One of the great beliefs we have as managers is that our job is to listen to our employees’ ideas and then go implement those that we find valuable. Sounds like a great idea. But as managers we know the reality is that a good many employee ideas just don’t make business sense.

My last week’s post was titled Engaging Employees: The Economics of Micro Ingenuity. In that post, I referred to research that shows for every employee that crosses over from being disengaged (meaning they do only what they are told to do) to engaged (meaning they make decisions and implement improvements without being asked), you can expect to add an incremental $13,000 to the bottom line each and every year.  That’s $13,000 per year per employee. Just do the math.

So if employee ideas often don’t make business sense, how is it possible that when employees implement their own ideas they somehow magically bring great results?

In traditional low-engagement organizations there are five reasons employee ideas are only half-baked if they were baked at all:

  1. The idea solves a problem that is not really a problem
  2. The idea addresses a problem in some other department, addressing work they do not understand
  3. The solution has negative impacts the employee has not considered or intended
  4. The cost of the solution exceeds its benefits
  5. The solution addresses a problem’s symptom not its root cause

In organizations where employee engagement is high, as I explain in Business at the Speed of Now, it is high because management has worked hard to ensure employees know where the organization is going, they understand their specific accountabilities, and they know how to effectively use facts to solve problems.

Then, when employees know they are expected to implement their own ideas they actually come up with ideas that focus on the things they can control. They also focus on improvements in the areas where they have a lot of knowledge, experience and insight.

As a manager if you routinely experience employees coming to you with half-baked ideas, you might want to look in the mirror and ask yourself why the ideas are not focused on the work the employee controls.

When employee ideas focus on the routine work they do and know well, and they have data-driven problem solving skills, the ideas almost always make good sense.

What’s been the most half-baked suggestion an employee has ever made to you?


Wouldn’t it be a dream if every employee could add $13,000 to the bottom line of your business each and every year? No need to dream because research shows that’s exactly what happens when an employee shifts from being disengaged to engaged.

Every employee has ideas for taking waste out of their routine work. Some frontline workers see simple things that can be done to improve the customer experience and others have easy-to-implement ideas that can grow revenue.

In Business at the Speed of Now I demonstrate the economics of small ideas. A simple example is that if an employee has an idea, and that idea removes a small amount of waste from a repetitive process, it doesn’t take much of an idea to save $1,000 annually. So, using simple math, if you have 100 employees and each saves $1,000 by implementing one equivalent improvement idea each, your business adds $100,000 to its bottom line.

Now, keeping the same math in mind, if each of your 100 employees implements 10 ideas annually and each saves $1,000 then your business will enjoy $1 million more on the bottom line every year.  This is how the economics of micro ingenuity pays off.

This may seem like a wild dream, but not when you realize that Toyota’s employees on average have been implementing 70 ideas annually for more than 30 years, according to Toyota expert and author Norm Bodek. At the same time General Motors implemented one idea per employee every seven years. Yes, you read that right. And this fact reveals why Toyota has grown at a much faster rate than GM, which was once the most powerful company in the world.

Toyota is a NOW company, General Motors lives in the THEN world.

Micro ingenuity is a powerful reality, and in my experience is the one true sustainable competitive advantage a company can build. But how does Toyota do it?

Next week I’ll share how Toyota focuses employee ideas on the practical reality of their daily work – the work employees can and should control.

A charming children’s book titled “Children Make Terrible Pets” tells the story of a young bear who came upon a small lost boy in the forest and wanted to take him home as a pet. His mother cautioned the bear warning that children do not make good pets.

The whole notion made me laugh because it reminded me about the reality that people by their nature are independent, curious, questioning, passionate, emotional, opinionated and frequently irritable. To conclude the opposite, that human beings are basically rational and logical, defies what we experience in each other and in ourselves. And to believe that it is human nature to sit by quietly and comply with whatever we are told to do is to misunderstand the very nature of being human.

But when we look at the workplace and our underlying management model it is highly dependent upon people doing exactly as they are told – being compliant. Even in this post-Mass Production Age employees are largely still seen as cogs in the great machine of enterprise. The enterprise relies heavily on these complicated, messy and often troublesome humans to mechanically and reliably repeat its processes delivering its goods and services.

