In Praise of Creative Minds

If your company has a hard time finding creative solutions for stubborn problems, it may be looking in the wrong places.

To generate creativity, companies must believe that it comes not from the few, but from the many.

"One of the biggest mistakes companies make is having misconceived, knee-jerk stereotypes as to who's going to be creative," says Alan Robinson, an expert on corporate creativity.

Management, in short, is not the primary source of corporate creativity.

Some 75 percent of the ideas that bring better products or bigger savings come from front-line workers, he says, not from the executive suite.

Mr. Robinson co-wrote "Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen" (Berrett-Koehler, $29.95).

Robinson, a management professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and Mr. Stern, an education professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, visited dozens of companies worldwide to find out how creativity happens.

In a recent interview in a North Hollywood, Calif., diner, Robinson recounted endless stories of baggage handlers in Britain and railroad workers in Japan who have saved companies thousands - even millions - of dollars.

Creativity, he chides, has nothing to do with rearranging office furniture or adding tofu to the cafeteria menu.

Systematic inspiration

It has everything to do with a system that listens to employees' ideas, then responds to them promptly and fairly.

"Companies need to manage creativity as strictly as they account for employees' travel expenses," he says.

That usually means more than a suggestion box.

He praises, for example, the suggestion program at American Airlines, IdeAAs in Action, which chief executive officer Robert Crandall launched nearly a decade ago.

Currently, 47 employees, reporting directly to Mr. Crandall, evaluate and implement 17,000 ideas a year. In 1996, those ideas saved American $43 million.

They range from the simple to the sublime. In one instance, a flight attendant noticed that most of the disposable coffee-pot lids on each flight were discarded unused.

They only cost a few cents each, but when American followed her suggestion and put half as many lids on each flight, the savings totaled $62,000 a year.

"The key aspect is follow through," Robinson emphasizes."People need to know that their ideas are going to be acted on if they're any good."

Japanese companies generally excel at drawing creative ideas from employees, he notes, and managers are measured by the number of ideas subordinates generate.

Is this any way to run a railroad?

He cites Japan Railways, which encountered an underground stream while tunneling through Mt. Tanigawa.

Engineers found a way to drain off the water, but one worker noticed that others were drinking it. His suggestion put Japan Railways in the beverage business. Oshimizu mineral water now appears in a thousand vending machines, home delivery trucks, and juices and other drinks. It started as an engineering problem. It became a $50-million-a-year business.

In the US, downsizing has put a cap on creativity, Robinson says. Fewer managers are left evaluating ideas, and the more people who look at an idea, the better.

Managers also, mistakenly, try to hire creative people, he says. To the extent that managers think they know where creativity comes from, he says, "that's precisely how much your creativity will be limited."

"If you put people who know the work out there, they'll have lots of ideas, and if you listen to them, you get incredible leverage."

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