The dusty comment box in the canteen needs an overhaul

Any manufacturer should jump at the chance of a simple way to cut costs, or increase the quality, productivity or safety of its processes. In commodity chemicals and generic pharmaceuticals, where margins are tight and competition visceral, businesses can boom or bust on their ability to find and make improvements. But they don’t have to be ‘game changers’ – small improvements in workflow and process can just as easily mount up to big gains in competitiveness.

While the ‘fresh eyes’ of a consultant have their place, often those best able to spot these little improvements are staff who work – either directly or peripherally – with a process. But just as often, workers aren’t given the support or incentive to engage and develop their ideas. High workloads and performance targets can leave employees feeling that they don’t have time to think about changing things; bureaucratic communication systems breed scepticism – even if staff do make suggestions, they will not be listened to by those with the executive power to implement them.

Only the most altruistic of employees would put in the additional effort required by these projects purely for the good of the company

Cultivating an environment in which employees feel sufficiently invested in the company’s success that they not only actively look for improvement opportunities, but also feel that such suggestions will be taken seriously, is easy to say but hard to implement. Like any behavioural change, it means overcoming psychological inertia. It’s perhaps easier to engender that motivation in small companies, whose very survival depends strongly on individual performance, than in a tucked away corner of a huge corporation.

And yet it is evidently possible. Chemicals giant BASF recently released details of its ‘idea management’ programme in 2014. The company implemented more than 23,000 employee proposals in that year alone, which saved €53 million (£38 million). BASF has been in the idea management game for 65 years, thus the culture is firmly established within the workforce. Even so, the company makes significant efforts to encourage submissions, running regular campaigns around topics like energy savings and occupational safety, says Lothar Franz, who heads up the programme. 

Incentives play an important part here as well – only the most altruistic of employees would put in the additional effort required by these projects purely for the good of the company. At BASF, successful proposals attract financial bonuses, whose value depends how innovative the project is, and how involved an employee gets in its implementation.

Crucially, recognition is social as well as financial. Successful projects are championed internally, and high-value proposals garner recognition from senior management, Franz adds. Kudos is significant currency in maintaining an engaged workforce.

Changing established processes is a risk. And the bigger the change, the bigger the risk. Proposals need to offer value for money but value can be found in many places. Improving safety, for example, may not come with large economic gains, but will undoubtedly improve the respect staff have for their employer.

The dusty comment box in the canteen needs an overhaul and companies, large or small, might do better to look inward for improvements before calling the consultants.

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