Many years ago, I worked for a hotel firm, helping them create a culture of employee involvement. We had established a number of employee teams and one of them was comprised of young men and women who worked at the front desk.

At the time, this firm did not have computers at the front desk. The company felt that front desk associates should be looking at and engaging the guest when he or she was registering, not looking at a computer screen, so the old "card and rack system" was used. The team of front desk associates, though, had the idea that a computer at the concierge desk, on which would be stored such things as directions to local restaurants and attractions that could be quickly printed out, would be beneficial to both the associates and guests. For example, the guests wouldn’t have to wait for the concierge to look through a large binder for the directions, then walk to the copy machine and back.

During its deliberations, the team needed a bit of background information and asked the general manager to one of its meetings. I was facilitating the team and told the members, "Just stick to the questions you have. Under no circumstances are you to, at this point, tell the manager that you want a computer for the concierge desk." The team met with the general manager and, in spite of my explicit instructions, asked him directly if the hotel would purchase a computer for the concierge desk. The general manager told them, "No. We don't put computers at the front of the house."

At the next meeting, the members put aside their disappointment and worked on the business case for the computer. The members developed a list of the information that would be put on the computer. They created a clear set of policies and protocols for the computer's use. They conducted a quick study as to how often such an asset would be used and the impact it would have on customer service. The team presented all this information to management. In the end, the computer was purchased and a database of information was installed.

Too often, employees say things to me like, "Yeah, we sure could use X, Y or Z, but they won't pay for anything like that." In other instances, they'll tell me, "We've asked for X, Y or Z, but we’ve always been turned down." It's easy to put the blame on management in these cases, but managers get lots of requests for new equipment or improvements, and they don't have the time to do all the necessary ROI analysis. In any case, employees themselves are often in the best position to carry out such analysis. There are two reasons they don't do so:

  1. They aren’t taught to present a “business case” for their ideas because…
  2. They aren't expected to present a “business case.”

Teach Employees How to Build a Business Case

It’s one thing to tell employees, “Don’t just bring us problems, bring us solutions.” It’s quite another to ensure that employees actually know how to formulate and present a business case for those solutions. Mind you, I’m not talking about making employees jump through hoops to prove the need for each and every request. If an employee needs a new broom to keep her work area clean, get her the broom, for gosh sakes. But it’s legitimate to expect employees to analyze the costs and benefits of larger investments. And it’s important to teach them how to do that.  It’s not hard to do.

Here’s the lesson a manager could provide to an employee who has an idea that will require a bit of a financial investment:

“Get a pencil and take some notes so you get all this. Here’s what I want you to do: Figure out what you need, how much, what type and what size. Then go online and find a few vendors. Get some ballpark costs. Also, pull together some information as to how the new resources will benefit your department and the company. Will they help you save time? How much? Will they help reduce scrap or delays? How much? Will they help us improve throughput? How much? Put all this info together and let’s sit down this Friday and go over it all.”

Putting together an argument in favor of an idea isn’t hard, but it takes a bit of work, as managers well know. Give your employees a quick lesson as to how to go about it and, quite often, they will.

Expect Employees to Provide the Business Case for Ideas

A shipping employee at a client once told me, "We sure could use some new racks in the department, but I'm pretty sure they won't spend the money." I asked if he had looked around to find exactly what type of rack the department needed, how many, where they could be purchased and the total cost. No. I asked if he had put together any information as to how the racks would benefit the department and the company. No. All he had done was hint to management that he'd like some new racks.

Management's job, in cases like these, is not to say, "We'll get you your new racks." Management's job is to give serious consideration to the business case the employee presents for new racks. It all starts with a manager who says something like, "That's an interesting idea. Put together a plan that includes what you need, what they'd cost, where we'd get them and how they'll help improve flow and throughput. Then let's sit down and look at it."

The next step (and this is very important) will be to actually sit down later with that employee and review the business case that he or she puts together. If the employee hasn’t managed to put anything together, hold his or her feet to the fire. Tell them that you expect to see something soon.

When managers teach and coach their employees how to solve problems and present solutions, they do themselves and their employees a favor. Managers and companies benefit as employees become more engaged in developing waste-reducing, capability-building ideas. Employees benefit as their morale improves when they see their ideas being taken seriously. Eventually, a culture of appreciative problem solving is developed that provides a strategic competitive advantage to the company.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at rbohan@chagrinriverconsulting.com.