GREEN: Want a Great New Sustainability Idea? Ask Your Employees

Column by K.J. McCorry

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By K.J. McCorry
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The stories are endless of companies finding great sustainability ideas from the people they know best – their staff. Often employees have great ideas of how to reduce waste, energy or do something differently to support green initiatives. Often times these ideas never get noticed because nobody ever asked employees for their suggestions.

Wal-Mart in 2007 introduced their idea of Personal Sustainability Plans(PSP) to their workers to create their own personal sustainability initiatives. Through those PSP's Wal-Mart was able to generate some great employee suggestions of how Wal-Mart could be greener in their operations.

Toyota when looking at how to reduce waste in their manufacturing, most of the ideas came from the ground-level manufacturing staff. Toyota is also active with employee training to increase environmental awareness along with getting their employees to think more about the issues and ways they can improve in sustainability. They offer ‘eco-points' to their employees who offer ideas to help Toyota be more green in operations.

The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) in a 2011 survey found that engaging employees in sustainability initiatives can improve a business' bottom line and help it reach its sustainability goals faster. It is important to set up the infrastructure in your organization for green ideas and suggestions.

Here are the five steps needed to set up a system for employee ideas.

1. Provide a forum to give suggestions. This could be through a company's social network site, via online discussion forum, SharePoint sites or within regular company meetings. Make sure whatever system you have can manage volume of incoming ideas and suggestions.

2. Develop Criteria. Have your green team and/or sustainability coordinator determine the criteria for evaluating ideas and suggestions. This should co-inside with the sustainability plan and objectives. Be sure to communicate these criteria to your staff so they have an understanding of what the company is looking for in regards to sustainability ideas.

3. Review and Process. Have some mechanism to filter and process these ideas and suggestions. Often these can go through a Green Team committee or working group. Then depending on the size and scope of your sustainability program, the best suggestions can be moved up the chain of command to management.

4. Make Decision. Once an idea has been processed through the appropriate channels then determine who has the final decision-making authority to begin implementation on the idea. With any sustainability initiative it is vital to have management buy-in. If the CEO or top level management doesn't think it is a good idea, often then it won't get implemented.

5. Give Recognition. The ideas that the company chooses to implement (or possibly consider further), those employees should be rewarded and recognized. In Toyotas example they developed a point system. Recognition could entail a public thank you at an all hands meeting. Even consider getting that employee engaged in the implementation process. This increases participation and also helps employees ‘own' their ideas. Be mindful to thank other employee suggestions even though they weren't accepted, they might be used at a future time. This recognition promotes employees engagement and hopeful entices them to generate more ideas.