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Empowering the workforce to innovate

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Most businesses say they would love their employees to be more creative, contributing fresh ideas that make and save money for the company but is this just a management pipedream? John Carter, Management Innovation / Quality Manager at Toshiba Information Systems (TIU), examines how viable this really is, looks at techniques to encourage innovation and suggests that structure and incentives are more important than brainstorming and away days.


Imagine how wonderful it would be if all employees had the opportunity to contribute their ideas to their organisations and were appreciated for doing so.

At first, this idea of employee nirvana might sound unrealistic but more than ever before, there is real room for optimism within UK Plc.

Historically, the best way to stay at the head of a rapidly moving economy has been to innovate, generating new, high-margin industries and products.

And in today’s ultra-competitive business environment, more and more organisations are increasingly relying on all workers – not just managers – to find new and creative ways to do business.

“Given the nature of the slowdown we’re in, you need to invest in creating an innovative culture,” says Dominic Swords, business economist at the Henley Management College.

“Increased volatility requires a much more imaginative approach to management. It’s an approach that consciously creates a company that is effective and differentiates in what it does, is aware of what changes are occurring and which embraces that change as a central part of its normal business.”

Staying ahead of the pack and growing the bottom-line are the primary motivation for encouraging company-wide employee innovation, but how do you go about making that happen?


Processes are essential

In the past, most of us have probably been told that the way to destroy innovative thinking is to create rules and procedures that must be followed. It was thought that such rules slow and stifle communication and innovation and that work environments are not employee supportive or enabling.

Today, this approach is seen as outdated, somewhat clichéd and almost ‘David Brent-esque’. It is now accepted that companies must put concrete initiatives in place to help make staff more inventive.


<Six Sigma

One such initiative is called Six Sigma, which is a project management methodology designed either to optimise existing processes and services or to design new ones when further optimisation is not possible.

Six Sigma is essentially a customer-based approach which acknowledges that defects are expensive and encourages companies to find creative solutions by applying a logical and structural approach to identifying their causes. Fewer defects translates into lower costs and improved customer loyalty.

Six Sigma is rapidly being adopted by corporate giants such as Ford, IBM, Vodafone and many others for encouraging creative thinking among employees. It gives structure to a concept that for many companies, can at first seem nebulous and somewhat out-of-reach.


Sharing for growth

Another increasingly common method of encouraging innovation is called cross-pollination. This is where a creative project is created by fusing together elements of different products and often different departments. The idea is that from products and people which appear to have little in common, some of the most innovative new services can sprout.

Four months ago at Toshiba, we kicked off a project to look at ways of integrating our existing products to create new services and pioneer new markets.

The project is being driven by a team comprising the best brains from our IT, sales and marketing departments. To the surprise of a few people, we’ve found that the team works brilliantly together, sharing the same passion for the possibilities of our technology. Since inception, the group has already come up with a way of using Toshiba’s wireless hotspot network to provide internet telephony, saving customers a fortune on mobile costs.


What’s in it for me?

It may sound obvious but rewarding achievement is an essential part of encouraging innovation.

Some companies build innovation into HR policy – where individual staff are reviewed and positively rewarded for coming up with a certain volume of creative ideas over a year.

To use a Toshiba example again, we reward staff for creative thinking through our innovation programme. To recognise people’s achievements, we announce the innovation awards every six months, spotlighting a winning project and numerous runners-up schemes. We also pay out a total bonus generally in excess of £10,000 for employees involved in the most impactful projects.

Motivation is undoubtedly key to encouraging employee innovation. However, as many managers will attest to, motivation can often be a moving target. Just when you think you have it figured out, your original good ideas can suddenly appear stale to staff. The bottom line is that managers need to innovate in their motivation tactics.

Bob Nelson is the author of motivation bible, ‘Be Creative When Rewarding Employees’. Its mantra is that whenever an employee has put in extra effort on a key project or achieved a goal you had mutually set, the achievement should be recognised in a unique, memorable way. Not only will such rewards uniquely single out exceptional employees, they will create a positive story that the employee will tell to others time and time again.


Nelson’s top tips for rewards include:

  • arranging for a senior manager in your company to have a recognition lunch with the employee
  • finding out the employee’s personal hobby and buying a gift that relates to it
  • dedicating the parking space closest to the entrance to the employee for a month
  • and even arranging to use the employee in company commercials – a tactic used by the likes of Halifax and Ford among others.


    We are all individuals

    As well as changing techniques to motivate staff, management should also consider that different processes may be required to bring the best out of different individuals.

    For many companies, team exercises, such as brainstorms and cooperation within groups, provide the best environment for supporting innovation. That does not mean to say that the collective approach works best for every employee.

    Though work group process may provide ideas for individual employees to ponder and consider, which they would not have known of if they had not been a member of a group, it is often the individual mind that comes up with the ideas which the group may refine.

    The bottom line is that creativity needs to be a marriage between individual ideas and sharing those ideas with the team so that further ideas and refinement can take place. For example, Six Sigma uses a tool known as Concept Selection to pool individual ideas (straight and wacky) and then to produce the best concept which embraces as many good points as possible from all the individual inputs.


    Committed to innovation

    Whatever the processes, management will generally reap the benefits in increased morale simply by making the effort to encourage innovation.

    The more employees feel they are being involved in company-wide decision-making, the greater their commitment to the organisation tends to be.

    And when employee innovation could save your company millions or lead to a revenue-spinning new product, the argument for mobilising the whole company to innovate could not be stronger.

    Encouraging company innovation the Toshiba way

    Innovation is the lifeblood of Toshiba, allowing the company to pioneer and drive new high-margin markets and find fresh ways to handle every aspect of the manufacturing and distribution process.

    Three years ago, Toshiba implemented a company-wide innovation programme to achieve improvements in products and processes by using Six Sigma methodologies.

    To date, the programme has saved Toshiba nearly £3 billion worldwide and over £10 million in the UK. It has involved staff from throughout the business and scored some major successes. For example, the dramatic reduction in company telephone bills (approximately £20k per annum) through Identification of Dead Numbers, a project conceived by Jenni Harding, who works on the UK reception desk.


    Six tips for unleashing employee creativity

  • Take the mystery out of creativity: define expected outcomes so that everyone in the company understands where they should direct their efforts.

  • Discover how individuals are creative: everyone has his or her individual approach to generating new ideas. Ask for input, but remember that people have different work styles.

  • Define challenges specifically: focus on areas where creative solutions are needed instead of wasting time on areas that generate little or no return to the individual or organisation.

  • Minimise fear of failure: consider mistakes as learning opportunities. Rewarding employees who take careful risks will encourage them to innovate even more.

  • Take personal responsibility: develop an organisational climate for innovation. Start with yourself and the people within your personal sphere of influence.

  • Encourage active communication: set up think tanks between different company divisions to swap ideas.

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