Friday 29 January 2010

My first published book – ideas@work

I have just published my first book; Ideas@work. It is about how to manage the suggestions programme or what is more popularly known here in Singapore as the Staff Suggestion Scheme or SSS.

To explain what this book is about, its aims and the readers it is targeted at; I have reproduced below, word-for-word, the Introduction I wrote in this book. Briefly this is what it says;

This book is mainly, but not exclusively, for managers in companies that already have, or wish to introduce the SSS. This would include most companies in Singapore that want to vie for the Singapore Quality Class or Singapore Quality Award because Employee Involvement is one of the key areas that they will be assessed on.

There are three main avenues that such companies should adopt to systematically involve their employees in the total quality process; Quality Circles, 5S and SSS. Of these three, the most difficult in my opinion is the SSS. Hence I have decided to write about SSS instead of 5S which I have more experience with. The other reason is that there are not many good books on SSS in the market which focus on the heart of the problems that companies face and come up with a comprehensive yet simple model to address them. I have also tried to craft my book in a style that will make it an easy read for busy executives.

Initially I published my book at the online book store, However, the performance has been quite dismal and I have decided to republish at a later date as an ebook. Meantime, if you are in Singapore and Malaysia; you can still purchase the print copy at S$18. Details at the side bar.



My first encounter with the Staff Suggestion Scheme was when I was working as an industrial engineer in Philips Singapore Pte Ltd. That was around 1980. One day, I saw a big exercise book that the production manager had placed at the front of one of the assembly lines. He asked his staff to write down their suggestions for improving the efficiency of that line. As the IE responsible for that line, I was curious to hear the feedback from the production operators. Thus I eagerly checked that book every morning; but to my disappointment, I did not see a single suggestion until several days later. Finally somebody wrote a ‘suggestion’ complaining that the packing area at the end of the line was very hot and stuffy. She suggested that fans be installed in that area. Since then, I have come to discover just how difficult it was to solicit ideas and suggestions from the rank-and-file workers.

In 1984, I left my job in Philips to join the National Productivity Board as a trainer and consultant. I had read in the newspapers that the National Productivity Board was sending many of its consultants to Japan to undergo training in the area of productivity management and I was very eager be included in such a program. In September 1985, I finally got my chance to receive such training when I was sent for the three-and-a-half month Productivity Development Project (PDP) Fellowship program in Japan. During that trip, I learnt a lot about how the Japanese were able to adapt the management concepts which they had learnt from the Americans, and applied them successfully in the workplace; even more effectively than their American teachers, in fact. I had the precious opportunity to visit many outstanding Japanese companies like Canon, Nipon Kokan Steel and Komatsu. I also experienced a two-week attachment in Aisin Seiki which was a subsidiary of the Toyota group.

My learning journey on Japanese productivity techniques continued when I returned to Singapore. Over the next seven years, I worked alongside many Japanese advisors who had been sent by the Japan Productivity Center to train us. Some of them, the so-called Long-term Experts (or LTEs) were stationed in NPB Singapore for periods of two or more years. Two of the experts that I worked with were Mr Hajime Suzuki and Mr Kazuo Tsuchiya. I learned a lot about Japanese management concepts and techniques from them.

Besides the LTEs, the Japan Productivity Center also dispatched Short-term Experts (or STEs) to Singapore for short assignments of about two to three weeks each time. One of them was a gentleman by the name of Motomu Baba who made several trips to Singapore. Baba-san, as we called him specialized in TQC, or Total Quality Control. I was his main ‘counterpart’ and learned much about what is today called TQM (Total Quality Management) from him. At the same time, I continued my learning journey through reading productivity books written by Japanese experts. In 1989, I had another chance to undergo training in Japan. This time, it was a month-long program on TQC organized by the Asian Productivity Organization or APO. It was led by TQC expert, Dr Noriaki Kano.

One thing I have learnt about the Japanese approach to productivity is that they placed very strong emphasis on Kaizen, or continuous improvement through Employee Involvement. (I trust that by now, there is no need for me to explain what is Kaizen). For example, during our plant visits, the Japanese hosts would invariably arrange a session whereby workers from the shopfloor would make presentations to us about their kaizen projects. Such Japanese companies usually have in place very structured ‘kaizen’ programs to encourage and empower their employees to contribute ideas to improve their own workplace. Three such programs are:

(i) 5S Good Housekeeping and Workplace Organization
(ii) Quality Control Circles, and
(iii) Staff Suggestion Schemes
In 1992, I left the National Productivity Board and set up my own consulting practice. Since then, I have undertaken numerous training and consulting assignments for companies in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to help them to implement such ‘total employee involvement’ programs. My experience so far is that, of these three, the staff suggestion scheme is the most difficult. In my work as a management consultant, I have seen many companies that claim to have a staff suggestion scheme. On closer look, most of them were struggling to sustain it. More often than not, their suggestion boxes were empty or filled with sweet wrappers and sometimes, even cigarette butts. Other than Japanese companies, I have rarely seen any organization achieve significant success in the staff suggestion scheme. Even the outstanding organizations that have won the coveted Singapore Quality Award had to struggle to keep their suggestion schemes alive.

