Never be surprised where a good idea comes from

In my years of consulting with all kinds of clients, managing people and working for a large employer with multiple divisions, one of the most off-putting things I witness is when people treat perceived lower strata of people with disdain. I use the word “perceived” in that the lens is through the purveyor of disdain rather than the eyes of others or the targets themselves. The person who is most short-changed in these interactions is the person who looks down on others. Yet, they fail to realize this transactional loss has occurred at their expense.

To begin with we should treat everyone like we want to be treated. For men or women who are dating, observe how the person you are getting to know treats the wait staff. If he or she treats them poorly, my strong advice is for you to consider that in your relationship decision-making about this person. Yet, if we set that aside, you should treat people with respect and dignity, as you truly never know how decisions are made that might impact you. I recognize this makes the Golden Rule seem self-serving, but I wanted to appeal to those who may be less altruistic to say it is to your advantage to treat people well. Your name is the most important asset you have. If you are known as a jerk by more than a few, then it will impact you at some point.

The other reason I mention this context is in any team or service environment, ideas can come from the most interesting places. If you close out chances to glean these ideas from sources you perceive beneath you, then you are acting very foolishly. That is my nice way of saying you are a “damn fool.” In my experience and from books I have read, the better ideas tend to come from those closest to the action. These are the ones serving customers or clients, or who serve those who serve those clients. The same holds true for manufacturing improvements. The better ideas come from those on the line or floor.

On the latter, I wrote recently how Paul O’Neill helped transformed Alcoa by empowering manufacturing workers to share their process improvement ideas upstream. He also made sure the managers were listening through a push to become a safer organization. In Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s book “That Used to be Us” they noted that R&D and management needs to be in close proximity to some manufacturing for this very purpose. Before O’Neill changed it, the Alcoa managers were not listening to their workers and the workers knew this. Some of the ideas that were freed up after he arrived had been festering for ten years, but the workers saw no value in sharing them.

From a customer, client or patient perspective, the better customer service people may not be the higher paid talent. For example, it is proven time and time again through data and anecdote that nurses are much better patient centered professionals than most doctors. Of course doctors care-oriented as well, but nurses seem to have more skill in this area. Or, they at least see its importance and devote more time to it. It should not be surprising that some very effective patient centered 24×7 teams are being led by nurses as the first point of contact.

In a client setting, my administrative assistant is an extension of me. She has superb customer service skills, better than many very good consultants. I never hesitate to let her reach out on my behalf as she will make things happen and get things done. And, she does not hesitate to mention a better way to do something. She will bring up a recent client situation that is similar and we will use that template for our report on a new client. Or, she will feel comfortable in pushing back with a better way. I have had many consultants, who were traveling to our city, say that my administrative assistant saved their bacon when some last-minute changes were needed or errors were found.

There are countless other examples. Yet, my main point is these lower paid employees are every bit as valuable as some higher priced employees. They have good ideas to improve production, service or a specific effort or product. If a condescending person closes off that valve of creativity, it would be everyone’s loss and would leave the purveyor of disdain in a lesser position. And, by shunning the input from others, it may put that person in a worse economic position.

So, treat others like you want to be treated, no matter who they are. It is the right thing to do. And, they just may be able to help you. You should never be surprised where good ideas come from.

11 thoughts on “Never be surprised where a good idea comes from

    • I had a colleague who looked down his nose at people. We used to say “It is all about insertname” on any issue. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  1. I firmly believe that we all have a valuable role to play to deliver the product of the collective, be it service or widget. No one of us could do it alone and therefore we are each as valuable as the other no matter where we sit in the structured hierarchy. As the saying goes it says a lot about a man’s character in the way he treats a person who can do nothing for Him. My twist on that saying is “who he perceives can do nothing for him”. If a self serving motivation is needed then all one needs to remember is today’s mailroom assistant has the potential to be tomorrow’s CEO. Great post.

  2. This is so true! I think we sometimes conveniently forget that we are all just human. I was a secretary right after college, and it is tough. I’m glad to hear you are a good manager and boss.

    • Thanks Emily. Back in the 1970s there were a great number of women who got in the door as a secretary for a good company, many with college degrees. They worked their way up to be senior consultants, CEOs, key talent, etc. They also had long memories and knew how to treat people by how they were treated.

  3. As a manager I’ve always believed that the solution to a problem lies with the direct people who are experiencing the problem. Free them from corporate shackles, stand back, and watch the efficiency numbers go through the roof.

    A very large manufacturing company I was associated with years ago was having a terrible time keeping their assembly line going, because one part was very difficult to install. After an army of consulting engineers proposed a very expensive solution, one engineer actually went to the line and watched for several hours. At break time, he sat with the workers and asked them their thoughts.

    The solution was to put a “left handed” man at a new station on the opposite side of the line, where it would be very simple for him to reach in and install the part, wherein the current location the worker had to reach across and then backward to get to the part.

    Case solved, efficiency climbed, cost = $0.00.

    Solutions most often are at the lowest levels of the chain, not the top.

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