An old adage has its roots in the military: the people who know what’s really happening have no power to change things, and the people who have the power to change things don’t know what’s really happening.  The conventional business answer in attempting to square this particular circle has been the suggestion scheme, but this rarely adds much value because it doesn’t question the power structure of the organisation, ie ‘you may have ideas but I’ll decide whether they are worthwhile’.  Going back to the shop floor, where the chief executive discovers first hand ‘what is really going on’ at the coalface,  is more telegenic but similarly reinforces the message that nothing changes without the boss’s say so.

Determined to do better, the giant American manufacturing company GE developed in the late 80s an approach called WorkOut.  Its essence was that a team of experienced staff explored together their ideas for improvement and presented them to managers, who then had to say yes or no – the latter with a credible reason – on the spot.  What managers could not do was kick ideas into the long grass. WorkOut continues to generate big improvements in productivity and has been widely adopted elsewhere.

Whether or not labelled WorkOut, a similar approach get results in local government. Years ago in a county council a 17 year old girl trainee whose first language was not English took part in a project to speed up the process of meeting a child’s special educational needs. Surrounded by much more experienced colleagues and naturally shy, she had little to say at first.  At the fourth session she blurted out “Why do we do all the steps in series?  It would be better to do them in parallel.” A stunned silence and then the eventual result that the time was cut in half, giving the child and family what they needed much sooner, and  the cost was slashed.

Interviewing a group of graduate trainees at a city council last month, one message screamed out: they enjoyed their work, thought it was worthwhile, but couldn’t understand why ‘the system’ didn’t get off their back and let them contribute much more.   Sometimes the truthful answer is ‘Because doing so would break the law’ or even ‘That would probably be a good way to kill people’.  But more often the truthful answer is ‘Because that’s the way we do it here so get back in your box’.  After being told that a few times you do, and stay there.

So here’s the challenge to HR professionals, all the more vital in this period of austerity: create the environment in which people have ideas and the organisation snaps them up and runs with them.  Southend, for example, seems to have done that pretty well.

Stephen Taylor

Blakesley Associates