The average colleague has seven ideas per day about how they could improve where they work. For our company that’s 9000 ideas per day. Or 3 million every year. But most of those ideas never catch fire. – Bromford Lab
Tokyo, Japan 1936 – Kiyoshi Ichimura , the son of a poor farming family , has an idea. Kiyoshi didn’t have any great privileges to speak of, but was ambitious and enterprising.
Kiyoshi was fascinated with the early emergence of what was set to dominate the world of work – the modern office. He founded a company called Riken Kankoshi – specialising in the production of optical devices and equipment for this new generation of white collar office workers.
Nurturing a unique pool of thinkers Kiyoshi led the company that became Ricoh. Today it operates in nearly 180 countries with annual sales of over $20 billion.
Telford, England, 2015 – I turn up to visit and learn about how they’ve managed to keep a culture of innovation alive for 79 years.
You can tell a lot about a company’s culture in your first five minutes through the door. The things I always look for and I saw at Ricoh:
- People look you in the eye and say hello – they can tell you’re a visitor and they want you to feel welcome. That seems obvious but it certainly doesn’t happen everywhere.
- There’s a sense of history and achievement , a company that respects the past but isn’t stifled by it.
- There’s evidence of thinking differently or just being different.
Your company values also say a lot about how you view your culture.
The Spirit of Three Loves – the founding principles laid down by Kiyoshi:
- Love your neighbour
- Love your country
- Love your work
Principles that are as much about community , pride and friendship as work itself.
Perhaps that community culture is one of the reasons why Ricoh have been so successful in the deployment of the continuous improvement practice – Kaizen.
Ricoh has practiced Kaizen (in Japanese – “Good for Change”) since the Second World War.
Kaizen was all the rage in management circles in the early 2000’s. You couldn’t go on a leadership course without hearing about it. What those courses often failed to teach is that tools and systems are useless without the culture to bring them alive. You simply can’t port best practice in from one place to the next and expect it to work.
Rather than looking for transformative innovation, one of the most notable features of kaizen is that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time.
Here’s are the top tips I picked up from Ricoh on creating a culture where innovation is part of everyone’s job:
No idea is too small:
Most people don’t think of themselves as innovators but they can spot small improvements. So encourage them to pitch small achievable ideas. As our host told us “We’d rather have a million ideas that save £1 than one idea that saves £1,000,000.”
At Ricoh, people are given very small incentives to provide suggestions (£1 vouchers cashable in the canteen or that can be saved up for team events). The message here was “do what works for your people”. Ricoh had ditched a more complex reward and recognition scheme after people told them they preferred the simple voucher system.
See the status quo as a negative:
Offering your ideas is seen a positive trait and built into performance and goal setting. Settling for the status quo is seen as a negative. During performance appraisals managers will have conversations with people about how many ideas they have submitted each month or year , and suggest ways they could make more.
Make offering ideas easy:
Submitting an idea at Ricoh is as easy as writing it down and passing it on for evaluation. “If you make people complete a 2 page report , they just aren’t going to do it” we were told.
Make ideas visible:
Everywhere you walk at Ricoh , and I mean everywhere, there are visible reminders of the ideas that have been pitched. This helps build momentum.
Something I especially liked is that twice a year the senior leadership will visit each team and hear about the ideas they’ve submitted and how these have improved the business. Awards are given, success celebrated, but they also discuss ideas that didn’t work.
The key takeaway here is that management go to the team not the other way around. Most organisations would just ask the team to complete a report for management to read through in a meeting.
Make it achievable:
Innovation requires more than just coming up with ideas. Filtering and selecting the right ideas takes time and resources. So small ideas get fast tracked with bigger ones passed on to specialists. If you ask for ideas and then don’t act on them you will destroy trust. It’s better to avoid asking for ideas than failing to act upon them.
Through promoting a culture where part of your day job is to have ideas – Ricoh have made innovation accessible to everyone in their organisation.
It’s a truly global innovation lab.
How is your organisation encouraging and acting upon bright ideas?
10 thoughts on “How to Make Innovation Part of Everyone’s Job”
I like this post Paul. I don’t know much about Japanese work culture but I’m a big fan of the keiretsu model with long term partnerships instead of sub-contractors. Here’s how I see it in my field: http://www.russellwebster.com/commissioning-a-better-future/
Thanks Russell – I can’t tell you how helpful that link is as I’m researching a post on alternative procurement models! I’d heard of keiretsu but had misunderstood its purpose. “Close-knit networks of vendors that continuously learn, improve, and prosper along with their parent companies” – I couldn’t agree more!
Culture eats strategy for breakfast! The challenge for the worker is how to innovate when the culture for idea sharing is not present. Apart from leaving that is.
Thanks for comment! Think that’s the choice – build a coalition for change. Or leave!
Great stuff – we loved our trip round there! We used Storify to capture our thoughts as we went along in case it’s useful https://storify.com/GoodPracticeWAO/ideas-uk-networking-meeting. The Kaizen Forest was a truly remarkable thing!
Thanks – and I should have credited you guys for putting us in touch. It was Chris Bolton who made the introduction!
And here I am…. 🙂
Glad you enjoyed the visit, Ricoh is a fantastic place, made fantastic by the people.
Did they show you Gemba Mat?
I think the point you have made about them making innovation truly accessible to everyone is spot on.
Imagine what other big organisations and institutions would be like if they had the same sort of culture?
Thanks Chris – we didn’t get to see the Mat unfortunately as the Kaizen Forest is being upgraded. (We’ll have to go back)
Innovation is quite a unwieldy concept for lots of people – they tend to think of relatively big and shiny things (Netflix , Dyson etc) rather than things that more directly relate to their job and they have power to change.
As you say , imagine if more employers made that connection within people?
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