Above the Trees

No Idea Too Small

  • Print

Leslie Fishbein and her husband, Sam, are always on the lookout for ways to improve bus­iness at their furniture store.

Like any business owners, they like to keep costs low and profits high at Kacey Fine Furn­iture in Denver. And they are willing to implement the smallest of ideas to achieve that result.

Take a bright one they got from a colleague: to replace the company’s standard mobile phones with the latest camera phone technology. Initially, managers purchased phones to protect the company from customer complaints that drivers were damaging walls or floors while making deliveries. But company president Leslie Fishbein says employees quickly identified ways to use the phones, most of which made it dramatically easier and less costly to resolve complaints.

“One picture is worth a thousand words,” says Fish­bein, who uses the cameras to help with product placement at various showrooms when she is too busy to get there in person. Sales associates do this, too, offering decorating and room arrangement tips when drivers deliver furniture for customers.

The camera phones have proved especially useful in eliminating expensive and sometimes unnecessary furniture returns. Now, rather than return all furniture that is damaged upon delivery, factory- or warehouse-based managers can decide with drivers on the spot whether an item can be repaired. “They have increased our efficiency unbelievably,” says Fishbein.

This is precisely how successful businesses ought to be operating, says Dean M. Schroeder, a consultant and business professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana who, along with University of Massachusetts business professor Alan G. Robinson, this year published Ideas Are Free: How the Idea Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations.

The authors argue that small improvements, especially those suggested by front-line employees, can make a company more adaptable, competitive and profitable.

“The folks that are support people on the front line are seeing efficiency issues, lots of things higher-ups don’t,” Schroeder says. “Just listening to and empowering folks on the front lines does wonders.”


And sometimes, small suggestions can lead to big solutions. Robinson and Schroeder point to Monrovia Wholesale Nurseries in California. Shortly after Mon­rovia launched an idea program, a worker who got tired of handling smelly repotting soil—especially when it got wet—suggested covering piles of the soil with tarps to protect it from the rain. The company recognized the employee for his idea.

It wasn’t until later that Monrovia’s management realized the enormous impact: Plants repotted in dry soil are more likely to thrive, resulting in happier, healthier plants—and a happier, healthier bottom line.

Although Schroeder and Robinson praise companies that recognize employees for coming up with ideas, they caution against high-dollar reward systems that can overshadow efforts to obtain the smaller ideas.

They also argue that monetary systems complicate idea programs, lead to animosity and sometimes unwittingly create incentives to cheat. “If you want to promote teamwork, a reward system needs to be based on the performance of the team,” Schroeder says.

More than monetary rewards, Fishbein says employees want to know their ideas won’t be dismissed. “Employees are going to be reluctant unless they understand that they aren’t going to get embarrassed or scorned.”

To ensure ideas are taken seriously, Schroeder and Robinson encourage companies to adopt a system to handle the flow of ideas.

“Even though we may think we are or try to be very open,” Schroeder says, “without a system to assure follow-through, not only do ideas get lost, but ideas stop coming in because you’re not taking them seriously.”

Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.