A colleague recently shared a story that’s likely all too familiar to professionals in the change and improvement game. The CEO of a global diversified manufacturing firm implemented an organization-wide transformation effort to improve customer satisfaction and reduce operating costs. Two years later, after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly a year recruiting and training Black Belts, results begin to roll in. It’s revealed that the biggest gains resulted from the ideas of frontline employees invited to participate in projects. The
CEO is ecstatic and cheerfully hands out awards to teams and lauds them on their accomplishments in a town hall meeting. At the end of his talk, he asks the gathered employees if anyone would like to share a reflection on their experience. A hand shoots up from a 30-year production line employee who says, “Thank you for this opportunity. But what took you so long to ask for our ideas?”
Asking employees for their ideas is one of the simplest actions any leader can take to improve performance but is typically one of the hardest for leaders to execute. Why? Start with the fact that strategy execution, change management, and continuous improvement have evolved into complex undertakings requiring specialized staff, training, surveys, dashboards, and the like. By the time these transformational initiatives (after lengthy planning, communication, and fanfare) get around to engaging people closest to the work, the goalposts have changed and employee interest has waned.
Asking employees for their ideas is also difficult because leaders are often afraid of what they will hear. They assume employees will make requests or suggest changes that can’t be supported. And, in the aftermath of having to say “no,” leaders fear they will be seen as unwilling to listen and uncaring about employees’ ideas.
In our experience, reluctance to ask for employee ideas is not totally misguided. After all, corporate organizations, both private and public, are not democracies. Employees don’t get to vote on change and improvement strategies. Just the same, good leaders can’t be dictators, listening only to an inner circle. How then to solicit employee ideas and reap their benefits without the complications, delays, expense, and risk of two-way disappointment?
Following these simple guidelines, leaders at all levels need not fear asking for employee ideas. And, by making it a routine practice supported with the right tools, leaders will be rewarded with more opportunities to be surprised and delighted by the creativity and know-how of their frontlines.