The root cause of this problem is the lack of understanding. It is indeed sad that almost one quarter of a century after the publication of Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen, The Key to Japan’s Competitive Edge, very few companies have fully understood what Imai tried to teach. The staff suggestion scheme is a good example. In his book, Imai devoted a significant portion to describe how Japanese companies successfully harnessed the creative ideas of their staff through the suggestion system. Yet how many non-Japanese companies have successfully implemented the staff suggestion scheme?
Take for example this large government-related company in the defense industry in Singapore that I came across a few years ago. This company has been rated an ‘excellent’ company having won the Singapore Quality Award, our equivalent of America’s Malcolm Baldridge Award and Japan’s Deming Prize. A member of their suggestion scheme committee admitted that they had been finding it tougher and tougher to achieve the target of five suggestions per employee per year. As such they intended to reduce the target in the following year. “We want to go for quality rather than quantity”, he concluded.
I was very disappointed to hear that because that statement clearly showed that he did not understand what is meant by quality of suggestions and or what the suggestion scheme is all about. By quality, he probably meant suggestions that could bring about big tangible benefits. He did not understand that any employee involvement program that did not garner significant participation from the staff is a failure. When it comes to staff suggestions, numbers is the name of the game. It is not a zero-sum game. Both quality and quantity matter in the suggestion scheme; and if properly managed both should go up at the same time.
Anyway, I do not blame this manager. His organization, like many others had probably embarked on the suggestion scheme simply because the top management had instructed him and his colleagues to do so. Maybe the big boss had just attended a seminar where he heard highly inspiring ‘success stories’ about how other companies had benefited from a suggestion scheme. He then decided to introduce it in the company without an in-depth understanding.
Another possible scenario is that they wanted to vie for the Singapore Quality Award and one of the key factors to be evaluated is Employee Involvement. They needed to be seen to have an active staff suggestion scheme to stand any chance of winning the award.
Hence, you can see that in such an environment, the suggestion scheme simply will not last. Even if it did, the staff running it would be very demoralized.
And that is the whole purpose of this book – to help you understand what is a staff suggestion scheme and how to manage it. For a staff suggestion scheme to function effectively, three groups of people in the organization must fully understand their roles;

· The suggestion scheme committee which design and manage the scheme,
· The line managers who lead the staff who actually make the suggestions,
· The rank-and-file workers themselves; the so-called ‘suggesters’.
This book is written for the first two groups - the suggestion scheme committee members and the line managers.
Besides understanding their role, the suggestion committee must also know how to set up an effective system. Thus, I will be explaining the various subsystems that make up the company’s staff suggestion scheme.
As for the second group, the line managers, my aim is to help them to see how important their role is; a role that is often not fully understood. On their shoulders lies the main responsibility of promoting the staff suggestion scheme in their own departments or sections. They must encourage, guide and empower their subordinates to come up with more and better quality suggestions. They must help them (the staff) to understand their role in the staff suggestion scheme. Thus, this book will also address, indirectly, the needs of the last group of people mentioned above, namely the rank-and-file workers who actually contribute the suggestions.
This book is divided into two main sections. Part 1 covers the concept of the staff suggestion scheme and the roles of the three groups of people mentioned above. In Part 2, I will introduce a simple methodology that the staff can use when he is making a suggestion.
It is my desire that after reading this book, you will be able to help your company to better manage the staff suggestion scheme whether in the role of a suggestion scheme committee member or in the role of a line manager. As a manager, I hope you will understand that empowering your staff to make suggestions is part and parcel of your job. When you succeed in this role, you would have become a more effective leader and manager. I wish you every success.

Lam Chun See

1 comment:

Zen said...

Government bodies treat suggestion scheme started years back like something being instructed from the 'top bosses' and has to be implemented. However the management does not motivate the staff sufficiently enough. Hence through the passage of time, the scheme loses steam and become somekind of a grinding-routine or a lackadaisical undertaking. Currently our top government leaders are now shouting a battle-cry to resuscicate the weak productivity movement. I hope this time it would be on-going and sustaining, not fits and starts.