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  • 05.31.04

Introduction

Hello FC Now readers, Dean and I have been looking forward to guest-hosting FC Now for several weeks now. We have a lot of things to share, and hope to spark some interesting and informative discussions. Our book Ideas Are Free is about how important it is for managers to encourage, capture and use ideas from their front-line people. We each got interested in the topic in different ways.

Hello FC Now readers,

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Dean and I have been looking forward to guest-hosting FC Now for several weeks now. We have a lot of things to share, and hope to spark some interesting and informative discussions.

Our book Ideas Are Free is about how important it is for managers to encourage, capture and use ideas from their front-line people. We each got interested in the topic in different ways.

Before Dean went into academe, he had led a number of organizational turnarounds. He learned to listen to the front-line employees the ones who did the work in these distressed companies, because they could give him real insight into their organizations’ problems, and had good ideas about how to address them. He couldn’t understand why the previous managers of these organizations had essentially squandered this tremendous resource.

I got interested in the topic of employee ideas in the late 1980s, when I went to Japan to study Japanese management. I found leading Japanese companies the same ones whose competitive power was causing such mayhem back in the U.S. putting strong emphasis on getting ideas from ordinary employees. Not creative whiz-bang new product or service ideas, but everyday common-sense ideas that would save a little money or time, make their jobs easier, improve the customer experience, or in some other way make the company better. Some companies were getting over 100 ideas per person per year, and implementing most of them. The average Japanese worker in 1989 came up with 37 ideas per year! At the same time, American companies were getting less than one idea from every eight workers per year, and implementing less than a third of these. The difference intrigued me.

While our Ideas Are Free study did come across some great companies doing great things, we found the vast majority of organizations doing far better at suppressing ideas than promoting them.

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It shouldn’t be news to any manager anymore that it pays to listen to the people who do the work. These people see lots of problems and opportunities that management doesnt, and have a lot of great ideas as a consequence. It is fascinating that two (great) books could be written almost thirty years apart about the trials of being a front-line employee and the silly and demeaning ways their managers treat them (I’m thinking of Working, by Studs Terkel, and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s as if we haven’t learned a thing in the last 30 years. To me, both these books are an indictment of the way we manage.

So I’d like to kick off the discussions by asking why is it that managers all over the world seem to have such trouble listening to the ideas of the people who work for them? What is the problem?