Businesses should mine the mother lode of workers' ideas

THE United States has a ``secret weapon'' in its battle to regain world markets and to strengthen its economy. But many business leaders have yet to discover this classic managerial resource. At a time when business literature is filled with ``how to'' manifestoes on excellence or on giving customers good-quality products and services, executives continue to overlook their most precious resource: the good ideas and sensible commentary of their employees. Employees know best how to do their jobs and have a gold mine of wisdom for the boss - if only they could get the boss to really listen.

When one reads the annual reports that flood the mails each year, inevitably the company president lauds the employees for their fine efforts at making the business year a good one. Yet I have seen employees frustrated and turned off when they attempted to get messages sent through to the leadership running America's powerful companies.

If an employee on an assembly line at General Motors, for example, has an idea for a better way to assemble components, a mine field of internal obstacles must be overcome to get a manager with real authority. Often, there are 10 to a dozen layers of supervision and middle management to go through before that idea can break through to daylight where it can be nurtured and put to work.

While examining worker alienation, which has been rising dangerously in the United States, I discovered that behind the phenomenal sales record of Toyota cars in the US and their customer-pleasing quality lay a managerial system that honors workers' ideas and fresh thinking. In one year, Toyota management received a million suggestions from its workers, an average of 31 per worker. Those canny officers accepted 92 percent of those ideas, saving the company $131 million while achieving an annual productivity increase of 11 percent.

Most of the chief executives I have dealt with in three decades of consulting have genuinely desired to hear what is on the collective mind of their employees. But as bigness overtakes business and critical-mass theories of economics charm planners, we lose the personal touch with our workers.

Therein lies a weakness in the US industrial superstructure which is costing it dearly. Research we have conducted shows that messages from the work force tend to be derailed at the middle-management level. Notes going into an office or plant suggestion box often are not even responded to for months.

There seems to be an attitude that has grown in the American workplace built around divisiveness - leadership vs. the worker. In one big meatpacking plant in the Midwest a few years ago, I saw the company spokesman tell the news media that management's obligation to its workers was to pay them for a day's work, and beyond that, it had no concern.

Little wonder that that company has been beset by strikes and that the governors of two states have regularly seen violence at the plant gates.

One loyal veteran of our local phone company with a dozen years on the job told me how frustrated he was with the company's new computer system. ``My work orders are generated by that computer,'' he said. ``But it makes repeated errors and sends me out on service calls which I know are wrong. Yet, if the computer says I have to go, my foreman says I go. This wastes money, and I hate to see the customer having to pay for this. But I can't get anyone to listen to me.''

It is at that level that America is losing its productivity battle and at that point that quality of product is lost.

Some loyal employees simply give up when faced with this antihuman business bureaucracy. In one industrial plant in the Kansas City area, I talked with a woman manager on a production line who had 20 years' seniority. ``I hate to come to work in the morning,'' she told me, ``because I know in advance the hassles I am going to face when I walk to that assembly line.''

In that same company, employees in a wire mill told us they saw where at least $250,000 worth of copper wire could be saved; changes in customer orders were coming to the plant from corporate headquarters too late. Yet the two buildings were only a quarter of a mile apart. That 50-year-old company is now out of business, because it couldn't keep up with changing economics of its industry - wiring for cars, which now comes from plants outside the US.

When I talk with chief executives of good companies about this gold mine of ideas for improvement from the work force, I have great difficulty convincing the corporate staff officer in charge of human resources that there is a problem. No one seems willing to break the cycle.

Yet there are companies where employees can be heard. In one electric and gas utility in the Midwest, the newly named chairman has met personally with nearly 2,000 of his company's employees at all levels in a three-month series of small meetings. They told him about facets of the business that he never could have known about. His objective was to improve customer service in a deregulated utility industry where vigorous competition is being felt. He is gaining a competitive edge in the marketplace with well-informed employees who know that the boss genuinely cares about the feelings and concerns both of employees and customers. Surveys show that the company's level of customer satisfaction is rising to record highs, and earnings are up, too. Obviously, good communication with employees is good business.

I believe that a company's employees could give almost 25 percent more of themselves in their jobs if their top management could listen to their good ideas for making the business more successful.

Translated into specifics, that new output could increase the GNP by more than $750 billion and could earn $45 billion in additional profits for US companies.

When will the nation's industrial leadership commit itself to open communication with its workers to achieve those gains for the economy and the country? This is one proven way to strengthen the nation's productivity and regain leadership in international markets.

Ronald Goodman, an author and management consultant in corporate communication, was the R.M. Seaton distinguished visiting professional at Kansas State University.

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