Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations

Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations

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by Alan G Robinson, Dean M. Schroeder

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The fact is, because they're the ones actually doing the day-to-day work front-line employees see a great many problems and opportunities that their managers don't. But most organizations do very poorly at tapping into this extraordinary potential source of revenue-enhancing, savings-generating ideas.
Ideas Are Free sets out a roadmap for totally integrating ideas


The fact is, because they're the ones actually doing the day-to-day work front-line employees see a great many problems and opportunities that their managers don't. But most organizations do very poorly at tapping into this extraordinary potential source of revenue-enhancing, savings-generating ideas.
Ideas Are Free sets out a roadmap for totally integrating ideas and idea management into the way companies are structured and operate. Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder draw on their ten years experience with more than three hundred organizations in fifteen countries to show precisely how to design a system to take advantage of this virtually free, perpetually renewing font of innovation.
Robinson and Schroeder deal with two fundamental principles of managing ideas that are highly counterintuitive - the importance of going after small ideas rather than big ones, and the problems with the most common reward schemes and how to avoid them. They describe how to make ideas part of everyone's job, and how to set up and run an effective process for handling ideas-how to take a good idea system and make it great. And they show how good idea systems have a profound impact on an organization's culture. At the end of each chapter they provide "Guerrilla Tactics for the Idea Revolutionary", actions to promote ideas that any manager can take on his or her own authority, and that require little or no resources.

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How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations
By Alan G. Robinson Dean M. Schroeder

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-374-3

Chapter One


What will future generations say about the way we practice management today? What will they consider our most conspicuous failure?

We believe they will accuse us of having squandered one of the most significant resources available to us: employee ideas. Every day, all over the world, millions of working people see problems and opportunities that their managers do not. With little chance to do anything about them, they are forced to watch helplessly as their organizations waste money, disappoint and lose customers, and miss opportunity after opportunity that to them are all too apparent. The result is performance far lower than it should be and employees who do not respect or trust management and who are not fully engaged with their work.

At the same time, their managers are under constant pressure to do more with less. But with so much of their time consumed by "firefighting" and trying to meet short-term demands, they have little or no time to think about how to build their organizations' capabilities. They are chronically short of the resources they need to keep performance at current levels, much less improve it. They wonder how to motivate their employees, who don't seem as involved in their work as they should be. In short, a great many managers today find their work stressful and unfulfilling. Because there seems to be no alternative, both managers and employees become jaded, and they accept the situation as the way things have to be.

But a quiet revolution is under way—an idea revolution—led by managers and supervisors who, in a small but growing number of companies, have learned how to listen systematically to their employees. With each implemented idea, performance improves in some way. Some time or money is saved, someone's job becomes a little easier, the customer experience is enhanced, or the organization is improved in some other way. With large numbers of ideas coming in, performance improves dramatically. And as employees see their ideas used, they know they are having an impact on their organization and become engaged in their work.

Why do we call this movement a revolution? We do so because it liberates people and transforms the way that organizations are run. It changes the nature of the relationship between managers and their employees. As Ray Winter, then president of BIC Corporation, observed about the effect of his company's idea system on the corporate culture:

This system has taught my managers real respect for their employees. My managers have learned that their employees can make them look awfully good, if they only let them.

This comment could easily be taken to mean that it does not take much—other than receptiveness on the part of management—to get large numbers of ideas from employees. But, just as it did the other companies we have studied, it took BIC years of experimentation and learning to discover how to tap this potential. There is a lot to learn, much of which goes against the initial assumptions most managers make about why people give ideas and which ideas are important.


Ideas are the engine of progress. They improve people's lives by creating better ways to do things. They build and grow successful organizations and keep them healthy and prosperous. Without the ability to get new ideas, an organization stagnates and declines and eventually will be eliminated by competitors who do have fresh ideas.

An idea begins when a person becomes aware of a problem or opportunity, however small. Every day, regular employees-the people who do the office work, make the products, and serve the customers—see plenty of problems and opportunities and come up with good ideas about how to address them:

* When accounting for oil purchases, a staffer in a regional distribution center of Deutsche Post, the German post office, noticed that the company was paying too much for the engine oil for its trucks. Drivers were buying oil at roadside service stations, paying the equivalent of $8.50 per liter. After some research, he found that Deutsche Post could buy the oil in bulk for a quarter of the price and proposed that it do so. At the time of this writing, the idea was being implemented at distribution centers across Germany. With tens of thousands of diesel trucks and vans on the road, it will no doubt save millions of euros every year.

