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The System is the Secret

We often encounter managers who challenge a key message in Ideas Are Free — that a systematic approach to handling employee ideas is required. Typically these people tell us something like this: Every one of our managers understands the importance of listening to employee ideas. We all have open door policies. Employees can talk directly to any one of us any time. We don’t need rules and policies. We operate more like a family. A system would just get in the way of our employees’ creativity.

We often encounter managers who challenge a key message in Ideas Are Free — that a systematic approach to handling employee ideas is required. Typically these people tell us something like this:

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Every one of our managers understands the importance of listening to employee ideas. We all have open door policies. Employees can talk directly to any one of us any time. We don’t need rules and policies. We operate more like a family. A system would just get in the way of our employees’ creativity.

How many open door policies really have open doors? And if they are really open, how productive are those manageers? We would all like to believe that if a subordinate has an idea to share with us, he or she will step forward and do so. But in fact, most subordinates respect their bosses’ time and don’t want to interrupt them. And if one does, the boss may listen carefully with the best intention to following up on the idea, but then gets distracted by his or her regular work. Lack of follow through not only wastes that idea, but also sends the message that the boss only gives lip service to ideas. Ideas are really not wanted.

Without a system, ideas must be handled on an ad hoc basis. Each one requires special handling often interfering with a manager’s normal work routine. Far from getting in the way of creativity, a good system makes dealing with ideas part of everyones routine. There are no questions about how to submit ideas, who they go to, how to handle them, and how to follow through. An efficient system makes ideas easy.

Dana Corporation’s Hopkinsville plant, cited by Industry Week as one of the most productive manufacturing plants in North America, uses an idea board. Employees post their ideas on the board where everyone can read them and make comments. The response by management is posted several days later. Boardroom Inc. integrates employee ideas into every department’s weekly meetings. People are expected to come to the meeting with ideas, which are discussed and action is take on those that are worthwhile.

Far from complicating the management of ideas, a good systems make it easy to handle lots of them.