“Corporate idea management is an integral part of our corporate culture”

More than 150,000 suggestions for improvement in 80 years

Innovation Nov 22, 2022

In this story, you will learn:

Hair brooms and bristle scrubbers were in short supply in 1942, even in the acid operations department at Henkel. This gave Peter Evertz, who was employed there, an idea: Why not use scrubbers and hand brushes made of waste rubber – which are also much more durable than conventional brooms? The idea turned into a proposal. And Peter Evertz went down in company history. It was the first suggestion for improvement to be registered, evaluated, and awarded at Henkel. He concluded his cover letter to the newly founded “Company Suggestion Program Working Group” with the sentence: "I hope to have helped the company by producing the replacements for brooms and scrubbers."

Today, 80 years later, this idea is more relevant than ever. "The underlying idea of giving all employees the opportunity to help shape and drive the company forward through their ideas and suggestions is an integral part of our corporate culture,” emphasizes Holger Traugott, Head of Corporate Idea Management at Henkel. More than 150,000 suggestions for improvement have been submitted since 1942. Most of these have been implemented and were recognized with prizes. Idea management is therefore an important part of Henkel's success story.

Holger Traugott, Head of Corporate Idea Management at Henkel

The underlying idea of giving all employees the opportunity to help shape and drive the company forward through their ideas and suggestions is an integral part of our corporate culture and more relevant than ever before.

Idea management is built on three pillars

Holger also attributes this to the fact that today's idea management has always moved with the times and has continuously evolved. Idea management is now built on three pillars. Suggestions for improvement from employees continue to play an important role. In other words, ideas on how to optimize operational procedures and processes, increase product quality, use resources effectively, or improve health and safety in the workplace. If a proposal is implemented and as a result creates a benefit, for example financial savings, the employees receive a bonus. "The greater the benefit for Henkel, the higher the bonus," explains Holger.

In addition, the team has been conducting campaigns for several years, specifically inviting employees in certain areas to submit suggestions on topics, such as optimizing processes in the production within a certain time period. Holger lists "ideation" as the third pillar. Here, the idea management team systematically supports the generation of ideas and finding of solutions in workshops – for example, with the help of innovative methods such as design thinking. "In our definition, suggestions for improvement start where there is already a solution in place. But for some topics, there is no solution yet," explains Holger. "This is where we want to develop new ideas together."

Three employees brainstorm together, collect their ideas on sticky notes and exchange them.

From design or future thinking, crowdsourcing to hackathons – there are many creative ways and innovation methods that can help employees find new solutions.

Essentially, the concept of design thinking is not to head straight for a solution, but to first understand the actual problem and to keep the needs of the users in mind from the very beginning. The workshop participants’ ideas are generated with the help of creativity techniques such as brainwriting. In the next step, the best ideas are implemented in the form of a prototype and finally tested by the users. Their feedback is used to further improve the solution – or, if necessary, to terminate the project early on. This can save time and resources.

Most proposals happen in the production-related sector

Whereas Peter Evertz submitted his proposal in writing 80 years ago, today employees can do so via an online tool. This tool acts as central hub and is used to submit, evaluate, and award entries and proposals. "The whole process is now much more transparent, objective, and efficient for everyone involved," explains Holger. For example, there is an automatic check for duplicates when submitting. "You enter your proposal along with a description text and you can immediately see if proposals on that topic already exist." This improves transparency for submitters. And where do most of the proposals come from? "At the moment, still from the production-related environment," explains Holger. But thanks to the ideation format, his team is also increasingly reaching employees from other areas.

Suggestions that in their essence can also be transferred to other units in the company are of high value for the idea managers. For example, a somewhat older suggestion – simple, but with a big impact for the entire company: Using lighter paper for cover letters, thus saving postage. Ultimately, the goal is for all employees to contribute with their ideas and for participation to pay off – and not just for the company. "Everyone benefits from new ideas," says Holger. One of the highest rewards has been paid out for the suggestion of a closed cooling circuit in production. The company was able to save a large sum annually as a result. Another example with a sustainability focus came in 1987 from a foreman at the Henkel printing plant. He was awarded a prize for the development of a special, material-saving cutting pattern to produce detergent cartons. Incidentally, Peter Evert's suggestion to make scrubbers and hand brushes from old rubber is also a great example of climate-conscious upcycling. "Ultimately, every suggestion pays into the issue of sustainability," says Holger. Whether it's making our processes faster, saving materials, water or energy, or making processes safer."

How to create a corporate idea management that succeeds

Pioneers at Henkel: paving the way forward

Holger likes to compare employees who submit suggestions to pioneers: "These are people who break new ground and develop sustainable and creative solutions.” This also fits in perfectly with Henkel's corporate purpose: "Pioneers at heart for the good of generations”. In this statement, the company expresses its intention to enrich and improve the lives of millions of people every day with its pioneering spirit, knowledge, products, and technologies – for a future worth living for generations to come. And corporate idea management contributes to this. In addition, sustainability has become a central criterion when evaluating idea submissions. A proposal is only awarded a prize if it meets certain sustainability criteria.

Holger Traugott, Head of Corporate Idea Management at Henkel

Employees who submit ideas are pioneers. These are people who break new ground and develop sustainable and creative solutions.

But despite all the creativity, there are also limits to idea management. "No suggestions can be submitted for business decisions or organizational issues," Holger emphasizes. Incentivization, meaning whether rewards are paid and how high they are, also follows clear rules. "The rules and guidelines make it clear to everyone how the idea management works."    

Looking towards the future, Holger expects digitalization to advance idea management as well, for example, in a way that evaluation will take place with the help of artificial intelligence. "This would allow us to focus even more on improving the corporate idea management, thus supporting the strategy and achievement of the company’s objectives," he says.

Holger has worked in corporate idea management at Henkel since 2003 and has been steering the team since 2015. What he most enjoys about his job is that you get to know the company in all its facets. And that you get to exchange and work with people from completely different areas across all levels every day. To new colleagues he says time and again. "I am proud to be able to continue and develop the long tradition of corporate idea management at Henkel with my team."