The problem is that people are terrible machines. Rather than being able to rely on them to just do as they are told, it is their nature to question, to challenge, and to improve whatever it is they do. This is not to say people are not reliable, the problem is they just don’t enjoy being compliant for compliance’s sake. Machines do a much better job at being compliant because they are designed to only do what they do.

To get people to comply we have to disengage their human nature. We have to use something to keep them focused and doing what we want them to do. Unfortunately, the drug of choice for controlling people is fear. Fear of losing their job, fear of not fitting in, fear of not being good enough, fear of the boss, or even simply the fear of being called out in front of your peers.

Now I know fear is not a polite word and the vast majority of managers would likely deny they use fear to keep their people on the straight and narrow. But in the real world of messy, creative, thinking and feeling human beings, fear is the silent killer of human spirit and thus human innovation.

After all, without fear, people are terrible machines. So, with a little fear, most people out of necessity will begrudgingly leave their humanness at home, come to work, and try their best to simply do what they are told to do.

If one day a truck showed up at your business full of valuable materials given to you by an anonymous donor – and it was exactly the stuff you needed to take the company to the next level – you would be elated. A gift from heaven, you might think.

Ironically, a truck full of valuable materials actually has been parked out back waiting to be discovered for a long, long time. This truck contains the single greatest untapped asset available to you and your business.

That truck is filled with your employees’ ideas, their concerns, thoughts, passions and values. It’s locked up and no one has looked inside for a long, long time.

I used to hear it said all the time, “our people are our most valuable asset.” It’s funny how rarely that is heard these days. After all the botched efforts to engage our people we have pretty much determined it is either impossible to do or it is pure naive idealism.  And so our human gifts go largely untapped, underutilized, and – I hate to say it – unappreciated.

With this said, I want to explain why this situation exists and why it matters.

Most organizations have a huge amount of waste. It ranges from as low of 15 percent of operating costs to as high as 50 percent. It’s all those things that happen every day that add no value, yet, for some reason, we do them anyway. And, someone somewhere in your organization knows just what to do to get rid of that waste. But they don’t do a thing about it.  Why is that?

A truck full of passion

It starts with the fact that Gallup tells us 67 percent of our employees aren’t engaged. They show up and do what they are told, nothing more and often less. They know where the waste is, and they hate it because it squanders their time and robs them of the pride and satisfaction in a job well done. They don’t engage because they can’t; the way the business is managed does not allow them to make the change that eliminates the dreaded waste.

As leaders of organizations the vast majority of us truly believe in our people – in our hearts. But in our heads it doesn’t work as advertised. People seem to be so complex and a lot of the time their thinking seems half-baked and their actions nonsensical. We see living proof that the promise of employees seems to fall far short of our heartfelt expectations.

Employees disappoint us NOT because they lack the talent, passion and innovation we all think they have.  The reality is the way we run our businesses actually prevents the fulfillment of the great promise of human innovation. What’s broken is not the people, it’s our management model and its inability to engage employees.


People thrive in a system designed to give them the data they need to make smart decisions.  People thrive in a system where they understand the organization’s direction so they can take action that supports that direction.   People thrive when the dominant motive is to do what is right, not to do what is safe. People thrive when they don’t walk in fear.


Open up that truck out back and take a look inside. The management model needed to release the passion and innovation of your people is waiting there for you.



BUSINESS AT THE SPEED OF NOW is available in all formats at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, 800-CEO-Read and other outlets where fine books are sold.

This Thanksgiving we had something special to be thankful for: a life’s dream of writing a book came to reality a mere two days before the turkey hit the hot oil.

While my first book, BUSINESS AT THE SPEED OF NOW was scheduled to begin shipping December 6th, it actually started arriving at readers’ homes and offices on Tuesday, November 22nd. That same day Amazon released the Kindle version and I received a box of 50 copies at my home for family and friends. Over the coming weeks Wiley will be releasing the book in Europe, Australia and Asia. An audiobook is also in production.

Two years ago this Thanksgiving I was in the middle of writing a manuscript which I then sent to an accomplished literary agent in the spring of 2010. He hurdled back a note that said I had “managed to obscure some interesting ideas” in it, the beginning of a rather interesting collaboration with a man to this day I have never met in person, Michael Snell.  The original misguided manuscript was never talked about again – it died a quiet death. Early on Michael suggested I do some work with a woman named Betty Rausch, a woman he called the “marketing babe” who lives in New York City. Michael told me she would help me better think through my messaging and positioning. Boy, did he call that right. Betty was a gift and the “Now” concept emerged from our many dialogues.