* At Good Shepherd Services, a not-for-profit health care organization with a nursing home in northern Wisconsin, a group of employees learned in a training session that dementia patients often see areas of black flooring as holes and avoid them. Instead of using alarm bracelets or restraints to keep such patients from wandering into unsafe areas, the group suggested simply to paint the floor black in front of the doorways to these areas. The idea worked, and it not only reduced patient stress but saved staff considerable time because they no longer had to respond to alarms.

* At LaSalle Bank, one of the largest banks in the United States, whenever someone requested a new laser printer, they were given the standard model specified by the purchasing department. One day, an employee unpacking his new printer noticed that it included an expensive internal disk drive, which no one would ever use. With all the printers the bank purchased each year, his idea to eliminate this feature saved a considerable sum of money.

* At a Massachusetts Department of Correction facility, a guard proposed a change in the way pictures were taken of new inmates. Instead of using film, why not use digital cameras and store the images in a database? Across the department's sixteen correctional facilities, this idea saved $56,000 the first year in film alone.

* An office worker in a Florida branch of a national temporary-placement firm realized that there was a problem with her company's screening practices. At the time, it was paying an outside vendor to test applicants for literacy, numeracy, and computer skills. Those who passed were then given a drug test and criminal background check, which some 70 percent failed. Why not do the drug testing and criminal background check first, she asked? When the idea was implemented nationwide, the savings were huge.

* At Winnebago Industries, the recreational vehicle maker, an assembly worker pointed out that the 10 percent of customers who ordered the deluxe sound system option were getting additional speakers they never used. No one had told the crews on the main assembly line that installed the built-in speakers for the regular sound systems to skip the vehicles that would be having the deluxe speakers installed later. The regular speakers embedded in the walls were never connected. They were seen but not heard. Although the savings from this idea were significant, the main benefit was that customers stopped bringing vehicles back to the dealers and asking them to fix speakers that were not working.

None of these ideas required particular insight or much creativity, or required much in the way of time or resources to implement. (In the case of Deutsche Post, oil suppliers were so eager for the business, they were willing to install the bulk tanks for free.) To the people who came up with them, they were simply common sense.

Every employee idea, no matter how small, improves an organization in some way. It is when managers are able to get large numbers of such ideas that the full power of the idea revolution is unleashed.


There is a clear link between an organization's ability to tap ideas and its overall performance. Consider the following examples:

* Boardroom Inc., a Connecticut publisher, averaged 104 ideas per employee in 2002. Its sales per employee were more than seven times greater than the average publisher.

* Richer Sounds has been listed a number of times in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the world. It also has one of the best idea systems in the United Kingdom, which brings in some twenty ideas per employee per year.

* Milliken, a global fabric and specialty chemicals company, averaged 110 ideas per employee in 2002. In a number of its textile product lines, it competes with companies in developing nations whose prevailing wages are less than one-twentieth of those in Europe and the United States, where most Milliken operations are located. To be successful, the company has to outmanage these competitors. Over the last two decades, Milliken has actually been able to increase its advantage over them, a feat that Roger Milliken, chairman and CEO, attributes in large part to the company's idea system. Milliken is one of only two companies in the world that has won both the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) and the European Quality Award. The other is the French-Italian company ST Microelectronics, which has one of the better idea systems in Europe.

* DUBAL, a major aluminum company in the United Arab Emirates, has none of the natural advantages typically associated with aluminum producers. It must produce its own electricity, desalinate seawater from the Persian Gulf to get the large amount of fresh water it needs, and import its primary raw materials from Australia. Yet DUBAL, whose people average more than nine ideas each per year, is one of the lowest-cost producers of aluminum in the world. According to CEO John Boardman, much of the company's excellent performance can be credited to its idea system.

* Dana Corporation, a global company with over sixty thousand people, expects every employee to submit two ideas each month, and in some facilities it exceeds twice this number, with a worldwide implementation rate of 80 percent. Two of the company's U.S. divisions have won the MBNQA.

