Creative people have profitable ideas

The most successful businesses are those that utilise all their people’s creativity and initiative. As a motivation-booster, being part of your company’s development and success is in a class of its own.

This is the central message of Louise Östberg’s research work, which has resulted in a book on how to utilise ideas from every employee of a company, written in partnership with internationally renowned researchers Alan G Robinson* and Dean Schroeder. This book will be published by SIS Förlag in spring 2010.

Louise Östberg is a consultant in improvement work, who helps companies and other organisations get constructive work on ideas involving all staff in an organisation off the ground. For ten years, she’s been researching how Swedish companies utilise their ideas. Her work looks at nearly 50 Nordic companies, comparing them with several hundred global corporations, all of which take a structured approach to their idea systems, and have achieved very positive results from their work on change.

The results of this research show that generally, Nordic companies lag behind their foreign competitors in terms of utilising their employees’ ideas. But this is also a company’s greatest opportunity—learning how to benefit from the enormous potential for improvement and innovation that lies in their people’s ideas and creativity.

As Louise herself puts it: “If we take Sweden as an example, despite a lengthy tradition of consultative decision-making, the country doesn’t take the time to listen to its employees. One misconception is that work on thinking should be by management, and that the rest of us merely do management’s bidding. But really, ideas should be sourced from services close to business.”

Many companies hand resources over to external engineers and experts when they need new creative solutions and ideas. Louise thinks that it can be much more effective to rely on the skills that employees already possess. But it has to be done in the right way—people are different, as are organisations. Systems that utilise the ideas and creativity within an organisation may vary. But what all successful systems share is that they get all employees participating in working with ideas, and that the ideas generated are monitored and measured in some way.

Manufacturing is best

Historically, manufacturing has been the prime sector focusing on organised work on ideas. Scania and Coca-Cola, who record a high number of ideas per employee and report very good results from their idea systems, are excellent examples.

However, in the services sector, an active approach to working with ideas remains in its infancy. In manufacturing, it’s easier to see the link between ideas and results, while the effects on services may be more abstract. But Louise thinks that this sector needs an active approach to working with ideas just as much.

But in some parts of the services sector, a lot of progress has been made; there are places where people are starting to realise the possibilities of a more conducive working environment for ideas. The absolute leader is the Clarion hotel chain, where one hotel gets an average of up to 50 proposals for improvements each year from its staff. This can be set against the Swedish average of 0.5 ideas per year. Coor Service Management also distinguishes itself with its structured process involving all employees with clearly stated goals for improvement, which are continuously monitored. Coor also reports proposals for improvement above the Nordic average.

Louise sees three main common denominators for good work with ideas—getting employees at all levels committed, management being committed to employees’ daily duties and ambassadors in different departments that support employees’ work with ideas. Louise has gone in depth into the theories and psychological factors that explain what motivates people—it’s important to feel recognised, seeing your ideas implemented and managers and staff listening to you. And this goes hand-in-hand with the findings of all management research.

“Then we also want to be rewarded in different ways. Some people want public recognition, while others would rather hear a few encouraging words. That’s why we should move away from the view that everyone should be treated in the same way—rather, we should recognise the fact that everyone is an individual and should be treated accordingly,” concludes Louise.

Some successes in working with ideas

All types of organisation benefit from well-functioning work with ideas. Posten AB (Sweden Post, the postal provider), which has evolved into one of the world’s best national postage systems in terms of precision and delivery times over the last decade, is a good example. The implementation of an effective ideas system involving most of Sweden Post’s 30,000 employees was a key factor in this transformation. In their new book, Östberg, Robinson and Schroeder describe the meaning of Sweden Post’s systematic approach to ideas for the group. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Umeå sorting terminal in northern Sweden has the best performance. This terminal also implements the most ideas from its staff out of the whole of Sweden Post. One of the many ideas we saw was a separate room for the people that check hand-written addresses and postcodes on computer screens, when the automated system is unable to interpret them. Previously, these staff had been located centrally in the terminal in a noisy environment, where they tried to concentrate on processing as many letters as possible. The idea of building a special environment free of noise and disturbance on a level above the production floor came from an employee. Moving their workstations to a separate room resulted in the number of letters they process increasing by 34% per employee and hour, the number of errors reducing by 45%, and they experience their working environment as far less stressful.” (Excerpt from the book by Louise Östberg, Alan G Robinson and Dean Schroeder, to be released in spring 2010).

To find out more:

Contact Louise Östberg,

* An interview with Alan Robinson was published in Nova 2008, issue 3