way for people to consistently participate in improvement activities. Creating an annual kaizen event calendar and rotating people on and off improvement teams won’t cut it. You must design a process for individuals to embed change as part of their daily work.

What works best are employee-driven idea systems that focus on small ideas but cultivate them every day in a visual, public way. Not because the ideas themselves are earth-shattering, but because the ability to get them done quickly and demonstrate continued progress is key to motivating people to think big, take risks, and work together to create positive change.

Unfortunately, most leaders have a difficult time believing that thousands of small “unmeasurable ideas” will have any meaningful effect on key financial metrics. As a result, most idea systems quickly die on the vine as leaders create layers of bureaucracy to manage the ideas, and complex return on investment (ROI) criteria to rank each idea in the search of the illusive “game-changing suggestion.” However, when leaders set a clear objective and challenge teams to rapidly implement any idea important to accomplishing their goal, then the true power of creativity and collective energy can be released.

Take an example from the University of Washington. The Grants and Contracts Accounting Group is a 25-member team responsible for the setup, invoicing, reporting, and closing of more than $1.15 billion in annual research grants. When I started working with the team, complex grants could take upwards of 673 days to finalize the outstanding invoices, complete the reporting, and close out the grant in compliance with sponsor requirements. In addition, due to the 228-percent growth in research grants and budget cuts, a backlog of 5,478 grants had developed.

Faced with no new resources and the audacious challenge to eliminate the backlog and cut the time to close to 120 days, we engaged the team and installed a system of daily process improvement. Driven by the goal to identify and solve problems in real time, the team used workflow leveling, pacing, visual controls, and idea pads to capture every roadblock the team encountered. At the end of each day, problems were reviewed and analyzed, and improvements were made so the impact of the change could be viewed the next day. While some of the ideas took multiple days to investigate and implement, the vast majority of the ideas were small, seemingly insignificant changes that could be completed by the next day.

The result? At the end of eight months, the team had eliminated 82 percent of the backlog and increased the number of budgets closed per week by 733 percent. By using a simple daily process to identify and implement small ideas, the team has averaged 4.4 new ideas per person per month and implemented 78 percent of them. It has done this without running kaizen events and without the assistance of internal lean specialists. In fact, change is happening so rapidly that documenting the effect of the ideas has become the enviable problem the team is working to address (at the request of the University).

So why do thousands of small ideas beat a few big ideas every time? Here are a few of the unseen benefits of embracing a “smaller is better” approach to process improvement:

Motivation. Seeing progress is one of the single greatest sources of intrinsic motivation. By documenting and allowing people to see the ideas they have suggested and implemented, and how their ideas have contributed to the larger organizational goals, you give them a simple, consistent, and visual mechanism to see their progress.

Development. By documenting all the small ideas, you create “teachable moments” where you can use actual ideas suggested and implemented to teach others what constitutes good ideas as well as what making progress toward goals each day looks like.

Recognition. By making your idea system visual, it allows you to create a very public method of recognizing all the incremental improvements people are suggesting and implementing. As peer-to-peer recognition is one of the most powerful motivators, the visual element allows teams to celebrate one another and each member’s contribution to their team and the organization.

Sharing. Simple visual idea systems encourage frequent yokoten(knowledge sharing) as each idea is captured, discussed, implemented, and recognized. Unexpected benefits occur during this process as each team member is exposed to the ideas of others and challenged to find opportunities where improvements can be applied in other areas.

Creating an engaged culture isn’t about challenging people to identify and implement ideas that revolutionize the organization. As soon as leaders start thinking the key to change is big ideas, they create systems that seek to identify the best ideas and kill those which do not provide a sufficient ROI. Rather than engage teams, these systems serve as a filter to curb people’s creativity and puts blinders on their “improvement eyes.” More important, by conditioning people to filter their ideas, leaders limit the organization’s ability to tap into the motivational engine that lies within in every team member.

