Many businesses are missing out on a key source of ideas for improvement: their employees. Most work environments are organized into some form of hierarchy. This type of structure tends to stifle analysis and questioning from the majority of employees in those organizations – those near the bottom of the org chart. Evaluating processes and operational efficiencies are typically left to managers. The people who are actually participating in those processes, the cogs in the machinery, are often overlooked for insight. This is a mistake, and it behooves both employees and managers to break this trend.
For employees the key is to be outspoken. Pay attention to your "sphere of influence," always searching for small refinements. Then approach a supervisor or a manager and suggest that you want to be part of refining the organization. Tell him or her that your "ground-level perspective" may provide unique insight into what is really going on in the organization. Discuss a handful of the refinements you have already discovered, focusing on improvements that would have an effect on productivity or cost. Keep your ideas small in the beginning, and provide feedback specifically referring to your role in the organization. If you become a reliable source for small but meaningful refinements your value to the organization increases. For example, a line-worker working at a car manufacturer might find that he or she spends an extra 1-2 minutes per car because of the layout of their work area. Perhaps a toolbox requires a 30-second walk around a large machine, or the source for parts is organized in an inefficient way. These kinds of "rough edges" can only be identified by people who perform this work; by the line-worker. Saving 1-2 minutes per vehicle over time adds up to a significant improvement on a line that builds hundreds of cars a day.
For managers and supervisors the key is to seek ideas from your employees. Communicate the fact that you want them to provide feedback about their work. Give them guidelines to help them identify those "rough edges." For example, suggest that workers take a few minutes to think about their day-to-day activities. Tell them to look for points in the day that seem ineffective, activities in which the employee is working-around something. Ask them "where is time wasted in your daily activities?" Provide a mechanism for employees to provide you with feedback, sometimes at the beginning of a weekly meeting, or one-on-one during the course of the day. Seek ways to improve their jobs, and that will lead to ideas on how to improve the business. Do not just ask for problems. Tell them to bring up problems, but to also provide the solutions. That way the employees are not focusing on complaining, they are solving problems by providing the solutions. Above all, trust your employees. They are closer to the actual work of the organization than you will ever be. No idea should ever be treated as a bad idea. There may be suggestions made that are impractical for one reason or another, but the idea here is to promote employee participation. Nothing stifles participation and creative problem solving like rejection. Be positive and always ask for more.
When employees and managers work together to identify and fix inefficiencies the whole organization wins. Employees become empowered because they are part of the solution, and their individual contribution becomes more meaningful. Managers and supervisors suddenly have a limitless new source for ideas on how to improve productivity and efficiency. The organization as a whole benefits from happier, more productive employees.