Nine out of 10 senior managers see innovation as a key source of future competitive advantage, according to a study by business consulting firm Bain & Company, yet the same study found that two-thirds of the respondents were dissatisfied with their company’s innovation performance.

What many companies lack is a formal process for capturing and vetting ideas. “In a low-odds, inductive game like innovation, the idea you lose could be the idea that would have worked,” notes Bain’s Paul Calthrop.

People tend to associate innovation with industries such as high-tech, pharmaceuticals, genetics and the like, but it’s also the source of competitive advantage in comparatively low-tech industries. Advanced Drainage Systems (ADS), for example, has been perfecting its idea management program for more than two years. The manufacturer of polyethylene pipe used in residential and commercial construction first adopted a paper-based approach to capturing ideas and then sharing them among the company’s 12 fabrication shops. The program involved some 100 employees, and it helped ADS develop standardized best practices that improved efficiency and quality.

In 2003, ADS decided to take the program companywide, applying the same principles, though not the same paper-based process, to 21 manufacturing plants and associated production and operations activities. By May 2004, the company piloted a centralized idea management program managed on a Microsoft Access database accessible throughout the company on a shared network drive. Facilitators in each plant collected ideas from employees (most of whom had no access to up-to-date PCs) and submitted them to the central database at headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, where reporting and tracking took place.

Unfortunately, the prototype system was soon overwhelmed. “We were pulling in hundreds of ideas out of just a few plants, and working with the network drives and Access proved slow and time consuming,” says Scott Anderson, manager of employee involvement.

The next step was to look for purpose-built software that could scale up. Innovation management software, or “idea management” as some call it, is a small but growing category that also includes, Imaginatik, MindMatters Technologies and General Ideas. Anderson narrowed ADS’s choice to two vendors. After seeing demos, the company selected’s On-Demand Innovation Management Suite. The hosted service starts at $49 per registered user and $1 per contributor per month.

ADS chose Brightidea in part because the hosted solution was compatible with “relic” computers in the company’s plants. These dated machines were fine for punching in production numbers, and with browser-based access to, they could also serve as capture stations where employees can submit their ideas.

Anderson says Brightidea also simplified central administration. “I used to spend 20 hours a week on tracking and reporting, but that’s down to about five hours,” he explains. “Now I can spend more time doing the prescreening, making sure ideas are valid and that they haven’t been submitted by another plant.”

The system also facilitates collaboration without the chaos of e-mail. Users can share their ideas and related attachments, and reviewers can then enter comments that are captured and visible to all.

Once ideas have been prescreened, review groups at each plant approve suggestions for their own facilities and can then escalate ideas for review by a corporate review group. When ideas are approved as companywide best practices, the system also tracks progress toward implementation in all locations.

Thus far, the 1,200 employees with access to the system have been a wellspring of new ideas. In fact, one standout employee has submitted more than 60 ideas, 90 percent of which have been implemented and half of those companywide. Some ideas are simple and easily implemented. In one example, an employee suggested switching the type of spindle bearings used on cut-off saws in the pipe plants; as a result, bearing replacements and, thus, saw outages are now rare. In other cases, suggestions require development, as in the case of the design and production of a “mitered joint pusher” idea contributed by a fabrication department employee. The tool eases the assembly of pipe in the field, and it’s being used companywide.

The next step for ADS is to extend Brightidea to ADS’s six international plants. Translation technology available with the system is expected to ease idea sharing among Spanish- and English-speaking employees in North, Central and South America.

From Intelligent Written by Doug Henschen.