Hitting the Sweet Spot of Employees, Innovation & Sustainability

Hitting the Sweet Spot of Employees, Innovation & Sustainability

"Everyone in this room is sitting on millions of dollars of untapped value -- your employees."

So said Ellen Weinreb, the managing director of the Weinreb Group (and the creator of the Talent Show blog on GreenBiz.com), during a One Great Idea presentation at this morning's GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco.

The core of her presentation is the simple fact that tapping in to the massive -- and often wasted -- resource of employee ideas can provide a win-win-win for companies of every size: increasing employees' job satisfaction, saving money and reducing your environmental impacts.

Employee insights are especially valuable when it comes to the innovation process -- a concept that was echoed in eBay CEO John Donahoe's conversation with Joel Makower at the Forum.

"From the employees' perspective, tapping them for their perspectives drives their satisfaction," Weinreb told the audience. "From the employer's point of view, ideas are money. If you're not tapping your employees for ideas, you might as well be throwing away money."

Weinreb went on to describe a general framework for gathering ideas from your employees: Inspiring, Structuring and Rewarding.

She said that Inspiring employee ideas is one of the greatest challenges that companies face, but a further challenge is tying that to sustainability. And closing the loop -- and her framework is a cyclical process -- is rewarding success, since rewarding and acknowledging good ideas is a further inspiration to employees.

Weinreb went on to offer four examples of companies that have earned $100 million in value from harnessing employee innovations.

1. EMC gives out 21 awards each year for the best innovations of the year; each of those awards goes through a sustainability evaluation, and that process has generated ever-greater participation from EMC's employees, with more than 5,000 ideas submitted in the last five years.

2. Alcoa has the advantage of built-in systems for gathering employee ideas, something that Weinreb said was standard at heavy manufacturers. But Alcoa too has had notable successes, turning the more than 1,000 ideas submitted by workers into savings of more than $100 million. One example came from workers in Jamaica, who noticed a fuel oil-powered turbine was not functioning as well as it should. Upon inspection, the team found a small amount of silica on the blades, and by cleaning that off the company saved $3.4 million.

3. Dow has within their R&D department created an exemplary process to evaluate sustainability -- and their R&D budget is massive, $1.2 billion per year in R&D investments. The company has developed a way to grade every potential investment along six dimensions of sustainability impacts and score them on 23 questions, ensuring a high level of rigor for any innovation program, but especially one aligned on sustainability targets.

4. Intel focuses on rewarding and awarding ideas. The Intel Environmental Excellence Awards are a recognition for employees or employee groups that have created an environmental innovation. In 2010, there were 11 winners of Excellence Awards that in total had created $136 million in estimated cost savings in addition to their environmental benefits. The company also offers a Sustainability in Action Grants Program to allow employees to get funding for an innovative sustainability idea or project. The grants offer a few thousand dollars, and perhaps more importantly the employee’s time, to develop their sustainability in action project.

Weinreb offered the example of a fabrication plant in Arizona where an employee earned a sustainability in action grant to capture the carbon emitted from the facility, use that carbon to grow algae, and use the algae to create biofuels. The company reduces emissions and get credits for burning biofuels, Weinreb said.

In closing, Weinreb laid out four steps for creating a system to tap into employee innovations:

1. if you don't have a program, create one. if you do have a program, identify where you can fit into the cycle of inspiring, structuring and rewarding idea generation.
2. Don't start from scratch. If you have existing awards, HR or operations systems, think about how you can tap those to create a program like this.
3. Ideas can be big or small, and can work equally well for big or small companies.
4. Consider who will implement them at your company.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that Alcoa's turbine in Jamaica was fuel oil-powered, not wind powered. The article has also been slightly changed to better reflect Intel's awards programs.

Bullseye photo via Shutterstock.