Running a Shop Leadership Strategy+Planning

Tapping Employees for New Ideas

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Constant innovation is key in order to develop new processes that sustain a healthy, profitable business long term. But shop operators can’t rely solely on their own thinking to move the business forward in a positive direction, says Doug McAllister, president of Douglas Automotive Inc., a two-shop operation in Illinois. Your staff is a key resource that should be utilized to regularly develop new ideas for efficiency, productivity, work quality and culture.

McAllister discusses a few simple steps he has taken to regularly derive new ideas from employees, and create a culture of innovation within his business.

Believe it or not, employees often have the best ideas for improvement. I have multiple locations and can’t be at each facility every day, so employees have opportunities to identify issues that I don’t necessarily recognize. Employees are the ones doing the daily work, so they know best what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be changed. I’ve got to rely on their expertise and insight for ideas and opinions that could improve their work and the business.

The best way to get employees to speak up and cultivate business-building ideas is by simply proving that I’m willing to listen and consider their suggestions. That’s a tough thing for many shop operators to do. I’ve been in this industry for decades, and it’s easy to feel like I’ve seen and done everything. As the owner, it’s my responsibility to lay down my pride and thoroughly analyze what my staff has to say.

There are a few basic things I do regularly that all other shop operators can do as well:

Conduct small group meetings. I meet with my technicians once a week for lunch in the shop. Those meetings are reserved for open discussions on any ideas, thoughts or opinions they want to bring up. We talk about new equipment needs and things that aren’t working correctly.

I’m considering implementing a weekly gift card giveaway during those meetings to the employee who pitches the best idea to make our business better. My goal for initiating a reward is to drive employees to look even harder for new ways of working.

Rely on management. We conduct a meeting with all company managers after business hours the first Monday of every month. That’s a forum to go over various issues and brainstorm ideas as a team to resolve problems or improve upon them.

Cultivate written suggestions. I host an annual all-staff meeting in the conference room at our local chamber of commerce. Part of that meeting is devoted to idea development. I ask employees to answer a series of questions in writing, such as what would help them in terms of training or equipment, how they expect it to improve their work, and how it would benefit the business.

Ask for insight. Ask for your staff for advice before implementing a new initiative. For example, I was getting ready to purchase a competitor’s business about two years ago. Before we moved in, I decided to take my staff over there to see the facility to get their input and feedback. My lead technician’s first suggestion was to remove the dedicated parts room and turn it into a work bay—something that wasn’t even on my radar. Going forward with that advice really paid off by allowing much better flow throughout the shop.

Illustrate dedication for improvement. I’m very willing to purchase new equipment and update the shop to keep the facility equipped with modern and cutting-edge technologies. That’s one thing I do as the owner to demonstrate that constant improvement is important for the sustainability of business, and engrain that mindset within employees. It illustrates that I’m invested in the business, striving for improvement at all times, and always willing to consider new concepts that make the business better.

The key for all of this to work is to create an “open-door policy” at your facility. Employees should be free to voice any ideas any time without negative backlash so they’re not timid about making recommendations. The biggest thing I’ve done to make that happen is cultivating relationships with each staff member. I’ve developed more personal, friendly bonds, which has made employees more comfortable to speak openly and honestly.

Make sure to actually implement good ideas that employees convey. Putting suggestions into action shows employees that their words didn’t fall on deaf ears. Not all ideas will be good ones, however. In those situations, talk it through with the employee and explain the reasons it may not work to show that you still considered the suggestion. The more you listen to and utilize your staff’s ideas, the more they’ll continue to generate in the future.

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