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Unleash Your Most Powerful Competitive Weapon: Front-line Ideas

Imagine a competitive weapon that allowed you to dramatically upgrade your service levels, lower your costs, improve your ability to problem-solve, and better keep up with fast-changing regulations, policies and services. And despite the game-changing nature of this weapon, it’s free and few of your competitors make use of it. What is this weapon? Ideas from your front-line staff.

Every day, these people see a lot of problems and opportunities that their managers don’t. Your front-line employees are the ones talking with clients, answering questions about their accounts, and working with your internal processes and procedures. As a result, they see many improvement opportunities and are full of ideas to save you money, increase sales, handle client issues faster, and make everyone’s work easier. Consider the following:

A secretary in an Allianz office in Poland who prepared the annual life insurance statements required by law wondered if the law also required her to send them out by expensive registered mail, as her superiors believed it did. She did some legal research and found that it actually didn’t. Total savings for her office: $130,000 per year.

At Health New England, a Massachusetts-based health insurance company, call-center representatives had to log a lot of information from each customer call into the database. Much of this information was never used. One employee suggested shortening the phone log and capturing only the data that was actually needed. Her manager and colleagues agreed. This saved the call center five hours per day.

A customer service agent in a U.S.-based Lloyd’s agency pointed out that her customer management software required that every time she finished talking with a customer, she had to exit the application and restart it in order to access the next customer’s account information. The problem wasted an average of seven minutes per day for each of the agency’s 30 representatives, or three-and-a-half hours total, almost half a person! The IT fix took only four hours of a programmer’s time.

Research studies and data from idea-driven organizations have demonstrated that some 80 percent of an organization’s overall improvement potential lies in front-line ideas. Yet, in our experience, most insurance and financial services organizations do a better job of suppressing employee ideas than promoting them. As a result, they are using only a fifth of their available improvement potential.

The insurance and financial services sectors are fast-moving and fiercely competitive. Cost, customer service, and the ability to adapt quickly are paramount. Moreover, because of the complex and highly regulated nature of the industry, new policies and regulations seem to come in on a daily basis. In such an environment, organizations need to adapt quickly and improve at a rapid rate. How is it that managers in such a competitive environment are almost completely ignoring the biggest weapon they have—their people’s ideas?

At Health New England, employees implement an average of 25 ideas per person per year, and the company is reaching extraordinary levels of performance as a result. Now, for example, whenever a customer calls, employees are trained to ask themselves why. (After all, customers generally aren’t calling in to wish the company a Merry Christmas. They’re calling because they are confused, or the company did something that required them to call in). Employees take the problems identified in this way to their weekly idea meetings where their teams work on coming up with permanent solutions. With each small win, the company gets a little stronger and a little easier to do business with.

Today’s idea-driven organizations have become very good at promoting front-line ideas. Whereas traditional organizations are directed and driven from the top, these organizations are directed from the top but are driven by ideas from the bottom. It is up to the leaders to decide where the organization needs to go, but those same leaders recognize that most of the ideas to get there will come up from the front lines.

It is one thing to realize that front-line ideas are important. It is quite another to set up an effective system to tap them. It takes leadership that: 1) appreciates the power of front-line ideas to move the organization in a desired direction; 2) takes the time to learn how high-performing idea processes work; and 3) aligns their organization’s systems and policies to support them.

We believe that bottom-up ideas provide organizations, from the smallest agencies to the largest insurers and investment houses, with a game-changing competitive weapon. When they gain the ability to implement 20, 50, or even 100 ideas per person per year, everything changes.

About Robinson and Schroeder

Robinson and Schroeder
Alan G. Robinson and Dean M. Schroeder are co-authors of the 2006 bestseller Ideas Are Free. Their latest book The Idea-Driven Organization: Unlocking the Power in Bottom-up Ideas, came out in April of 2014. Robinson is a professor at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Schroeder is the Herbert and Agnes Schulz Professor of Management at the College of Business at Valparaiso University. Their website is

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