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The Employee Ownership Report

NewsletterConcisely written for leaders in employee ownership companies and for service providers in the field, the NCEO's bimonthly newsletter, the Employee Ownership Report, is the most efficient way to stay informed about legal issues, current events, best practices, breaking research, management approaches, and communications ideas for employee ownership companies.

Available exclusively to NCEO members, the Employee Ownership Report is delivered in hard copy and all issues back to 1997 are available in the members-only area of the Web site.

Nonmembers are invited to read the sample article below from the current issue of the newsletter. Every time a new issue appears, the sample article on this page will be replaced by one from the new issue. Join online for only $90 to receive the Employee Ownership Report and all our other membership benefits.

You also can read a sample issue of the entire newsletter (July-August 2011).

Sample Article from the July-August 2014 Issue:

Getting Started with Front-Line Owner Ideas

Dean M. Schroeder

After I spoke at the 2014 NCEO conference in Atlanta, a number of conference participants approached me to ask about the best way to start a high-performance idea system. They understood the potential improvement power in employee ideas, and they also recognized that if we want our employees to think and act like owners, we need to treat them like owners by listening to their ideas. Several of these NCEO members had already tried various ways to engage their employee-owners to get ideas, but they had struggled and failed. While listening to people's ideas is conceptually simple, there is a lot a manager needs to know to get it right; much of this knowledge is counterintuitive. There is no one best way to begin, but I believe the story of Mark Lewis, president of Woodfold Manufacturing, an Oregon-based employee-owned maker of wood products, provides a number of helpful insights.

The Woodfold Story

When Mark decided to encourage the company's front-line owners to offer their improvement ideas, he did not simply put up collection boxes or ask for ideas; he began by pulling together his key managers and set about the task of learning how to manage ideas. His goal was to integrate improvement ideas into everyone's everyday work.

Mark started the learning process by giving the managers leading each of the company's four manufacturing areas a copy of Ideas Are Free, a book I wrote with by Alan Robinson, and then holding weekly book discussion meetings. He asked the managers to read the first chapter in preparation for the first meeting. At the end of that meeting, Mark assigned each manager a different chapter and tasked them with leading that chapter's discussion in subsequent weeks. The facilitator's responsibility included capturing what the managers agreed were the important points of the chapter and highlighting them in a clean copy of the book. Much of the discussion focused on how these ideas could be applied at Woodfold. Mark was careful not to offer his comments on each chapter until after his managers were finished. When the reading group completed the book, each manager was asked to apply what he had learned in his area.

After some struggle, Mark and his managers determined that a system was needed to make it simple and easy to capture and implement ideas. Because the people on the front lines were in the best position to know how to improve their specific jobs, they were empowered to implement their own improvement ideas as long as an idea did not: 1) negatively impact safety, 2) decrease quality, and 3) change the form, fit, or function of the product. In this way, the employee-owners were actually being treated as owners.

Make Work Easier

The overall theme of Woodfold's idea system was to make work easier. Mark has noticed that one of the outcomes of the company's kaizen improvement events was to make people's work easier. He surmised that focusing small ideas on making work easier would also lead to improvement in productivity and less waste. Indeed, this proved to be the case and "Woodfold Do Easy" (DE) became the name of the idea program.

Mark quickly learned that running an idea-driven organization was not simply about setting up an idea system and waiting for the ideas. He is constantly searching for barriers that slow down or deter ideas, and he is regularly coming up with schemes to encourage his people to offer more ideas. For example, to keep people focused on the importance of ideas and to celebrate success, a photograph and story about each successfully implemented idea is posted on a wall somewhere in the company. Today many hallways walls are festooned with ideas, and the impact on people's engagement and company performance is significant.

There are several key lessons that can be drawn from Mark Lewis's experience at Woodfold. First, start with the best knowledge you can and plan on continuing to learn as you move forward. Second, keep it simple. The challenge here is that to make a system simple and effective is often a lot of work. As one of Mark's favorite quotes from Albert Einstein states, "It is easy to make things hard. It is hard to make things easy."

Perhaps the most important lesson is to get the learning process started. This can start with something as simple as piloting an idea system by setting up a board in one department and ask people to post ideas on how to make their work easier and more productive — ask them to also post nagging problems that are getting in their way. Then meet with the team and discuss which ideas to use, assign implementation responsibility, and set up the next weekly idea meeting to follow through.

Always look for ways to improve the systems. As Mark Lewis discovered, even success creates new challenges. Today one of his nagging problems comes from the fact that Do Easy has changed the company's culture. Employees often make improvements without recording them. Mark complains that this makes it hard to track progress and impossible to replicate many good ideas that can be used elsewhere.

Dean M. Schroeder is the coauthor of The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-Up Ideas. For more on managing ideas see www.idea-driven.com.