Eureka! The benefits of staff suggestion schemes

Staff suggestion schemes will have their day in the sun at the National Ideas Day (NID) conference on 15 March, organised by the UK association of suggestion schemes, ideasUK.

“We chose it because it’s beside Einstein’s birthday,” says Steve Procter, operations director of ideasUK. “His birthday is the 14th, but we had to adjust.

“This will be the fifth NID conference we’ve run, and we expect to attract 140-150 people from about 100 organisations, including a lot of HR managers,” he adds. “They tend to be involved in staff suggestion schemes.”

Conference speakers will include lateral thinking expert Paul Sloane, and professor Stephen Wood, research chair of Sheffield University’s Institute of Work Psychology.

Sloane, author of the Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills, will talk about lateral thinking in business. He believes a lack of deference can inspire creativity. He says that leaders of innovative organisations must win employees’ respect because of what they stand for, not the position they hold.

“A lack of deference should be encouraged so that anyone can challenge anyone else’s ideas regardless of their status,” he says.

“If you want innovators in your team, look for people with some particular bad attitudes – the ones with rebellious, contrary and divergent views. These are people who some might label as troublemakers. But they are not negative or cynical. On the contrary, they are passionate about their ideas.”

He says such characters are often screened out by over-zealous HR recruitment policies designed to weed out “square pegs”.

“One way of spotting these people at interviews is to put hypothetical questions to them asking them what they would do in certain situations,” he says. “Innovative thinkers will come up with solutions.”

Generating ideas will also be central to professor Wood’s talk, which will look at how to make suggestion schemes work.

He says a survey by Sheffield University shows successful schemes have the following characteristics:

– They enjoy management support

–  They provide recognition and reward

– They are well publicised

– They are regularly updated.

Staff involvement in a scheme’s design can also improve its chances of success.

But the research found only 33% of the 114 organisations surveyed publicised their schemes regularly, and only 16% reported a high level of planning.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers innovation study conducted in 2000 claimed 29% of viable ideas come from employees, while 46% come from customers, suppliers and market intelligence. It found a “structured idea management process” – gathering ideas from staff, customers and suppliers – was a major innovation success factor.

Procter says ideasUK asks its 160 members every year how much money they save by implementing ideas generated by staff suggestion schemes. “Each year [results show] savings of between £80m to £90m from staff ideas,” he says.

According to ideasUK, the Siemens Standard Drives (SSD) suggestion scheme generates ideas which save the company about £750,000 a year. The electrical engineering giant receives about 4,000 ideas per year, of which approximately 75% are implemented.

A survey of staff idea schemes published in December 2004 by IRS Employment Reviewranked the SSD scheme as number one for value of the organisations polled. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s scheme came second with a value of £250,000, and Chessington World of Adventures’ ideas scheme – valued at £50,000 – was third.

But these figures are dwarfed by the £10.5m that BMW says was saved by implementing staff ideas at its Mini plant at Cowley in Oxford between 2002 and 2003.

However, the financial rewards for staff whose suggestions are implemented tend to be small. For example, Pfizer offers a maximum award of £1,000.

These are tax free, as long as they meet Inland Revenue rules. These include the proviso that the suggestion is not made at a meeting held with the express purpose of generating suggestions. The suggestions must also be made through an employer’s scheme which is open to all staff or a specified group, and it must relate to the employers’ activities.

If there an idea has commercial potential, then it should be patented, as there is no copyright on ideas per se.

Staff whose employers are ideasUK members can also enter its Idea of the Year competition.  There are several categories, including health and safety, customer service, productivity and environmental.

The overall winner receives a travel prize worth £1,000. Entries must be in by 30 April, and results will be announced at the ideasUK conference on 30 November.

Colin Whitten, an overhead line engineer with Northern Ireland Electricity Powerteam won the 2004 award. He suggested a design for an earth mat that could me mounted at the base of poles carrying high voltage lines.

Such mats are usually buried underground and cannot be inspected before being used by operators working on switches – a potential hazard.
 “Colin’s clever idea,” says ideasUK, “was to mount the mat at the base of the pole on the ground, but in such a way that it could be hinged and folded around the pole when not in use.”

The National Ideas Day conference will be held at Ironmongers Hall, London on Tuesday 15 March. It starts at 9.30am and entry is free.

Quick quiz

What did Einstein do after proposing the Theory of Relativity in 1905?

A: Smoke his pipe
B: Mow the lawn
C: Go to bed for two weeks





The correct answer is: C



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