Ideas from workers at Peak Electronics, an electronics-fabricating company in Orange, Conn., run from the mundane to the sublime. E. J. Yancy, the company's president, credits such suggestions for some of the company's most significant cost-saving improvements. One idea allowed Peak to more than double its capacity to scrub circuit boards. Another provided a new way to code and track circuit boards long after they leave Peak's plant.
What makes Yancy's idea-generating system so productive is that he doesn't think of it as a conventional suggestion box; he treats it as a complete program. "I wanted people throughout the company to have a voice and a way to have their voice heard," he explains. Here are the key components of Peak's program:
* Goal: Yancy wants each of his 125 employees to contribute one idea per month. To stimulate them, he asks them all -- assembly and office workers alike -- to think about how they could improve their jobs by changing something within two arms' lengths of their work spot. When you've exhausted those possibilities, he tells employees, enlarge the area under review to include everything you can see in your department. Finally, he counsels, think about what improvements could be made outside your own department.
* Fast Response: Employees hand their suggestions to their manager. Managers have the authority to approve the change on the spot or pass it on to the plant manager or Yancy. Yancy promises an answer within 24 hours about what action will be taken.
* Reward: Early on, Yancy decided not to elevate some ideas over others by tagging them with a cost-saving "value" and rewarding employees accordingly. That would stifle people with modest suggestions. He does, however, reward with recognition. Each month two workers are named Thinker of the Month and given the two most convenient parking spots in the lot.
* Reinforcement: Yancy's desire to hear employees' voices is further emphasized by a 15-minute daily morning meeting. Both a manager and employees must be available to review the previous day's operations and prepare for the current day.
During the first year of Yancy's program, he learned some employees feared repercussions from their managers. They needed a way to communicate directly to Yancy. So he installed suggestion boxes in the most private place he could think of: the stalls in the rest rooms. What kind of anonymous suggestions come from those boxes? "Oh," says Yancy, "I get very rich stuff." -- Ellyn E. Spragins
The climb out of the ivory tower and onto the factory floor can be slow. Steven Zaimes, head of manufacturing at Phoenix Controls, in Newton, Mass., had a grand plan for empowering his 30 employees. He holds "town meetings," forums to draw out workers' cost-cutting ideas. Halfway into the first two-hour meeting, a worker finally asked, "Why do we have to make a profit?"