Suggestion box: Indicting management for workers’ ideas

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

THE result of not actively soliciting employee ideas? You lose a lot of ideas. But what if you have lots of ideas and management has miserably failed to respond? Obviously you’ll lose engaging the people, if not their respect.

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That’s how things can go wrong in the workplace. It’s like marriage for two friends: Said one to his friend: “My wife talks to herself a lot.” His friend answered: “Mine does too, but she doesn’t know it. She thinks I’m listening.”

Like marriage, putting up employee suggestion boxes just like that is nothing. They think management is listening. But that’s a lifeless stance. You have to push, train, and motivate people. Using a biological metaphor, Gary Hamel coaxes people managers to rely much on the corporate sperm count to get bright ideas from employees.

How would you do it? Hamel says: “If you want to find a few ideas with the power to enthrall customers, foil competitors, and thrill investors, you must first generate hundreds and potentially thousands of unconventional strategic ideas. Put simply, you have to crush a lot of rock to find a diamond.”

That’s what dynamic companies are doing. For instance, the local Toyota unit requires its 1,500 workers (as part of their key result areas) to submit as many as 24 ideas a year, or a total of 36,000 ideas a year from all the workers! Asking people to give hundreds, if not thousands, of suggestions came to me again when Shuji Nakamura, now a Japanese-American professor at the University of California, and two other Japanese scientists won the 2014 Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs. Forget about the ugly solar light bulb made of recycled PET bottle, water and chlorine. Well, at least in the meantime. Let’s do it big time.

I’ve been following the exploits of Nakamura, whose work has “triggered a fundamental transformation of lighting technology,” as reported by The Japan Times, quoting the Science Academy in Stockholm. Decades back, Nakamura was an ordinary employee of Nichia Corp., a small enterprise specializing in lighting products in Tokushima, Japan when he invented the blue LED in 1990. According to The Wall Street Journal, Nichia patented Nakamura’s invention and paid the equivalent of $180 at current exchange rates on top of his salary.

He was called “Slave Nakamura” for accepting that small amount by heckling American researchers in mid-1990s. I can almost hear the abuse: “Why do you appear to be an idiot and allow people to point it out?” That’s one important advantage of insulting people. It pushed him to sue Nichia, his former employer. And in January 2004; he won a case before a Tokyo district court ordering Nichia to pay him 20 billion yen or about $180 million. The company appealed and the parties ultimately reached an agreement in 2005 that netted Nakamura 840 million yen.

What’s the lesson here? Knowing the unsavory reputation of our courts here, that kind of award will never happen in the Philippines. No, that’s a wrong conclusion. The workers may have turned suicidal before they get justice. That’s another misdirected conclusion. Of course, there are many lessons here. I’ve said it earlier and I will say it again: Management must push workers to give thousands of ideas and pay them in cold cash, not tokens like company coffee mugs, umbrellas, or t-shirts.

Tokens, like five-centavo coins, can’t get you anywhere. They were invented as a key ring and as a washer, but they’re not real money. They had value back when watching black-and-white movies was still fashionable.

Whatever era you’re in, giving cash rewards is the best way to motivate people. Using such an approach, I was able to make a suggestion program to one bank in the late 1990s on how to be successful in securing hundreds of ideas. I made it special by acting aggressively fast, like Clark Kent transforming into Superman. We paid the award in an average of three weeks after receipt of the idea, with the CEO handing personally the check to volunteer-workers.

So, why not borrow all the brains of people around you? Then pay them good money. After all, management needs someone to share the blame. Of course, that’s a joke.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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