Feature Stories

Peak Performance

Front-line insights shape idea-driven organizations
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 “When managers gain the ability to implement twenty, fifty, or even a hundred ideas per person per year, everything changes," says Robinson.

Many academics study ideas and innovation, but few focus on generating ideas on an organization's "front lines," where much of the work gets done. Alan Robinson, an operations and information management expert in the Isenberg School of Management, is shedding light on these front lines, examining how bottom-up ideas are best encouraged and implemented in work settings.

While an organization's senior managers offer valuable big-picture and strategic perspectives, they are typically far removed from the hands-on insights that come with employees' face-to-face interactions with customers and the work itself.

In a well-conceived idea system, those front-line insights, should account for 80 percent of an organization's overall improvement notes Robinson in his new book, The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-up Ideas. “When managers gain the ability to implement twenty, fifty, or even a hundred ideas per person per year, everything changes,” says Robinson.

Coauthored with former Isenberg professor, Dean Schroeder, the book offers many examples of high-performing idea systems in action—in dozens of retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, financial service businesses, hospitality companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies. The authors’ message is cautionary: To yield lasting dividends, an idea system must be painstakingly integrated into its parent organization. In other words, it is counterproductive to view an idea system as the flavor of the month or a snap-on innovation. That includes the paternalistic suggestion box, whose failures Robinson and Schroeder document. Instead, the high performance idea system will more often than not entail profound organizational and cultural change.

Robinson and Schroeder roll out a comprehensive framework for an idea system's gestation, implementation, and adaptation. That includes trial-and-error alignment of the system with an organization's strategy, structure, goals, processes, policies, and procedures.

Robinson and Schroeder note that, “the entire organization must be aligned in its support. That includes its vertical integration among the organization's layers of management and its horizontal integration among its departments. A misaligned organization where, for example, conflicting goals and poorly thought-out policies or systems create implementation bottlenecks, can stop the flow of ideas in their tracks.”

They analyze idea-process approaches involving idea meetings, idea boards, and Kaizen Teian (continuous suggestion and improvement) systems. They detail a nine-step framework for implementing idea systems that begins by securing leadership's long-term commitment and concludes with the system's never-concluding continuous improvement of the idea system itself”. It shows how to extract more and better ideas by improving problem-finding skills, including idea mining, which reveals ideas embedded within other ideas and their novel perspectives. And finally, it turns to larger innovations like breakthrough technologies, which Robinson and Schroeder insist can benefit hugely from an idea system's multitude of smaller front-line ideas and the infrastructure to disseminate them.

Robinson says that with knowledge and intention, any organization, with the managerial humility and commitment to nurture bottom-up ideas, can become a dynamo of impactful ideas.

"We've tried to strike a balance between readability through stories and examples and the actionable details of building a high-performance system," he explains. "Our aim is to reach and motivate intelligent managers. In that, we're happy to share our approach, including the details to make a high-performance system happen."

Robinson is a professor in the Operations and Information Management Department and specializes in lean production, managing continuous improvement, creativity, ideas, and innovation. In addition to his work as an educator, researcher, and consultant, Robinson has co-authored six books which have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Isenberg School of Management