Role: Department Manager
“Yeah, Terry, I have a question. Why are you always trying to make things better?”
As someone still considered new to the company, yet certainly experienced optimizing warehouse and manufacturing floor operations, that was a question I had not heard before.
Isn’t everyone looking for ways to improve how we operate?
Wasn’t everybody interested in exploring new tools and best practices to make us more efficient?
Apparently, not so much.
It was the way he asked the question that really hit me. There he was, a longtime leader and key influencer on the floor, arms crossed in a typical, defensive posture and a tone that said, “You fresh faced managers are always looking at ways for us to change, and I say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”
The only thing I could think to say in response was, “I encourage you to always have an eye out for how myself and others in the organization can better support your efforts.” Not particularly inspiring.
I got a big “Hrrumph” from my inquirer followed by snorts and chuckles from the rest of the team.
This was not going to be easy.
I’m no touchy-feely person. I’m more a numbers guy driven by data and margins. At the same time, I knew behind every single piece of data that drives any decision, are the people who make it happen. I wanted my team’s input! I wanted to help uncover ideas for ways we could all perform our jobs more efficiently, more cost effectively…better.
I’d put a shiny new idea suggestion box in the lunchroom, attaching one of those old school, bank counter pens with the chain. I received a few requests for more time off, higher pay and a handful of crude drawings that looked like something from a raunchy game of Adult Pictionary. And all that was left of the pen was its chain. Surely there were people on my team with an appetite to review and respond to innovative ideas from others, if not suggest their own. Change for change sake is deflating. On the other hand, I knew coming up with meaningful new ideas could inspire and engage employees.
I created a small innovation task force to meet and brainstorm issues and their possible solutions. Mostly I would talk, you could see people listen and yet, there was still no one willing to put their neck out there and speak up. I was their Department Manager. I couldn’t blame them. No one wants the label of instigator, creating perhaps even more work for themselves and others.
I wasn’t giving up; I’d just not yet found our team’s idea generation and feedback loop secret sauce.
Just before lunch one day, I checked my email and saw a note from HR. Our entire organization was getting access to a new product that was purpose-built to encourage idea sharing.
It was called Idea Pipeline.
I logged in with my company credentials and scouted around the platform. It looked easy enough. Submit an idea and people can react saying they like it, or coworkers could expand the concept adding fresh perspectives to its proposed features and benefits.
Great! I now had an employee engagement tool provided by and even encouraged for use by corporate. Only problem, I wasn’t sure how on earth to best promote its use by our new-idea-resistant team. It dawned on me, this Idea Pipeline application was so straightforward and simple to use, we could create our department’s own rules for its engagement.
I gathered our innovation task force together in a corner of the warehouse and with a projector I use at home to show movies in the backyard, I brought up the Idea Pipeline homepage.
Our goal as a group, was to simply look at previously suggested ideas from around the company, paying especially close attention to any that might impact us and our work. As I scrolled down the list, a member of the team called out an equipment utilization idea near the bottom of the projected screen. I read the submission out loud and asked, “Well, what do you think?” There were a couple mutters of, “That will never work,” and then a hand went up. It was the woman who had taken me around the floor on my first day to meet everyone on the day shift. I said her name and she began, “That’s an interesting idea. I wonder if it might work even better if we …” and she was off. Our corner of the warehouse was off and running. We broke every rule of brainstorming and yet in our own, effective way, we came up with questions and suggestions to include as a response right there alongside the original suggestion in Idea Pipeline.
We continued to meet as a group. The third time we met, one of our task force members asked if we’d seen the idea he’d submitted earlier that day. We pulled it up on the screen and there it was, problem statement, possible solution and a clear reason why we should do it. The team gave the submitter kudos and in true collaboration, began expanding the original idea and possibilities of its benefits. We were not only building a secure environment in which to work and get home safely in time for supper, we were creating a safe place to exchange and respond to ideas that could easily be seen by others in the organization, including those in the C-Suite of our corporate office.
It wasn’t long after, our task force and other members of our department began making use of Idea Pipeline’s ability to work anywhere we were and felt inspired to respond to suggestions from others and even submit our own real ideas for meaningful change.
After a visit to a vendor’s distribution center, I sat in my truck, pulled up Idea Pipeline on my phone and submitted an idea based on the successful implementation of an innovative solution I’d seen in action on their warehouse floor.
By the time I returned to the office, there was a note from our HR director asking if I had time for a Zoom meeting with the VP of Product Development and herself to discuss staffing needs that may be necessary to further develop requirements and eventual implementation of my idea. She said she was inspired by my suggestion and would love to help support our team’s efforts to do more.
I believe we’re just beginning to uncover our culture of creative thinkers and problem solvers from unexpected corners of the organization. With a tool in our toolbox like Idea Pipeline, we’ll give ourselves even more opportunities to stay ahead of the competition and retain great employees who make us who we are as a company in the eyes of our customers and each other.
I got rid of the suggestion box with the empty chain in the lunchroom. In its place is a computer locked in on our Idea Pipeline Login page. The coffee is still just okay, but the way we work, exchange ideas, and provide feedback, has made our work environment more engaging, more productive and yes, even better.