Creativity and Problem Solving is Required at Every Level by@martygroover

Creativity and Problem Solving is Required at Every Level

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Marty Groover

Marty Groover is a partner in the Industry 4.0 practice of C5MI, a firm that optimizes and creates live supply chains.

The following is adapted from Speed of Advance.

There are a lot of people in your organization, at every level of your organization, who possess the intelligence to come up with innovative solutions and improvements. Many times, the best problem solvers in an organization never get a chance to contribute their creativity, so a lot of potential goes undiscovered or underutilized.

What does that mean? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: people are your greatest resource…and if you’re not tapping into all of your resources, you’re probably missing out.

This is more important than ever because the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the age of cloud computing and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)—can’t be implemented top-down like most IT projects; it requires innovation at every level. For that reason, I strongly recommend that you get everyone involved.

When every member of your team contributes to problem solving, it’s not just a lean way to operate; it also means you are using all of your resources at every level. Give everyone the opportunity to share ideas and possible solutions, even if it’s not their specific area of responsibility, and you might be surprised at the creative ideas they come up with.

Problem Solving at Every Level

In the Navy, no matter who you were, you could write and submit recommendations for improvements, and the Navy would consider your suggestion. If they liked your idea and decided to include it, a message was sent out identifying the contributor and thanking them for their input. Just this simple act of recognition was powerful and inspired people to share their feedback.

If the recommendation wound up being a large-scale change, a change that impacted the whole Navy, the sailor who suggested it would get recognized in an even bigger way, such as receiving a “sailor of the year/quarter” award. I know of one sailor who made a beneficial suggestion about the way they rebuilt weapons. He not only received recognition for it, but the Navy also paid him a bonus of thousands of dollars because he’d saved them quite a bit of money.

This kind of response incentivized people at every level to think creatively about problem solving because they were empowered to contribute and acknowledged for their ideas. Every sailor’s opinion mattered, so everyone had the freedom to come up with a great idea.

When you create inclusion across all levels of your organization, when every single person is encouraged to offer feedback, ideas, and solutions, you get much better outcomes. It creates a culture of innovation, where processes are constantly being made better, cheaper, and safer because everyone is engaged in offering ideas for improvement.

Creating a Culture of Ideas

When I moved to Caterpillar, I was committed to creating a culture of ideas, because I saw how effective it was in the Navy. At Caterpillar, we created boards in each value stream area of our production system that contained small cards called T-cards. If anyone had an idea for an improvement to people, quality, velocity or cost, they could write their idea on a T-card and submit it.

Leadership would take those ideas into consideration, and if an idea was accepted, they would ask for help figuring out how to implement it. Every quarter, we gave recognition and awards to the individuals who’d made original suggestions and to the ones who figured out how to implement them.

These weren’t simply certificates or a handshake. We gave actual monetary awards, and at the end of the year, we offered an annual award of $10,000 to $15,000 for the best idea. The winners received their trophy and cash prize at a public ceremony, so the whole company recognized their contribution. The enthusiasm spread like wildfire, creating a culture where everybody was constantly trying to come up with creative solutions.

Sometimes, if we had a particular issue that needed to be addressed, we would put the word out and offer a reward, so people at every level of the organization could begin thinking about it. We could have paid a lot of money to outside experts to come in and solve our problems, but we chose to incentivize our own people instead. It was far more affordable, benefited our own team members and created a more innovative culture.

A Win-Win for the Company and the Team

Fostering innovation at every level made sense in the Navy because the people trained to use the equipment were more likely to have useful and practical insights than the leader, who was mostly coordinating people and resources. Even low-level sailors wielded enough power to potentially change entire systems, depending on the quality of their ideas.

At Caterpillar, taking this same approach led to solutions for countless quality defects and maintenance issues from people on the shop floor—the people who were closest to the problems and understood what was going on up close. Plus, we found that people were far more likely to embrace a change when they knew the idea came from someone working on the shop floor instead of a leader or an outside expert.

In fact, it worked so much better this way that whenever I needed to make a change in the shop, I would always begin by asking people for their input on the issue. “How could we improve this process? How could we make it flow better? How could we make it safer?”

Most of the time, the best solutions came from workers who knew our processes from real on-the-job experience. We would then ask them for help implementing their solutions. They felt empowered to contribute, they felt ownership of their solutions, and they were rewarded with a real cash bonus for their participation. It was a win-win for the company and the team.

Avoid the Iceberg of Ignorance

The “iceberg of ignorance” explains why it’s so important to involve everyone, not just leadership, in innovating solutions. This concept says that frontline workers are aware of 100 percent of the problems faced by an organization, supervisors are only aware of about 74 percent, middle managers about 9 percent, and senior executives only 4 percent.

Whether or not those numbers are accurate, the concept is definitely true. Frontline workers see and experience a lot more about what’s really going on, so they often have better ideas about how to improve things.

Workers on the shop floor understand the reality of the people, processes, and technology, so they’re poised to provide the most effective solutions. Empower them to do so. Make it worth their time, and everyone in the organization will benefit.

As I saw in the Navy and at Caterpillar, you will thrive if you create a culture where everyone’s ideas are worthy of consideration. It costs a lot less to solve problems this way, and you get better solutions that people are more willing to adopt going forward.


For more advice on how to foster innovation at every level of your organization, you can find Speed of Advance on Amazon.

Marty Groover is a partner in the Industry 4.0 practice of C5MI, a firm that optimizes operational execution through the creation of live supply chains. Marty leads functional and technical teams to solve manufacturing challenges by merging people, process, and technology. With more than two decades as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, Marty is a recognized thought leader in the SAP partner base and is known for his extensive insight in production planning, lean manufacturing, and ERP systems.

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by Marty Groover @martygroover.Marty Groover is a partner in the Industry 4.0 practice of C5MI, a firm that optimizes and creates live supply chains.
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