People support what they help create.   By involving employees, you challenge them to be accountable for tackling new issues and solving problems.  Require team members to bring you solutions along with problems.  There is no hiding from problems when accountability prevails.


Even the best leaders sometimes feel threatened by the idea of involving their employees in identifying and solving problems.  Perhaps they feel they're giving up control over how their team will achieve its goals. 


However, excellent leaders also realize there is more than one way to effectively solve a problem.  An employee's approach might be different than the leader's, but the benefits of building ownership that come from employees creating the solutions far outweigh any loss of control powerful leaders might feel.


When employees are involved, the buck does not stop with you - it stops with each employee on the team.


The book featuring Toyota's idea system, 40 Years, 20 Million Ideas, describes how Toyota had received one million ideas per year from its employees and had been doing so for more than a decade. More recently, Toyota received more than three million ideas from employees in one year. 


Several other companies have excelled at harnessing employee ideas and implementing them as a competitive advantage.  Companies like Dana Corp., Milliken Corp., Yamaha, Toshiba, Technicolor Corp. and Boardroom, Inc. have each generated tens of thousands of ideas per year.  Your first reaction to these staggering numbers of suggestions might be disbelief.  How do they do it? 

This level of involvement is not achieved by using a suggestion box.  It is achieved by engaging the minds of employees and tapping into their unlimited pool of ideas and creativity.  Letting this resource go untapped, as Norm Bodek says, "It's like sitting on top of a gold mine and feeling poor."


Before we answer that question, let's address why we should even focus on asking for ideas when we are trying to boost reliability.  This coaching habit is not about ideas for ideas' sake.  It is about soliciting ideas to improve employee productivity, reduce costs, increase speed and eliminate waste.  The primary objective is to improve individual and team performance. 


The by-product of this habit is a strong and rapid increase in the employees' sense of ownership. These under-the-hood ideas will ultimately make their work more interesting, efficient and challenging.  Your team will realize cost savings, quality and service improvements, as well as an irreplaceable competitive advantage.


Okay, back to the question: How do they do it?  The name of the game is to think small.  Small ideas are actually better than big ideas because small ideas:


  1. are much more likely to stay proprietary and create sustainable competitive advantage since they are under-the-hood and situation-specific.  Besides, your competitors are most likely looking for the next big idea.  Let them wait for their grand slam while you hit a thousand singles.
  2. enable you to focus on the details of your business.  Excellence is a result of getting the details right.  In many cases, it is literally impossible to improve performance (speed, service, quality, costs) beyond a certain level without small ideas. 
  3. help create a culture that values ideas (every idea is a good idea) and the people they come from, resulting in a boost in ownership at the grassroots level of your organization.
  4. facilitate rapid and continuous organizational learning and performance improvements based on that learning.
  5. are the best sources of big ideas (the Post-it note came from a small idea to find a better glue).


Small ideas might include: "If we eliminated the cover page on internal faxes, we would save 150 pieces of paper per month," "While I am waiting for our driver to check in his shipment at our store's receiving dock, I sweep out his truck so he can make a quicker turnaround at our distribution center" or "If I highlight off-plan line items on my report, the executive committee can more quickly and efficiently focus on those areas of concern."


Excellent leaders go for quantity of ideas, not quality.  They make ideas, lots of them, part of everyone's job.  They use clarifying questions to determine if and how to best implement the ideas.  Ask your team for the kinds of ideas you need.  You may have a focal area for that week, month or quarter.  A good place to start is with the eight areas of waste.  They spell TIM WOODS:

T - Transport - Moving people, products & information
I - Inventory - Storing parts, pieces, documentation ahead of requirements
M - Motion - Bending, turning, reaching, lifting

W - Waiting - For parts, information, instructions, equipment
O - Over production - Making more than is immediately required
O - Over processing - Tighter tolerances or higher-grade materials than are necessary
D - Defects - Rework, scrap, incorrect/incomplete information
S - Skills - Under-utilizing capabilities, delegating tasks with inadequate training


Involve your team in address these areas of waste and other opportunities for improvement to enlist their ownership in the outcome.