ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - October 2001


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Just a Little Suggestion
BIC Corporation Spurs Employee Involvement
By Asking For Opinions

Growing up, children are taught that they can make a difference if they try hard enough—if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. As we roll through life, we gain knowledge and experience that rounds our talents and shapes our abilities. The opportunity to use that information could transform our existing lives. However, once in the workplace, many employees are asked to check their brains at the door. Companies are not interested in the need for thinkers when they just want someone to fit into a fixed position in the already running machine. What could employees really add? BIC Corporation, Milford, Conn., decided to ask that question. The answer was their innovative suggestion program. The resulting employee involvement initiative speaks for itself and can be transferred across company boundaries for others looking to improve their systems.

The Man Behind the Plan
Ten years ago, BIC decided to take a calculated chance on its employees. How could they not benefit from the involvement of their employees? It seemed simple, and indeed, it was. Dick Williams, the current global manufacturing manager for stationary products for BIC, set up a pilot program in one of the company’s divisions.

  “He was the driving force behind this—the idea champion,” states Charlie Tichy, employee involvement administrator. “He pushed the program and gave us the clout to build it.”

  His hope was to start the program off small and then deploy it to the remainder of the company after cleaning up the small problems not noticed by the creative team. “That is why we had a pilot program in one division,” says Phil Preston, employee involvement specialist. “A lot of companies want to start a new program and just roll it out to everybody at the beginning and then find out the problems later.” Luckily, Williams had the vision to avoid that pitfall. In fact, the pilot program remained in only that one division for a couple of years before it was deployed to the entire corporation. BIC very methodically held it back, got the bugs out, set up the structure, covered the problems and then rolled it out to one division at a time.

  “When it was finally up and running and everyone was on board and understood how it worked and what was expected, then it went on to the next division,” says Tichy. “That is how we kept it in line, and that is why we were so successful.”

Fostering Involvement
So, how does this program that has done so much for BIC work? Well, simply put, it is a suggestion program. If employees see something they think could be improved, they put in a suggestion—nothing more, nothing less. And they are rewarded for each as well. As Tichy explains, “When an employee puts in a suggestion, even if rejected, they are acknowledged.” For each suggestion, employees are given a token worth one dollar to be cashed in at the company store or cafeteria or the tokens can be traded in for cash. Additionally, each of the 10 divisions randomly picks one suggestion from the bunch each week and that person is given an extra 10 tokens. More important, the divisions choose a suggestion as “Best of the Week” on the basis of value to the company. The employee who submitted it is given a check for $75. Out of those weekly best, a monthly best is chosen for a prize of $100.

  “We don’t give out an extraordinary amount of money,” says Tichy. “We didn’t want to corrupt the intentions of sharing information.”

  They avoided that mistake well by making recognition the main source of reward. From photos posted on bulletin boards to semi-annual recognition dinners to special parking spots, the employees receive more than just money. And rewards are based on total suggestions made—no matter how outlandish. “We reward participation, not quality,” states Tichy. “We feel everybody has at least one good idea in them,” agrees Preston. “In order to get that one idea, we take all of their ideas and reward them.”

Building the Environment
BIC had always had a lot going on in the realm of employee involvement, but this program helped them focus their employee’s efforts to accomplish specific tasks while enabling them to track what individuals were doing in regard to productivity improvements, safety and quality. “The suggestion program has brought more structure to our employee involvement efforts,” says Preston. “We always had employees who were taking initiative to improve their jobs and the corporation, and the program not only gave us the ability to quantify that, but to recognize the employee effort as well.”

  And the program works across 10 divisions within BIC. Not only that, but the program remains exactly the same. “That is one of the things we attribute the success of the program to—it is standardized throughout,” explains Preston. “We found in the past that when different divisions are allowed to tweak programs, it causes a lot of problems.” Another quality to mention is that out of the 10 divisions, some of those are union and some are not. The same program is used perfectly for both. Some would consider that unusual. People usually think that a program can work on one or the other, but not on both. BIC has proved that wrong.

  Other factors make this program special from the rest. Most suggestion programs are strictly designed to derive cost savings from employees. BIC’s program is unique in that they are trying to foster an environment with their suggestion program where management and employees work together as a team to solve problems. There are some cost savings related to the program, but that was never the main goal. The main goal was to create and foster an environment where hourly and management can work together. In fact, hourly associates are the ones who volunteer their time outside of their normal jobs to coordinate the programs in the different areas. In addition, Tichy and Preston oversee all 10 divisions. Tichy is an hourly employee and Preston is management. They set the example by working jointly as a team.

  “The cost savings are a byproduct,” says Preston. “What we found out at BIC—and it is part of our company philosophy—is that if you can create that cooperative team environment between the employees and the management, the company is going to naturally benefit. The suggestion program just proves that out.”

  Last year they had approximately 3000 suggestions: 30 percent were safety improvements, 8 percent were actually cost saving. “When we kicked off this program, Dick Williams felt the foundation for having good teams is to have a suggestion program—you have to prove to the employees that you care about their ideas and what they are thinking,” explains Tichy. “You can’t just put six people into a room and tell them they are a team with no support.”

Continuing Down the Road
It is just like the company mission says, “People are our main resource.” BIC believes in the mantra that one can buy computers, software, and manufacturing machinery, but people make the difference in whether or not they are successful and productive. “It is a competitive market—especially when you consider it globally,” states Preston. “We feel that tapping the resources of our employees—getting them totally involved in their jobs, looking for ways to enhance their jobs and improve the company—is vital.” Their suggestion program encourages critical thinking and it affords all employees an opportunity to participate. This ensures that even the person at the lowest level has an opportunity to contribute to the company and BIC recognizes those efforts. “In the normal course of business, I would guess in any organization, people are looking for better ways to do their jobs and that trickles down to the bottom line,” says Tichy. “Most times those people aren’t being recognized. It is very important that we encourage our employees to use the program so we can recognize them.” Not only are the employees allowed to bring their brains through the doors at BIC, but it is encouraged.

October 2001 News for a Change Homepage

 In Thn This Issue...
The Big Bang Theory of Teambuilding and Leadership or Listen Up!
Just a Little Suggestion
Highly Satisfied Customers
Gotcha! Office Politics at Work

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

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