In our experience, when people first encounter examples of companies like these—work environments that are clearly so different from where they work—they are full of questions. How do the employees in these organizations come up with so many ideas? Are the ideas any good? Who has time to deal with all of them? Don't you have to create a huge bureaucracy just to deal with ideas? How are employees motivated to give in so many ideas? Are they offered rewards? These are all good questions, and we will answer them in this book. But before we do, it is important to understand just how radical the concept of going after large numbers of employee ideas is. It brings about so much change, in fact, that for most managers it is revolutionary.

Ever since Frederick Taylor first advocated that management's job was to think and the worker's job to do, this has been the default perspective. In most organizations around the world, the division between thinking and doing is "hard-wired" into policies, structures, and operating practices, although it is rarely explicit or even recognized for what it is. While this approach may have been the right one a hundred years ago, today it has become severely limiting. This is why the simple concept of going after employee ideas—when done properly—fundamentally transforms the way organizations are run, allows them to achieve levels of performance well beyond what they were previously capable of, and liberates the people working in them.

The mechanics alone of handling large quantities of ideas forces considerable change. Managers whose employees are submitting one or two ideas every week cannot hope to evaluate, test, and implement them all unless they push decisionmaking authority for most of them back down closer to the employees and their supervisors. This empowerment starts a virtuous cycle. As employees see their ideas being used, they begin to feel valued as part of the team and become more involved. As managers see this change in attitude and the impact that ideas have on performance, their respect for employees grows. Employees are trusted with more information, training, and authority. This in turn leads to even more and better ideas—and the cycle continues, ultimately creating a positive, high-performance culture.


It is easy for managers and supervisors to come to believe that they know better than the people who work for them. After all, they are usually better educated, have merited positions of greater responsibility, and earn significantly more money. They wear the "suits." Managers who get large numbers of ideas from their employees have the opposite view. In our experience, they are much less arrogant. They recognize their heavy dependence on input from their subordinates. Every day, they are reminded of how valuable front-line ideas can be.

In a famous essay, Friedrich Hayek, founder of the Austrian School of Economics, articulated why employees often see problems and opportunities that their managers do not. In writing about decision making in organizations, Hayek divided knowledge into two types: aggregate knowledge and knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. Managers usually deal with the first kind of knowledge—things like "Sales are off 10 percent" or "Costs went up 5 percent." The higher a person is in an organization, the more aggregated his or her information tends to be. While aggregate knowledge is important for understanding general relationships and formulating broad strategies, it is not very useful for coming up with specific performance-improving ideas. These come primarily from the second kind of knowledge that Hayek discussed—the detailed knowledge of particular events, day-to-day problems and opportunities, and how things are actually done. This is exactly what employees tend to possess and why they can often come up with better ways to meet organizational goals than their managers can.

We came across a particularly telling instance of this fact when we helped set up an idea system for one of the world's largest cranberry growers, a company with more than forty-five thousand acres of bogs under cultivation. At a time when cranberry prices were plummeting, management was desperate for ideas that could save money, other than ones involving more layoffs. The value of being on the spot showed in one of the very first ideas that came in. Cranberry production, like rice production, is water-intensive, and pumping large volumes of water is extremely costly. The idea, which came from a field worker, was simple: "When it rains, turn off the sprinkler systems."


Two questions managers often ask when they learn how well some companies are doing at getting employee ideas are "Don't employees ever run out of ideas?" and "Can an organization get so good that there is nothing left to improve?"

If these were real concerns, one company that would have had to deal with them is Toyota. In 1992, Yuzo Yasuda published a book about the company's idea system, entitled 40 Years, 20 Million Ideas. It told how Toyota got more than a million ideas per year from its employees and had been doing so for more than a decade. Around this time, a U.S. Army lieutenant general asked one of us how this could be. To him, it made no sense. Either Toyota was in very bad shape, he asserted—so bad that it needed a million ideas per year to fix its problems—or the whole thing was some kind of charade. Whichever was the case, Toyota's idea system didn't seem to be something other companies would want to emulate. It was a thoughtful comment from someone with considerable leadership experience. But it also exposed a degree of ignorance.


Excerpted from IDEAS ARE FREE by Alan G. Robinson Dean M. Schroeder Copyright © 2005 by Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan G. Robinson is coauthor of the bestseller Corporate Creativity and teaches at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts.
Dean M. Schroeder is currently the Herbert and Agnes Schulz Professor at the College of Business Administration at Valparaiso University.

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