The Importance of Maintaining an Idea Log and How to Use It

Jim Wegeleben
Senior Customer Program Manager

During my career as a retail manager, consultant and engineer, I heard lots of great ideas from employees about how to improve workflow. Whether asking to relocate a table to open space or implement a tool to optimize processing, their suggestions were valuable. Maybe you have experienced this type of communication, which retail managers hear regularly. From my perspective, great suggestions often go unnoticed because managers overestimate the short-term cost and underestimate the long-term benefit of change. It is human nature, and in retail, sometimes it is about survival.

Nonetheless, improving your retail workplace is crucial to remain competitive and relevant in our industry. Retailers go about this in different ways based on their unique business flavors, or go-to-market strategies. Many organizations look for optimal practices, or best methods, for in-store operations. These retailers understand, as we often say, the money is in the methods. Updating methods to reduce touches and time spent on activities can be a huge difference in productivity. Similarly, it can improve customer service and reduce labor expenses.

So, you might ask: how do you identify best methods? To answer this, begin by encouraging your managers and employees to be creative in collaboratively brainstorming around what can be done better in your stores. Be mindful that not all improvement ideas are winners, but that is OK! The discussion often uncovers hidden gems and leads to collective brilliance. Involving people with fresh ideas, perspectives and experience inside your organization creates an environment of innovation. If need be, bring in people outside your business to help, too. These discussions become fertile ground for finding better ways to operate your stores.

How can you systematically document the ideas from such collaboration? One idea is to use an idea log (an appropriate name for such an endeavor). An idea log is a running list of opportunities for improving store methods. The idea log can be kept in any database software, such as Microsoft Excel, as it is most easily organized in a table with one row per opportunity. Rows are linked to data across separate columns showing each idea’s: 1) department, 2) type or classification, 3) current process, 4) proposed process, 5) required training, 6) capital expense, and 7) savings or return on investment (ROI). Managers often own this log because they complete columns 5 through 7.

Additionally, gaining employee input for the idea log is vital. Store associates have a firsthand viewpoint of operations and can pick out immediate savings opportunities. However, I remember when I was a manager that some employees struggled to think outside their training and routine. It is important to engage everyone in the process by documenting all feasible, realistic, cost-saving ideas in the log, even if an idea’s investment is high or savings low. This encourages participation and employee buy-in while reducing resistance and fear. It could be your first step toward developing a culture of continuous improvement. Every idea counts!

Regarding types of log inputs, I suggest allowing associates to submit what-if recommendations that involve higher forms of capital investment in equipment or supplies. This engages the dreamers in your organization. What-if requests will likely come from employees working in production areas. They know if they have better equipment, their jobs will be easier and their customers satisfied. What-if ideas are rarely implemented right away. Rather, they will take time and strategy to ensure they can be done well. That said, some of the best, most effective cost-savings ideas from my past came from employees who thought outside the box to improve their department or store as a whole.

Let us talk about maintaining the idea log. The idea log updates and analysis should be done in an objective manner by its owner (often a manager). For implementation, the owner first considers ideas that can be accomplished in a quick, effective way at store-level without any additional spending. It is important that if an owner makes a process change as his store only, he communicates this to leadership to determine if the change can be made chainwide. Then, the owner organizes the list by category (e.g., department, type, etc.) to determine what should be done next and why. The investment and ROI details from the log will aid in prioritizing the implementation schedule. Don’t forget to hold yourself and your managers accountable during idea capture and process implementation.

One last thought before you begin your idea log. You may find pieces of ideas that help, but maybe the whole idea does not sit quite right. Save those pieces and use them later. They may be worth gold. With that said, happy hunting for game-changing ideas in your organization!