500 + Ideas Implemented! A Progress Report on Sustaining Lean with Employee Involvement at Autumn Harp

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Customer Profile

Autumn Harp is a specialized research and development and manufacturing partner in the cosmetics and skin care industry.  Located in Essex Junction, Vermont, Autumn Harp develops innovative cosmetic formulations (certified organic and natural), water-based technology and color cosmetics that are packed and labeled in a wide variety of containers. The company supplies products that sell in over 60 countries around the world.  They are challenged by large seasonal swings, so they experience the ebb and flow of many workers into their manufacturing operations at various times of the year.


Team members from Autumn Harp attended a VMEC workshop taught by Alan Robinson in September 2009.  Alan is the co-author of Ideas are Free: How the Idea Revolution is Liberating People and Transforming Organizations. Charged up by that workshop, a leadership team used the workshop lessons to construct an Employee Involvement program that fit their workplace and their work force.   All senior managers were given Alan’s book to read, which was then followed by a book discussion. Based on the interest of managers to implement their own employee program, Autumn Harp included as part of their 2010 goals an Employee Ideas Program.


The process began shortly after the New Year.  Daily problems were identified and brainstormed on the floor with supervisors company-wide.   If the problem was deemed enough of an issue to warrant a solution, it was recorded into the Share Point System (software) for next steps.  Weekly 30 minute meetings were held on each shift for all full time employees. Each problem that had been identified was categorized and loaded in the system under one of three areas:  Completed with training necessary, Feedback required and Review for all in-process projects.

To start, idea ground rules were established where the focus concentrated on waste or 5S: product waste, movement of people, rework, over processing, excess inventory, wait time and / or 5S – Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain.  Resources available to each shift team included two hours of maintenance time per week and up to $50 as a team per project.  Amounts over $50 and up to $250 required a supervisor’s approval and beyond $250 required management team approval.  Each employee was allowed up to two hours per month to work on projects.

The Ideas program began in the Compounding Dept. due to its size, 5 – 8 employees per shift. Problems were recorded on an excel spreadsheet, prioritized by team voting, brainstormed according to the 5 “Why’s”, followed by the entire team voting on the best resolution. Once this step was completed, the group facilitator would mark as such.

Opportunities for improvement were identified in meetings, but this process was taking too long, especially once rolled out onto the production floor with 20-30 employees per 12 hour shift.  The facilitators were burning out, finding there were not enough hours in the day and tracking the growing list of problems and communicating the ideas captured between 4 shifts (two 12-hour shifts, M-T-W and Th-F-S) was becoming far too cumbersome.

In order for all full time company employees to observe the progress of the employee ideas system, an intranet database was created on Sharepoint. This transitioned to “on the floor” brainstorming and trained floor leaders to facilitate on the spot.  Ideas were captured and categorized and facilitators met with shifts every other week and followed a specific agenda to ideas completion.

Any employee can submit their idea to the Autumn Harp “Ideas Home Page”.  Each idea has an “Ideas Data Page” which spells out the concept in further detail.   Ideas that are brought to fruition, taken for action and are deemed successful are posted around the plant for all to view on “I Have an Idea!” laminated sheets.


After nearly two years following the initial implementation of their Employee Involvement system, Autumn Harp employees have submitted nearly 900 ideas with 500 plus to date having been implemented. Employee feedback has been very positive as they can see their ideas taking shape before they were lost or discounted.


Chuck Huizenga, Safety and Training Manager at Autumn Harp, speaks enthusiastically about the Employee Involvement program and its success at the company. “What is most impressive is the rate of idea generation and the value of those ideas which have increased with time. We have gone from a culture of “We’ve always done it that way” to “I Have an Idea!”.  Employee engagement in the program has been exceptional and overall morale has been lifted significantly.  We don’t make tracking the savings from ideas a required step in the system.   But the reward for a good idea is the satisfaction that it has been implemented and the opportunity to submit more ideas.”

500 + Ideas Implemented! A Progress Report on Sustaining Lean with Employee Involvement at Autumn Harp