For six months Michael ran me through what seemed like a blind obstacle course. At times I though he would never be satisfied. He was demanding and rarely offered encouragement– he just pushed me harder and harder. At times I didn’t think he could ever be satisfied. I can remember one day I was convinced it was done after four-and-a-half months of hard work. Michael knocked me off my pedestal and told me we were about “a quarter of the way.” I remember telling my wife that I didn’t think I could every meet his high standards. I was ready to quit, exhausted, stressed and tapped out. But of course I didn’t.

Three weeks later, out of the blue, Michael told me we were done.  I about fell out of my chair out of sheer relief.

Remember, this was just the book proposal! The book had not yet been written.

Well Michael — I can now see — was challenging me to create a great book. He saw something in me I didn’t and maybe couldn’t see. He was testing to see if I had the true conviction to do the work it took to do something extraordinary.

He knew what he was doing. We sent the proposal out at 7:30 one Friday morning 14 months ago. I will never forget the literal rush of adrenalin I had when my cell phone rang two hours later.  We had our first offer. Within two weeks we had two more publishers interested in the book. We were blessed to be in the position to choose, and we chose John Wiley & Sons, the largest independent U.S. publisher of books. My agent, who has taken some 800 books to market in his career, had never enjoyed such a fast and abundant response.

More than six months later, after the completed manuscript had been submitted to Wiley with lots more help from my now collaborator Michael, I finally heard what he thought of the proposal. Out of the blue I received a call from a Portland, Oregon (where I live) business colleague, who told me he had come across Michael in his pursuit to find a literary agent. As this person was anxious to learn more about book proposals, Michael offered him a link to “the best book proposal” Michael had ever been involved with. It was mine.

It’s been an interesting journey with many wonderful twists and turns, but I am sure it has only just begun.



The pre-keyboard interface to computers

This is the 4th of a 22 blog series in celebration of BUSINESS AT THE SPEED OF NOW, hitting bookstores and eReaders December 6th in the U.S., and available worldwide by January 16th.

You probably have never heard of Douglas Engelbart, but in 1968 at SRI (founded as Stanford Research Institute) Doug did what is now known as “the mother of all demos.” With a support staff and a mainframe time-shared computer he gave an innovative glimpse into the future of daily work life showing rudimentary email, texting, word processing, video conferencing and the use of the mouse. To those watching, it must have seemed bizarre.

Of course businesses could not afford to equip the average worker at that point in time with what Engelbart envisioned – let alone the average person in private life could not have come close to affording access to such powerful tools. By the early 1970s individuals in academic or research institutions began directly interacting with computers leaving behind such museum quality tools as punch cards. It all sounds so archaic that we expect Fred Flintstone to appear in the picture at any moment.

The Fat Mac

This will date me, but I remember in 1981 when I asked my boss at Omark Industries, a man with a doctorate in computer sciences, if I could have one of those green screen computer monitors in my office. He advised me against it because he said it would make me look like a secretary and damage my image as an up and comer. I ignored his advice.

In the mid 1980’s through a software developer friend I snagged my first personal computer, a new device that was just out called a “Fat Mac” from Apple with a whopping with 512k of RAM. I brought it home and I was cool.

Today, we live and thrive with instant access to EVERYTHING. The computer, eventually coupled up to the Internet, changed our world forever and set the foundation for a NOW-centric world. Can you image a world without it?


Our natural creative energies as human beings thrive in the world of the incremental. We love making little improvements and our minds are always working on something—something we can do to make our lives a little bit better. We love ideas so much that people with BIG ideas become our heroes. We love invention and we love the people who invent. What would our lives be like without automobiles, canned food, pasteurized milk, beer, refrigerators, zippers, CAT scanners, television, air conditioning, computers, the microwave oven, the dishwasher, the lawnmower, the stapler, Post-It Note, GPS and don’t forget the bar-code! Every one of those had to be invented by someone, and every one of those inventions depended on hundreds if not thousands of previous inventions in order to be possible. Invention is dependent upon a succession of incremental ideas that build and combine into things that transform our world; big inventions are usually only made possible through many, many little inventions. What have you invented lately?