A few weeks ago, my son shared a story with me that was just the sort of case study I was seeking for an article on bottom-up innovation.
The chronicle was about a major toothpaste company that had a problem with their factory. It seems that a number of boxes were being shipped without a tube of toothpaste in them. Retailers were complaining and word got back to the CEO. He ordered the maintenance department to investigate the trouble.
The mechanics couldn’t find a specific problem in the production line and recommended the company outsource it to an engineering consulting firm. The consultants studied the factory and came back with a solution. They would install a computerized measuring system that would employ a precision digital scale to detect underweight boxes. Upon finding one, the computer would automatically shut down the production line, and sound an alarm bell with flashing lights. A factory worker would then remove the empty box from the scale then press a button to restart the line. All told, it took 6 months and 8 million dollars.
One of the new benefits of the system was that it generated a daily report that was delivered to the executive office. The results were everything they had hoped for; after the scales were installed, there were no more empty boxes shipped to the stores.
After several weeks had passed, the CEO decided to review some of the daily reports. He saw that after 3 weeks the electronic scales were not detecting any empty boxes. They should have been catching several dozen a day. He sent his quality control department to look into it, and they returned stating that indeed all the boxes on the conveyor belt that passed over the scales were full.
The perplexed CEO could not accept that a chronic problem of empty boxes had simply disappeared, and decided to go see for himself. When he got to the section of the factory line with the new scale, he noticed that a few feet ahead of it was a $20 desk fan blowing the empty boxes off the conveyor belt into a bin. When he inquired about it, one of the factory workers admitted it was his idea, because he got tired of being frequently interrupted from his work just to go over and restart the line every time the alarm went off.
Of course, the conclusion I want you to draw is obvious: if the company had consulted the factory line workers first, they could have saved millions of dollars. A consultant’s motivation may be to make more money from a complex solution. A common-sense solution, a low-tech “simple solution” is more likely to come from someone who is closer to the problem on a daily basis. The question is how do companies go about getting ideas from their everyday employees? I’ll respond to that in a moment.
First, I want to note that I diligently sought the origin of the above story and the name of the toothpaste company, but all I could dig up was Snopes reporting that it is a legend. Nevertheless, it still has verisimilitude, because there are many stories like it. Sometimes the downline suggestion or idea is appreciated, but many times it isn’t.
Here’s one that was reported on Reddit.com in 2014 by kaosChild:
“I worked at an aluminum products company while I was a student on part of a machine production line. The machines jam fairly frequently, and in order to stop it on this particular day I found a way to tape a 4″x4″ piece of cardboard to a belt that made the machine run perfectly. My supervisor came after several hours and got mad at me when she saw the mod, and took it out. The machine promptly went back to jamming every 3 minutes, but policy was that people can’t do that sort of thing. I understand some people might come up with bad mod ideas, but when the machine jams it spits out aluminum shards that do occasionally end up in the product. My production went down, my quality went down, the amount of unjamming I had to do went up.”
Here are 2 stories where the ideas were valued:
STORY #1. The Swan Vesta match company was looking for a way to save money when a frontline employee suggested that they remove the striker strip from one side of the matchbox. The idea was implemented, and millions of dollars were saved.
STORY #2. At the El Cortez hotel in San Diego, originally built in the 1920s, a bellboy during the 1950s suggested they add an elevator to the outside of the building. The idea was applied, and the hotel built the world’s first glass-walled exterior elevator, which immediately became a sensational attraction.
Unfortunately, at many companies ideas and suggestions get shot down, ignored, or worse — punished! Yet those same companies claim they want new ideas that will improve the bottom line. And in today’s competitive world marketplace, all companies need new ideas. The problem is overcoming red tape, regulation, and control; and as is often the case: the bigger the company, the bigger the bureaucracy! The solution is creating a culture of innovation.
In order for a culture of innovation to succeed, employees, all down the line, must believe that the company appreciates their intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity. They also must believe that the company wants and values their ideas. Without these factors, a company will not be able to generate the stream of ideas they need to stay competitive.
In addition, there needs to be a system for suggesting ideas, along with a system for testing and implementing them. The system also needs to acknowledge and reward those suggestions — even if they are not accepted or utilized. Employees are motivated to contribute their insights if they see that their ideas are taken seriously. If they are not, then the flow of ideas will stop. People naturally seek out ways to save time and materials, as well as other efficiencies, and if encouraged they will share these observations with management.
Toyota is a good example of a company with a successful culture of innovation. The average Toyota employee makes over 100 improvement suggestions every year. With thousands of employees, that adds up to millions of ideas that have made Toyota one of the most successful automobile manufacturers in the world.
Amazon will reward its employees for an idea — even if it fails — if they have put time and effort into developing the idea. Now that’s a concept that has driven Amazon’s explosive growth.
In order to generate bottom-up innovation, there must be a top-down commitment from a company’s management to maintain a culture of innovation. Without the commitment, it just won’t work.