598 Innovative Leader Volume 13,
Number 4 April 2004
The Power of Small Ideas: Why Small Ideas Outperform
the Big, Dramatic Ones
by Alan G. Robinson, Ph.D. and Dean M. Schroeder, Ph.D.
Robinson and Dean Schroeder are management consultants (www.ideasarefree.com)
and educators and co-authors of Ideas Are Free: How the Idea
Revolution Is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations
(Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2004.)
big, dramatic ideas. In fact, the bigger and sexier the ideas,
the more people are drawn to them.
So it’s not
surprising that when managers think about promoting workers’
ideas, they envision going after the home runs—the super-sized
breakthroughs that promise fame and fortune. Yet it’s actually
smarter to go after small ideas, as they’re where the real
action is. Why? According to our research, there are countless
reasons. Here we’ll focus on two of them—sustainable
competitive advantage and performance excellence—as they’re
vital to every organization’s success.
A few years
ago, we were asked to help a well-known German automaker improve
its idea system.
“It’s so hard
in our business today,” managers told us. “We’re always looking
for the next big idea, especially to cut costs. We work long
hours, with no breathing space whatsoever. We’re exhausted.”
It became clear
to us that, despite their tireless efforts, the managers
couldn’t seem to create much advantage that was sustainable.
Major improvements were quickly countered by other
automakers, evaporating any early advantages.
The problem, we
soon discovered, was actually the managers’ belief that big
ideas were the only way to get ahead. Their own system was
limiting their success.
The bigger the
ideas, the more likely competitors will discover and counter
them. If they affect the company’s products or services,
they’re directly visible and often widely advertised. And even
if they involve behind-the-scenes improvements—say, to a major
system or process—they’re often copied just as quickly. That’s
because big, internal initiatives typically require outside
sources—individuals, such as suppliers and consultants, who sell
their products and services to other companies, too.
So no matter
how hard our German colleagues worked to come up with big,
cost-cutting ideas, they couldn’t seem to develop a sustainable
competitive advantage. While the big ideas were essential to
keeping up with the competition, they weren’t sufficient for
Small ideas, on
the other hand, are much less likely to migrate to competitors—
and even if they do, they’re often too specific to be useful.
Consider what happened not long ago at the Vidette Times,
a regional newspaper in Indiana.
Due to a
supplier’s strike, the pressroom ran out of newsprint late one
night. Fortunately, a press operator was prepared with a
back-up plan. While the presses required newsprint rolls 45
inches in diameter, he managed to borrow some 47-inch rolls from
a sister operation earlier that day.
operator’s plan was to manually unroll the 47-inch rolls until
they fit on the press—a real feat since each roll weighs about
three tons. He and a co-worker took the first roll to a press
on a forklift truck. To their astonishment, the larger roll fit
perfectly! The press manufacturer’s specification had been too
went on to save the newspaper thousands of dollars. It meant
fewer roll changes and far fewer “trial copies” after each
change, plus shaved a substantial amount of time off each
night’s press run.
important point, however, is that when the idea came up, the
Vidette Times was in the midst of an intense circulation war
with its biggest competitor. Had the newspaper come up with a
new marketing or editorial idea, its archrival would have been
in the know immediately. But how would the competitor learn
about the switch to 47-inch rolls? Plus, even if it did get wind
of the idea, it would be of no benefit since the rival had a
different printing press.
The big “aha”
here? Because most small ideas remain proprietary, large numbers
of them can accumulate into a big, competitive advantage that
is sustainable. That edge often means the difference
between success and failure.
Milliken & Company, a global fabric and specialty chemicals
company. The organization competes against textile
manufacturers that operate in some of the poorest countries in
the world—paying its workers less than one-twentieth of
what Milliken pays. Many of the company’s U.S. counterparts are
struggling or have even gone out of business. Not Milliken.
are a mature industry, every competitor has access to the same
resources. So Milliken competes by out-managing its
overseas rivals. The company’s “Opportunity for Improvement”
system brings in some 7,000 ideas from workers every day.
Because most ideas—or “OFI’s”—are small, they’re difficult or
even impossible for competitors to copy. They amass into
superior performance that Milliken has sustained for several
Achieving performance excellence
besides remaining proprietary, enable organizations to pay
extraordinary attention to detail. Excellence means getting the
details right in all aspects of the business, from quality to
service. Beyond a certain level, it’s simply impossible to
improve performance without small ideas.
Grapevine Canyon Ranch, a resort in the high desert of
southeastern Arizona, overlooking the former homelands of the
great Apache chiefs Cochise and Geronimo. Guests come from all
over the world to take pleasure in the unspoiled beauty of this
historic desert. While they want an authentic experience, they
also expect exceptional service. Because Grapevine pays
extraordinary attention to every detail—thanks to hundreds of
ideas from its workers—the resort delivers.
weeks, Grapevine’s owner, Eve Searle, has a meeting with all
employees. Each one is expected to show up with one idea—no
matter how small—that will improve some aspect of the ranch’s
operation. Some of the ideas have included:
Put instructions and labels on the circuit breakers in the
Provide alcohol-free sparkling cider for non-drinkers on
Offer in-season fruit as a dessert alternative.
Place a receptacle for cigarette butts by the swing.
Paint the outdoor water faucets green and red to
differentiate between drinking water and yard water.
Install a kick plate on the door into the kitchen.
Change the brochure directions for guests arriving from
Put a step stool in the tour van.
Have maintenance prevent the soap caddies in each shower from
Relocate the speed-limit sign so it won’t be obstructed by
the mesquite bush.
to achieve excellence in performance without such attention to
detail. And it is workers—not managers—who most often spot the
little things that add up to big success.
ã 2004 Alan Robinson and Dean Schroeder. All rights reserved .