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Blue Collar Innovation

Claim:   Low-level employee suggests simple yet brilliant innovation that increases the profits of a successful company many times over.

LEGEND

Examples:  

[Collected by e-mail, 2002]

An employee of Swan Vesta, the match company, went to senior management and told them that he could think of a way they could save themselves millions of pounds in production costs. He would reveal this to them if they agreed to give him some large share of the savings they made.

They got the whole thing agreed with a solicitor, so that if they indeed were able to save millions, he'd make his cash.

He then told them to put the sandpaper on only one side of the matchbox. They saved millions and he got his share. This is why Swan matches have sandpaper on only one side of the box.
 

[Collected by e-mail, 2003]

I started working at an upscale department store and during orientation they told us this story about a marketing meeting at Colgate (or Crest??). They were trying to come up with ideas of how to sell more of their product. The cleaning lady was in the room and suggested that they make the hole bigger so more toothpaste will come out. I just thought that was interesting... I don't know if it is true or not, but I wouldn't doubt it.
 

[Collected by e-mail, 2004]

It was the janitor's idea. The famous El Cortez Hotel in San Diego provides an excellent example of the advantage of listening intently to employees at every level. The hotel management decided to install an additional elevator to better serve their guests. Engineers drew up plans cutting holes through each floor of the hotel. A janitor, who was concerned with this, made the comment that this would make a great deal of mess. The janitor was told not to worry because the hotel would be closed to guests during the construction. The janitor suggested, "You could build the elevator on the outside of the hotel." At the time, this architectural concept had never been done before, but after investigation by the engineers, it proved an idea that was worth developing, and is now commonplace in buildings today worldwide. The janitor's idea saved the El Cortez thousands of dollars in guest revenue, employees from losing salary, and major clean-up costs related to the construction of the new elevator.
 

Origins:   The legend about a low-level employee who pipes up with a shockingly brilliant yet simple suggestion that either makes or saves his employer untold millions of dollars has long been Innovation part of the canon of business legends. It appears in a variety of guises and is told in a number of ways, with the products, companies, and dazzling ideas involved changing from telling to telling, as does the motivation of the ones making the suggestions. Sometimes the lowly wage-earner throws his startling concept into the mix solely to save himself effort or inconvenience (e.g., the janitor who recommends putting the new elevator on the outside of the edifice because tearing up the building's insides would create an awful mess that he'd have to clean up). Sometimes he blurts his suggestion without thought of seeking compensation for it. And sometimes, realizing the value of his brainstorm, he makes a deal with his employers for revealing it to them. (The best known of these stories is the venerable "Bottle It!" legend told of Coca-Cola in which an unknown offers the mighty corporation an idea guaranteed to net it billions: "Bottle it.")

Two common elements mark these seemingly unrelated stories as versions of the same legend: the underling's master stroke is of the "Why didn't we think of that?" sort rather than one derived from knowledge of specific technology, and it is produced not by someone charged with dreaming up brilliant innovations for the company and pulling in a lavish salary for doing so, but by a poorly-paid menial, the sort of worker routinely overlooked by the corporation (and indeed by society as well).

The brilliant notion served up in this legend is always startlingly obvious, something along the lines of "If you sold the drink in bottles, people could buy it in stores rather than have to come to a soda fountain to get it," or "If the hole in the tube were bigger, folks would squish out more of the product for each brushing and so
would have to buy toothpaste more often," or "If you did away with the little cardboard tray the candy bar sits on and just wrapped it without the tray, that chocolate bar would cost less to make." Its simplicity is key to the legend's purpose: just as it makes the blue collar guy who experiences the "Eureka!" moment appear brilliant, it positions those who run the company as overpaid fools for not themselves having thought of the simple twist. Their successes notwithstanding, the higher-ups are revealed to have feet of clay in this "triumph of the little guy" tale.

Because legends impart their messages most effectively when contrasts are extreme, the one proffering the "It'll make (or save) you millions" tip hails from the lowest ranks of workers. Never does a junior executive, plant foreman, or shift supervisor come up with the notion; it's always the janitor or cleaning lady who leaves the high-priced executives with their jaws hanging open.

Folks presumed to be of lower intelligence or ability by virtue of their lesser stations in the power structure appear in other urban legends, but in those tales they function as causes of mayhem rather than as solution bringers. In "Polished Off," a hospital janitor routinely unplugs life support equipment to free an outlet for his floor polisher, thereby causing patient after patient to die under mysterious circumstances. And in "Blew Moon," wives, maintenance workers, and washroom attendants employ their presumed lack of smarts to find entertainingly clueless ways to blast unsuspecting men off their bathroom thrones.

Our legend about the low-level employee and his big idea has a non-business expression too: the classic urban legend "Tire Nut" tells of an ordinary fellow rescued from the plight of being stranded by a blown tire through the simple yet effective suggestion made by an escaped inmate from a lunatic asylum.

Barbara "the advice was free, even if its giver wasn't" Mikkelson

Last updated:   21 January 2011

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