Moving Front-Line Staff Between Company Locations Might Be Key To Boost Innovation

Usually the most creative ideas come from frontline workers and managers, working at the production and supply chain levels of factories and companies. However, remote work, especially over the past year, has largely restricted the flow of such ideas. Based on the findings of a recent study, the following article explains how temporary moves of frontline workers and managers can boost their creativity, thus ensuring greater innovation and improvement in efficiency.

We have surpassed the one-year anniversary of working from home. The fatigue of the pandemic and its impact on our work-life balance has taken its toll on people. It’s become clear that creativity at work is not just driven by individuals but by small interactions, time outside of work, and other factors that help play a part in encouraging people to think creatively and, most importantly for businesses, innovate.

In fact, at leading companies, up to 75 percent of annual productivity gains can be traced back to bottom-up ideas from non-R&D employees. And just as digitalisation and automation are transforming the shop floor, they are also changing the role of front-line manufacturing employees.

Now, workers increasingly create value not only by performing their main duties but also by contributing to broader organisational objectives such as competitiveness. This means that those with creativity and aptitude for problem-solving are invaluable in the age of automation.


Sharing ideas from reality

As part of our research, I wanted to find out how employees share ideas and improve innovation. And after extensive research, analysing more than 21,000 ideas submitted by almost 2,500 workers, at a multibillion euro-cars plant, we discovered that the key to boosting innovation is moving between locations.

In order to fully understand this, we used an analytical approach, which matched mobile front-line employees to similar colleagues who did not travel to other plants. This allowed us to precisely estimate the contributions originating from moving between locations.

Front-line perspectives, which could include a retail worker or even a nurse, are often more in tune and aware of the reality of processes. They often generate promising process improvements and business opportunities that would not have been apparent to managers. This means that front-line innovation has become one of the largest sources of sustained competitive advantage.


Unspoken production knowledge

Essentially, workers increasingly create value not only by performing their core duties but by contributing suggestions that impact bigger goals like innovation.

And while front-line innovation is common, the ways in which managers can most effectively support it, are not well understood. In our research, we have shown for the first time how strategic front-line mobility — the short, focused and purposeful exchange of staff members between different company sites — can substantially boost these employees’ contributions to innovation and organisational learning in manufacturing companies.

The research recognises that it’s usually the workers on the ground who learn first-hand how to iron out well-intentioned but occasionally impractical processes and product designs. They often possess a wealth of unspoken production knowledge at a level of detail that far exceeds what is covered in manuals or is known to engineers.


Nurture innovation remotely

Our findings confirm that when employees are strategically deployed to different sites, they carry this knowledge with them and help circulate it within the company, and while this research specifically focuses on a euro-cars plant, it applies to many different types of workers in our economy including shop floor employees.

While the current pandemic has put an end to all but the most urgent business travel, our study supports a careful and measured return to physical meetings. Serendipity and the free exchange of ideas are the key to creativity and are extremely difficult to replicate online.

Because of this and a direct result of the pandemic, companies will have to unlock new ways to inspire the kinds of ideas that only come about through casual conversation and discover how to nurture innovation while working remotely. For now, we know for sure that employees contribute more valuable ideas when they move around.

The paper has been published in Management Science under the title Sparking Manufacturing Innovation: How Temporary Interplant Assignments Increase Employee Idea Values. Assistant Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Philipp Cornelius, Bilal Gokpinar from UCL School of Management and Fabian Sting from University of Cologne and RSM worked on the paper.


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