Employees have the Darndest Ideas

Given the freedom to participate and make a difference, employees can make all the difference

Back in 1957, (unfortunately I am old enough to remember) one of the most popular television shows was hosted by Art Linkletter called, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Seeking entertainment and humor by going against the idea that “kids should be seen but not heard” (the same attitude many corporate managers have regarding employees) the premise of the show was to place five children – age 3 to 8 – onstage and have Linkletter pose a series of simple questions about their life and family. With the parents safely out of sight behind stage, the kids were free to answer with innocent, candid, honest and open responses; and as a result they would say the darndest (embarrassing and humorous) things. But what they said was the truth and it made for a great show. (The show was so popular that it inspired a series of books, was copied in countries around the world and a reprise of the original show with Bill Cosby in the host role, was launched in 1995.)

The corporate world could learn a lesson from the concept and success of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” The producers of the show understood that humor is based on truth and truth can be found only in an open and honest environment. In the business world, lasting success is dependent upon the participation and committed involvement of employees. But this can only happen in an open, honest, empowering and rewarding environment, something sorely lacking in most corporate cultures.

To be honest, it is so discouragingly easy to find examples of corporations seeking success by doing all the wrong things that it’s nice to find, once in a while, an instance of a company that seems to understand the simplicity of success, just as the producers of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” did.

Take, for example, Southwest Airlines, founded in 1967 by the legendary corporate maverick Herb Kelleher. Southwest quickly became known for its contrarian corporate culture and for the remarkable success it achieved in becoming the largest domestic airline in the country. Even though Kelleher is retired, it is encouraging to see that some of his “keep-it-simple, do-it-different” attitudes have rubbed off on current management.

Faced with rising fuel costs and the need to cut costs, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly this past week asked all his 46,000 employees to come up with ideas for “finding a way to save $5 a day.” Of course, the typical corporate leader would snicker at an idea like this, but it is pure genius. To be honest, Kelly copied an idea that Kelleher used in 2000, but it is still unique in the corporate world. As simple as this idea may seem, it is in reality a very sophisticated way to trigger a number of constructive approaches that spark positive responses from employees. (Something most companies don’t even consider.) For example:

Making Complicated Issues Simple

What is the typical approach of management when a company is faced with the challenge of implementing significant cost cuts? Well, usually the top management will go off on secret meetings to decide which cuts are needed and then institute those cuts from the top down. (Actually, the costs almost always impact the company from the bottom up.) Or, management will bring in expensive outside “efficiency experts” who then will survey the operations of the company, drop their report on the desk of the CEO and depart. In either case, management is often confounded to discover that employees are unhappy and uncooperative.

Part of the problem is that the objective is often expressed in terms the employees cannot relate to. Such as, “We need to cut $20 million from operations.” Other than to worry that it may cost them their job, how can the average employee relate to that type of number? Also, when these cuts come from the top or from outside consultants, they are often indiscriminate and usually fail to identify where real cuts should be made. Such as, “Each department is to reduce their budget by 10 percent.”

The approach of Southwest is to take a complicated problem – reducing costs due to increasing expenses that are external and can’t be controlled (fuel) – and find a simple solution. The way to solve a complicated problem is to identify simple actions that will lead to a solution and then, simply do them. And Southwest is attempting to do this. Instead of talking in terms of millions and demanding cuts the average employee cannot relate to, Kelly asked everyone for ideas on how to save $5 a day. Everyone can relate to $5 a day, much easier than the idea of $84 million is cuts. (The amount of money the company would save each year, if every employee came up with an idea to save $5 a day.)

Empower and Encourage the Employee to make a Difference

Everyone talks about the benefits of empowering and engaging employees to participate in the success of an organization, but far too few do so. Employees  want to be involved, they need to feel they can make a difference and they have the power to do so. But few work in a corporate culture that allows these needs to be fulfilled. Rather than management dictating cuts from above or hiring some outside consultant, the approach taken by Southwest sends a clear message to employees that they are not only important, they can make a difference and have the power to solve the problem, because they know – better than anyone – the best places to make cuts.

And these powerful benefits come with a bonus: When the employees are the ones who recommend the cost reductions to be made, they will not only accept them, but take pride and ownership in achieving them. Especially when they are recognized and rewarded for their efforts.

Building Parallel Interests

Creating an environment that puts the corporation, shareholders, management and employees in parallel, so that no one group benefits at the cost of another group and when one group benefits all do, is the most powerful and most often violated concept in the business world. Parallel interests create; while interests in conflict destroy.

By turning to the employees to come up with ideas to reduce the impact of high fuel prices on the company, Southwest is putting the interests and future of employees in parallel with the corporation, management and the shareholders. Any time you can create an environment where the employees care about and benefit as much from the success of the company as do management and shareholders, you have an environment that encourages participation and involvement. Employees will make the darndest effort when they feel free and are encouraged to offer ideas to benefit all stakeholders in an organization.

And the Moral of the Story …

Management is a simple process made complicated by management. There are just a few simple concepts – building parallel interests, vesting power with the people, doing simple things, but simply doing them and recognizing that those who have the talent to add value to an organization will be encouraged to do so, if they are allowed to share in the value created – that if implemented will motivate and free employees to do their darndest to help the company be successful. Where is Art Linkletter when you need him?


One response to “Employees have the Darndest Ideas

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