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Encouraging Employee Innovation

David Resser

Successful foundries rely on innovation from every member of the company, which is no different from many other manufacturing businesses. After all, each employee typically has more constant contact and intimate knowledge of their tasks than employees “above” them on the company organizational chart. This intimate knowledge often sows the seeds of innovation whether through necessity or simply mentally visualizing process improvement.

For example, a molding machine operator might see the need for new safety equipment or develop an optimized coring design. Perhaps maintenance personnel find a new way to quickly replace a hydraulic cylinder. This type of innovation frequently happens, and foundries need to capture these innovations to help the foundry maintain its quality mission and sustain a competitive advantage. Foundries can put systems and programs into place to help capture these ideas and make the most of them. Moreover, management teams certainly do not want to see these innovations leave the business to benefit other companies.

Many innovations come from employees during the regular course of their work. Most employees are generally paid only for their work, and they might not be motivated to be involved in extra efforts that could derive from innovations in their work equipment and methods. As a result, there can be an expensive gap between the innovation taking place in the company, and the status of the gathering of innovative ideas to improve the foundry as a whole.

One helpful tool for some organizations is easing the process for ideas and innovation to come to light. Some employees are shy about suggesting new things, and we have to find ways around that obstacle. It is often helpful to invite ideas and reward successful innovations to transform the operation and develop the competitive advantage that your company has developed. Acceptance of new ideas from every level can gain buy-in from greater numbers of employees, which then helps to boost morale and dedication to foundry work. Think, too, about whether your foundry makes it easy for an employee to develop good ideas and process improvements. You certainly do not want employees to scrap valuable ideas because the process is too difficult.

Additionally, make sure good ideas are valued in your foundry. That does not require bonuses or cash rewards, but could take the form of celebrating and internally publicizing teams and individuals who develop innovations. This, in turn, helps make sure employees understand what benefits their improvements mean for the company and the employees on an individual level.

Many of these ideas can remain protected within the foundry, but some innovations may be significant enough to seek patent or trademark protection. Most employees appreciate the notion that the company values their innovations enough to pursue that type of protection when it is warranted. Along those lines, it is often valuable for many employees to understand the basics of intellectual property protection.

Capturing these innovations can be another issue, but one with plenty of solutions. Many companies have developed formal and informal systems to report innovations. It may be important to enable employees to report any kind of improvement or innovation from a relatively small idea with respect to the workflow on the foundry floor to technical improvements in the foundry equipment. Innovation reporting allows the company to capture any kind of innovation and also helps to lower the psychological hurdle that some employees feel when considering reporting their innovations and ideas. Some companies also conduct regularly scheduled recognition ceremonies for the “best improvement,” where employees can win awards for their ideas and innovation. In other cases, an automatically generated letter or email thanking the innovator can suffice. As you likely already know, the impact of non-financial recognition plans can differ from foundry to foundry and different plans should be applied across the organization as needed to encourage innovation in all areas. Often, if a simple mechanism for the employees to report their bright ideas does not exist, the ideas will never be heard.

Your engineering team is also a great resource, and can be the eyes and ears with regard to the innovations that are developed, particularly in the foundry. For example, if a core machine operator develops an innovation, the operator may approach an engineer to apply their engineering skill to effectively implement a mechanical change to the core machine. In other instances, the engineering staff could be asked to calculate a time savings for a process of the core machine. At times, the engineering team can be the first point of contact for any management team that is seeking new innovations, no matter their source.

In the end, your business likely relies upon the innovations, ideas, and inventions of a wide array of employees. Help keep your competitive edge by encouraging these developments through a notification plan, recognition, and appreciation of these internal developments. If the innovators know that the extra work undertaken to assist the improvement process matters to everyone else, and is noticed, a culture of innovation and improvement can be fostered to benefit the foundry in a multitude of areas. 

Click here to see this story as it appears in the February 2018 edition of Modern Casting