Encourage employee-driven innovations

In a world that is becoming increasingly competitive as companies invest in research and development (R&D), evidence abounds of employee-led innovations that have catapulted various organisations to global fame.

Whereas companies typically appoint well-paid specialists with titles such as Business Growth or Product Development Managers, such specialists are usually a very small percentage of the overall workforce and it’s often the people closest to the front line who know better than anyone what works, what can be improved and how effective changes can be made to reduce the cost of production.

There is no gainsaying that every employee has an idea that could help transform a particular business. Taking cognisance of this, KenGen in 2012 launched the annual “Good to Great” (G2G) Technical Seminar. The idea was conceived in 2007 when KenGen embarked on a unique strategic journey that was envisaged to transform it from a “Good to Great” company with the ultimate prize of creating improved shareholder value through employee-led innovations.

Now in its fourth edition, the seminar, held annually under the theme “Competing Through Innovation &Continuous Improvement”, seeks to deploy innovation within the company by leveraging on its over 2,400 staff located at different power plants in the country to maintain leadership in the liberalised electric energy sub-sector in Kenya and the Eastern Africa Region.

Worldwide, employees of a certain cadre may represent a company’s most-wasted asset. But increasingly, executives view innovation as a key imperative and recognise that it involves people across the company identifying and acting on opportunities. Innovation manifests itself in a variety of outcomes, from new products and services to ways of working to new business models.

A typical example is a British Airways employee who submitted an idea to the airline’s online suggestion box. The airline now saves £600,000 a year in fuel costs by descaling toilet pipes on planes.

Another example is Amazon Prime which was created as a result of an employee’s suggestion. Similarly, the Innocent Veg Pot – the UK-based fruit juice maker now worth £30 million in retail - was the result of the implementation of an employee’s idea for the next big thing.

Evidence suggests that staff-driven innovation is the way to go. A recent study by Engage for Success, a UK government-backed initiative, found that engaged employees tend to put in more hours and bring more of their creative ideas to work every day.

At KenGen, we are constantly mentoring our employees to ensure that we achieve the best results. As an organisation, we also understand that a continual stream of ideas is a vital resource for improvement and innovation.

It is noteworthy that innovation is strongly associated with workplace cultures and jobs in which employees and teams are empowered to take control of the way they work. An innovative workplace culture is characterised by trust between management and workers.

Above all, senior leaders should expect line managers to engage, empower and mobilise the creativity of their people, and to measure them accordingly. Line managers, on the other hand, need to understand that ideas from below do not amount to personal criticism.

Still, the overarching belief here is that the climate between employees and management is a cooperative one and that they trust each other. Employees don’t fear jobs might be lost or impacted as a result of their innovations.

Ultimately, the benefits arising from innovations are clear and lead to win-win outcomes for companies and employees alike: enhanced competitiveness, efficiency and quality of working life.