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How Small Wins Lead to Big Impact

Posted on May 19, 2015

What to do when what was once a slow trickle of employee suggestions suddenly, overnight, becomes a deluge?

Several months ago a client approached us about installing Vocoli employee suggestion software to replace their traditional wooden box system. People in the organization were excited about it and management set a goal of getting 50 solid ideas from the program in the first year. After the software was installed, the results were confounding - over 600 suggestions arrived in the first 90 days and it's been a steady stream ever since.

Don't get us wrong, this is a good problem to have. As we've shown time and time again on this blog, employee suggestions have enormous value and can deliver big results. The front-end of innovation (FEI), or the starting point where opportunities are identified and concepts are developed, is key to maintaining a forward momentum in any organization. But receiving so many suggestions is still a problem. Time and money are finite resources. Given these limitations, management has to make the call on which suggestions to act on and which to put on the backburner or shelve entirely.

So how should one handle this issue?

As Paul Guttry in this Harvard Business School article writes, there are two schools of thought:
1. One is known as the "analysis" approach where management solicits and collects suggestions from front-line employees and then puts them in a descending list of priority based on difficulty and potential impact. Management then works through the list - devoting resources to hard-to-fix issues first and working their way down the list until all the resources are used up. In this model, lower value propositions are less likely to be implemented, but those that are implemented are typically (in baseball terms) “home runs.”

2. The other is the "action" approach or the "low hanging fruit" model. Different from the analysis model, easy to implement suggestions are made first. This framework emphasizes speed, doing things now, and reeling off a series of quick wins. Again, speaking in baseball terms, this is concentrating on base hits over grand slams.

So, which model works? Big wins or little ones?

The research Guttry cites indicates the "small wins" model is much more effective.

One study investigated the best way to improve safety in hospitals via "Management by Walking Around" programs in 58 hospitals departments over 18 months.

Senior leadership would walk around for an hour at a time and solicit feedback from nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, and administrators. Later, leadership would hold staff meetings to get more suggestions and discuss safety issues.

Using these two methods, a long list of suggestions were compiled. Half of the participating hospitals used the analysis approach. Each suggestion was given a priority score based on importance, likelihood, severity, and difficulty of correction. The other half chose the action approach - fix things and act on suggestions as soon as possible.

The answer even surprised the research team. In the words of Tucker: "The analysis approach was not associated with success at all, which surprised us, since it's so ingrained in the process improvement literature. The action approach was more successful: fix what you know about first.”

One reason for this is the concept of "buy-in." When employees see their suggestions acted upon, they and their co-workers are more likely to make more suggestions, something we've written about before.

When it comes to prioritizing employee suggestions - don't hold out for the big win, do what you can when you can. Many small wins can mean big results in terms of employee engagement, ROI and innovation in your organization. Interested in knowing how digital employee suggestion software can help your business? Give us a call at 888-919-5300.

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