Branch staff, customer service, nurses, sales consultants, teachers and workers on the factory floor are the fundamental glue that hold organisations together. They are the ones that either hear customer concerns or see where systems fall down, where processes are cumbersome, when complaints go unaddressed and when structures are unsupportive. With the plethora of insight into organisational systems and customers, it makes sense that these integral employees be part of their organisation’s innovation efforts.

However, frontline workers often have very defined roles, are under time and resource pressures and are seemingly too busy doing day-to-day work, leaving little time for innovation. Some may see opportunities for change and growth, but when there isn’t a platform or process to support ideas, they learn to stay close-lipped, becoming disgruntled and disengaged.

‘Pulling’ improvement from the front line is critical to continually improve operations…companies that ‘push’ work improvements from the top usually generate tepid enthusiasm. 
— Brad Power, Harvard Business Review

Toyota is a great example of 'pulling' from the frontline. When frontline workers spot a problem, they have a clear process to suggest improvements: Their ideas go through a quality circle of peer workers then to their manager for approval, upper-level managers review ideas and take action. It’s a bottom-up rather than top-down system and the Company implements an average of nine ideas per employee per year.

Many of these changes are more likely to be incremental rather than radical or disruptive, but there is beauty in that. Small changes with swift outcomes deliver quick wins and quick wins help keep employees motivated, engaged and productive. Regular progress like this often means that when momentous ideas and change eventuates, employees are more receptive and willing to be involved.

There are multiple ways to promote frontline innovation. For example, some organisations run regular hackathons and others prefer co-design projects which involve a variety staff from across the organisation. At G2 Innovation, we believe that to embed innovation activity, you first need to provide a framework and invest in up-skilling. When it comes to embedding change and creating a culture of bottom-up innovation, we find the Design Thinking framework extremely effective.

As human insight is central to Design Thinking, its emphasis on understanding the problem and the user provides a voice and pipeline for insights that frontline staff identify. It also provides a practical process for developing ideas, fast low-cost testing, refining, analysis and iteration to overcome challenges. This gives staff on the frontline a process to solve problems and raise ideas, empowering them with new skills and making their work more rewarding.

Our client, manufacturing company Backwell IXL embedded Design Thinking practises in their workforce to great effect. Bernard Brussow, CEO, says of Design Thinking, “We thought we understood innovation. We thought we knew how to examine opportunities in the market and assess whether they were worth pursuing. I know now just how wrong we were. We are now getting new results from new ways, have a better engaged workforce and a new-found optimism.  As a leader of this company, I couldn’t be more impressed.”

Your frontline could be the key to your future. Empower them and enrich your opportunities.

Learn more about our Innovation Training programs

Learn more about Backwell IXL's experience by watching this short video. 

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