10 Dec, 2015 / BY Neil Sharp

Turning small ideas into big results within electronics manufacturing

2089058279_b6de5a7f87_oOften the simplest ideas are the best. Extracting these from employees, however, can be a complex process. Perhaps it is because they don’t believe that their ideas are any good. Maybe they feel they have previously fallen on deaf ears. Or could it be that their ideas won’t double profit margins overnight, so are probably not worth mentioning?

Sadly all of these thoughts (plus many more, I’m sure) exist in the minds of electronics manufacturing staff up and down the country. This is a crying shame.

Tapping into these and creating a culture where great ideas and process improvements flow freely can really help boost staff morale. They can also deliver cost-effective results to both original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and contract electronics manufacturers (CEMs) alike.

So what are you waiting for? Go and put that suggestion box in the canteen, sit back and let the good ideas roll in. Oh. You’ve already tried that and, apart from a couple of chocolate bar wrappers, the box remained empty. Perhaps you need to approach things a little differently this time.

With such a wide range of products being produced; from complex PCB assemblies to box build products with many moving parts, the opportunities within electronics manufacturing to continually improve are huge. That doesn’t mean, though, that you need to create a hugely complex process. One of the reasons so many ideas, suggestion, or process improvement schemes fail to get up and running in the first place is by setting the bar too high.

Instead, OEMs and CEMs should perhaps consider the lessons learned by Pizza Express, regarding who chops the lemons. According to their chief executive, Richard Hodgson, the financial savings were significant. There are, no doubt, parallels within electronics manufacturing.    

Why are we doing this?

Regardless of whether they are relaunching a previous scheme or starting from scratch, OEMs and CEMs need to communicate to employees their vision and purpose. If their staff don’t understand what the business is trying to achieve and how they could all benefit they are unlikely to buy into the process.

Reiterating the message that the business needs to continually adapt and evolve the services and solutions they offer to remain competitive is a good starting point. At the same time, OEMs and CEMs should explain how ideas from everyone are valued and that the business remains committed to creating a company-wide culture of continuous improvement.

Communicating the message

As well as making a company-wide announcement, electronics manufacturers may find it beneficial for their supervisors and team leaders to also deliver this message to their people. Smaller sessions can be a good way for department heads to give staff some "real life" examples of ideas and process improvement opportunities that exist within their reach.  

Until the system has been fully embraced, OEMs and CEMs will need to keep reminding employees it exists on a regular basis. To be truly successful they should look to create a "buzz" around the new scheme -  which could mean sharing updates through social media, displaying information on internal message boards or providing feedback on actions at team briefings. Unfortunately, a company-wide email at the start is unlikely to keep momentum going at the pace required.

There is no such thing as a bad idea

You may not agree with this statement but in the early stages it should stand true – unless, of course, the OEM or CEM is looking to start collecting chocolate wrappers again. If guidelines are too tight or prescriptive on what constitutes a good idea, staff will naturally err on the side of caution and avoid opening up.

So, rather than giving examples of good or bad suggestions at the outset, electronics manufacturers should concentrate on making sure employees understand the process they need to follow in order to submit suggestions. Ideally, this will include a small number of open-ended questions, which are designed to weed out "sillies". Questions like "how would you suggest improvements can be made", "how would your suggestion improve the current situation" and "who would benefit from any changes made?" are good starting points.

Collecting ideas

Simplicity is vital here, although two or three different methods of capturing ideas may be needed to avoid alienating certain areas of the workforce. An online database could be an effective way of capturing ideas and systematically tracking progress, but clearly relies on staff having access to a computer terminal. A suggestion box in the canteen could work but what if employees go offsite for their breaks? Paper forms are cost effective and simple to use but how will the information be collated in a timely manner? The number of fields within any form or database input screen should also be kept to a minimum, and to the point, in order to avoid making the process too time consuming for the user. 

Whichever method(s) the OEM or CEM decides to implement they must make sure a suitable solution is available to each member of staff based on their individual working conditions and environment.

Controlling the flow

The OEM or CEM will need to ensure that someone within their organisation has overall responsibility for controlling the scheme. This could fall to the Quality Manager or the engineering staff responsible for process. There are not really any hard and fast rules here but, once the scheme takes off and a steady flow of ideas start coming in, a robust system will be required to manage and review all ideas on a regular basis.

Some of the questions the individual or team members responsible will need to be able to answer prior to launching the initiative include:

  • How will we decide which ideas to take forward?
  • How will we feedback to the originator that their idea has been accepted or declined?
  • Do we need more information from the originator before we can make an informed decision on whether to proceed with it or not?
  • How will we measure progress on ideas that need further investment or a co-ordination of resources spanning several months?

One way to overcome such challenges would be to implement a tracker system that is accessible to all. This shouldn’t replace regular face-to-face feedback but does allow the originator of the idea to check progress at any time in case they are unsure of current status.

Communicating the feedback

Once the OEM or CEM has decided which ideas they plan to implement they should communicate this to the rest of the business. Once again, this can easily be done through a mixture of team briefings or wider company announcements. However, depending on how successful the scheme is, they may want to make things a little more competitive. Leader boards or photos of those that have had their idea taken forward could be a positive way to continually promote the scheme. This may also encourage other employees that have remained reserved so far to open up a little and share their suggestions.

Personal recognition

This is an area that needs careful consideration and internal debate. OEMs and CEMs will need to decide from the outset whether they plan to reward or recognise efforts of those staff that have engaged with the process. 

On-going training

And finally, before launching any such initiative, consideration must be given to the next stages. Starting to generate some good ideas is one thing but once they start to cross over into process improvements they could cross over into areas such as value stream or process mapping, lean techniques, 5S or quality improvement techniques, like Six Sigma. All of which require specialist skills, tools, training, and financial commitment.

Implementing a system to generate and capture good ideas and process improvements is not something to be taken lightly. You can’t simply send an e-mail and hope that all staff across the organisation share the same passion and drive for change that you do.  

It starts by having a clear vision and purpose that all employees buy into. A simple, yet robust process is then needed to capture ideas and monitor progress. Positive results should be communicated across the organisation and it will take a great deal of effort at times to keep the momentum. Outside of all the complexities associated with electronics manufacturing, arguably, it’s one of the hardest areas for OEMs and CEMs to get right. But, done well, it can be game changer.

So what is it going to be? The old suggestion box back in the canteen or something a little different this time? 

Image by Hash Milhan


Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.