22 Aug 2012  Working Papers

Key Drivers of Successful Implementation of an Employee Suggestion-Driven Improvement Program

Executive Summary — Service organizations frequently implement improvement programs to increase quality. These programs often rely on employees' suggestions about improvement opportunities. Yet organizations face a trade-off with suggestion-driven improvement programs. Should managers use an "analysis-oriented" approach to surface a large number of problems, prioritize these, and select a small set of high priority ones for solution efforts? Or is it better to take an "action-oriented" approach, addressing problems raised by frontline staff regardless of priority ranking? In this paper the authors weigh the tradeoff between these two different approaches. Using data from 58 work groups in 20 hospitals that implemented an 18-month-long employee suggestion-driven improvement program, the authors find that an action-oriented approach was associated with higher perceived improvement in performance, while an analysis-oriented approach was not. The study suggests that the analysis-oriented approach negatively impacted employees' perceptions of improvement because it solicited, but not act on, employees' ideas. Key concepts include:

  • There is a tradeoff because organizations must make allocation decisions between resolving a smaller number of higher priority problems and resolving a larger number of lower priority problems.
  • In this study, an action-oriented approach was manifested by a higher percentage of solved problems that were considered "easy" to solve, which enabled more problems to be addressed with the same set of human and organizational resources.
  • In contrast, the analysis-oriented approach, as characterized by identifying and solving higher priority problems, was not associated with higher perceived improvement in performance.
  • Organizations should focus on increasing their capacity to act on improvement suggestions rather than generating suggestions and prioritizing them.
  • Improvement programs are more likely to change employees' perceptions when they result in action being taken to resolve problems rather than when they are a symbolic show of manager interest.

 

Author Abstract

Service organizations frequently implement improvement programs to increase quality. These programs often rely on employees' suggestions about improvement opportunities. Organizations face a trade-off with such suggestion-driven improvement programs. On one hand, the improvement literature recommends that managers focus organizational resources on surfacing a large number of problems, prioritizing these, and selecting a small set of high priority ones for solution efforts. The theory is that soliciting a large number of ideas from employees will surface a set of higher priority problems than would have been identified with a less extensive search. Scarce organizational resources can be allocated to resolving the set of problems that provide the greatest improvement in performance. We call this an "analysis-oriented" approach. On the other hand, managers can allocate improvement resources to addressing problems raised by frontline staff, regardless of priority ranking. This "action-oriented" approach enables more resources to be spent on resolving problems because prioritization receives less attention. To our knowledge, this tradeoff between analysis and action in process improvement programs has not been empirically examined. To fill this gap, we randomly selected 20 hospitals to implement an 18-month long employee suggestion-driven improvement program; 58 work areas participated. Our study finds that an action-oriented approach was associated with higher perceived improvement in performance, while an analysis-oriented approach was not. Our study suggests that the analysis-oriented approach negatively impacted employees' perceptions of improvement because it solicited, but not act on, employees' ideas. We discuss the conditions under which this might be the case.

Paper Information