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Blog : “Ideas from our people? Don’t be silly….”


“Ideas from our people? Don’t be silly….”

One of learnpurple’s clients was recently asked to participate in Channel 4’s primetime hit show, Undercover Boss. Unfortunately for Channel 4 our client had to decline because, despite being a company of over 400 people, every single employee knows and can recognise the CEO and his senior team thus making the programme unlikely to be a success!

The premise of the show, for those that don’t know, is for a high-ranking executive to spend a week ‘undercover’ as an entry level employee, to find out ‘what things are really like’ and to learn about professional and personal challenges.

It strikes me though that although it makes for great TV, and I am sure companies including Best Western Hotels, Harry Ramsdens and the Jockey Club all found it beneficial for their employee relations (not to mention their public opinion), surely going in ‘undercover’ is leaving it all a bit late?

Wouldn’t it be great, although a little idealistic, if there were no need for this programme? How different would your business be if you knew everyone of your people, or at very least they knew you, and they had the opportunity to spend time with you/make comments you would hear? In our opinion, no matter how large your company, there should always be time to find out what the people ‘at the sharp end’ are thinking and this can be where organisations not only engage their employees but gain some great ideas to improve business too.

It’s not enough anymore to simply show a DVD from 1998 of the CEO telling new employees how glad she is you came to work for the company. To really get under the skin of how your people are feeling and what they are thinking, it must seem to them like you care about each and every one, harder to practice than preach, especially in a large company but there have been some amazing success stories in recent years.

The greatest example is the much publicised tale of Archie Norman at Asda who is credited with taking the store back into profitability and though this may seem like old news, the moral still applies today. Not only did Archie turn up at individual stores without any fanfare, he would walk around and talk to colleagues and customers, asking questions such as ‘what is the best thing about working here?’, ‘what is the worst’. He would then grab a coffee with the store manager and write up his notes in the car before moving on to the next store. His ‘staff suggestion scheme’ set new standards in the industry and according to the Grocer ‘45% (of ideas) were genuinely new and were progressed further. And as many as 10% were implemented’. You can bet that all of Asda’s workers knew exactly who Archie Norman was and anything that the ‘undercover boss’ could have achieved was being done anyway.

So what features make an ideas system' really work? There should be an organised way for people to submit ideas. Your people should be aware of how their ideas will be processed and how decisions are made and it’s also a good idea to reward people for ideas that do take off.

Another variation on the theme is a ‘back to the floor’ scheme, where, openly senior people spend time in departments that are not their own and at the ‘front line’. This again can be useful to understand specific challenges. A slight twist to this initiative happened last month when Tui invited their suppliers to spend a day in a UK retail shop after their own MD Johan Lundgren did the same, all with the aim of improving the service and products on offer. Bluewater shop manager Hayley Potts said: “It was a shock when we found out Johan was coming and we were really nervous. He was very relaxed and asked the girls questions about what they do. I think it really opened his eyes to what goes on in the shops. It’s really important that people like him see how we look after customers and run the shop.” Potts added: “I had tears in my eyes because the girls really did me proud.”

It is increasingly important for senior managers not to lock themselves away and be very visible to their people. I have seen first-hand how one of our clients, Robert Cook, CEO of hotel groups Malmaison and Hotel du Vin makes a point of talking to people by name and is genuinely interested in them and their thoughts. Even if you think you don’t have time to implement people suggestions or ‘back to the floor’ you could start a lunch with the CEO. If you’re a small company have lunch every quarter with an employee, and if you’re bigger then ask your managers for nominations or have lunch with four of five people at a time – I promise you it will be worth it and I bet you’ll have some great ideas to take away.

Do you know of any schemes of this nature that have worked well? Please share…

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