The key to creating a world-class idea system is spending less time asking the question, “Is this a good idea?” and more time building a system where progress is measured by the implementation of thousands of seemingly inconsequential ideas. Leaders’ primary mission is to create an environment that allows all team members to make progress every day and gives them a way to see the progress they are making. Only then will people fully engage and be motivated to change the organization, one idea at a time.

In the end, if you want teams to engage in change, be accountable for their actions, and take ownership of the outcomes, they need to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making in the organization. Only when team members are clear about the objectives and able to confidently say, “I am better today than I was yesterday” will the organization begin to tap into their limitless ability to help make themselves, their team, and their process great.



5 responses to “Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why Pursuing Big Ideas is Killing Your Culture | Mike Martyn | Engaging Change -- Topsy.com

  2. Bryan Crowell


    Love the article i have seen the result of the small ideas to build culture. Another point is always made related to suggestion systems is the ideas are just part of the employees job. This idea does not hold water. When this point has been brought up I always go and pull some suggestions that have been submitted and inevitably as we review them the question is soon put to rest because upon review most of the suggestions would not have been made or seen without having the process in place. The suggestion process forces management to recognize efforts above and beyond the employees job description. This recognition then motivates the employees that much more and before long your biggest challenge is how to implement so many good ideas.

    • Bryan…thanks for the comment I have enjoyed our conversations on employee suggestion systems and learned a lot. Your work at Autoliv and now ATK has been inspirational.

  3. Hey Mike,

    This one hit home for us big time. As a new implementer of constant improvement through employee suggestion, we are struggling with getting people to think the right way. We have seen “pay me more and i will do X” type ideas and we have seen “lets run copies on the front and back of the paper to save money” ideas. We have also seen a bunch of marketing ideas, but “traffic” is not our business challenge, nor is it mentioned in our long range improvement vision. What i liked about this article is the highlight on “motivation, development, recognition, and sharing” we have to get better about recognizing success of small ideas, documenting them, and using them as teaching moments to motivate and stimulate more of the same. i see us getting better at this right away and we will launch to a new level of improvement velocity! By the way the “idea” that people believe they are part of something bigger, they are being listened to, and the company is willing to change to make their lives better has launched our business. We have had 138 ideas submitted, 30 implemented, 25 in testing, and 46 are in Rand D phase (this is a problem). We kicked off mid October and our business has been up despite a double digit traffic decrease. Good things happening and we have not yet begun to fight!

    Ed Breunig III
    President EBCO, Inc
    La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries
    The Greatest Retail Show on Earth

    • Ed…thanks for the comment and feedback on your progress. You have picked up the central themes of engaging people through active participation as well as the culture shock that comes from the concept that great things can come from the compounded effect of thousands of small things all working together toward an aligned vision. The key is to create a partnership between each level of the organization that 1) forces upper management to admit that they don’t have all the answers, and 2) allows those people doing the work to experiment, make mistakes, and tinker with process improvements in an effort to develop their skills while at the same time improve processes.

      The difficult part is realizing that motivation and progress do not come from being recognized for having a breakthrough idea, but rather are directly related to how regularly I am involved in the change process. When I only look for big ideas or participate in “management approved” initiatives, I spend far more of my time mentally disengaged than engaged. However, when I am constantly on the lookout for all the little things that affect our productivity or customer experience (no matter how small), then I can make change part of my daily routine.

      For example, the executive team in Portland is now working on an assignment to spend time in each store and walk the floor with staff and management with an “problem pad” in hand and look for little ideas. The goal is to not only challenge the number of ideas which are waiting to be found, but also create a learning opportunity where management and staff can find real examples of small improvement ideas. On a visit this week, Daralyn and a store manager found 17 improvement ideas (in 30 min) which were all within the control of the staff to implement quickly. There were many more ideas to be found, but upon seeing all the little improvements that could be made, the store manager asked to suspend the walk so she could repeat the activity with the staff. Now the key will be how quickly they push themselves to implement and how the team is recognized for their work.

      Thanks again for the comment…see you in Atlanta.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s