My dad, Stan Gower started working as a sheet metal worker for British Airways in 1974. We lived about 7 miles from Heathrow and I remember he used to avoid the traffic jams by driving there and back every day on a Lambretta scooter.
In 1988, British Airways was in a period of change after its privatisation the previous year. When they re-launched their staff suggestion scheme called Brainwaves, it was heralded as one of the biggest and most successful company savings and suggestions schemes in Britain at the time.
According to a British Airways staff news supplement the Brainwaves re-launch, was designed to give a fresh boost to the scheme and encourage all staff, and in particular more people from non-technical areas to get involved. The top award was doubled from £5,000 to £10,000 and the application process made more user friendly. They also pledged to speed up response processing times to just six weeks! Their target was to save £2million over 12 months. That was big money back then.
Brainstorm your way to a £10,000 bonus
Stan Gower likes a challenge and I expect the “Brainstorm your way to a £10,000 bonus” headline in the staff paper piqued his interest.
Before joining British Airways Stan had worked in small companies where he was used to finding alternative ways to making a job more efficient. This is especially motivating when you are paid on the quantity and quality of your output.
Stan was the first British Airways employee to win the top prize of £10,000 for his brainwave.
Stan was spending a lot of time on a recurring problem with a Rolls Royce RB211 engine used on Boeing 747s. In laymen’s terms a bit of the engine called the ‘front bellows’ was subject to rubbing from other pipes located next to it and practically every time an engine went into the workshops the front bellows of the engine had to be replaced at great cost. Apparently the job was called ‘the trouser leg job’ in the workshop owing to the shape!
Stan’s first suggestion was to bend the offending pipe out of the way. However, experts in engineering disagreed. It’s fair to say that Stan doesn’t like being told ‘no’ and wouldn’t let it rest there so he went off to think of another solution.
His winning idea was to fit a protective cover over the front bellows. It was trialled for a year and it worked so well that front bellows replacement is now rarely necessary.
“When it comes to changing something in a large organisation, not only do you have to have the idea – having recognised the problem but also sufficient tenacity to see it through because you have to jump through hoops, whereas in other, smaller places you just get on with it.”
Small changes can make a big impact
Over the years the British Airways employee suggestion scheme received 100’s of ideas. Small ideas like descaling the toilet pipes on planes, making them lighter and saving fuel, replacing glass wine bottles with plastic bottles, washing/cleaning the engines more regularly, switching to lighter catering trolleys and cargo containers and the introduction of lighter cutlery have added up to save the company over £20million.
However, since the 1980’s, research into employee motivation has meant that employee suggestion schemes have evolved, many are moving away from the monetary reward ‘carrot and stick’ approach and focusing on how to inspire employees.
For example Dan Pink, author of books about work, management, and behavioural science uncovered a surprising truth about what motivates us.
The British Airways Brainwaves scheme is a typical way to reward ideas; where ideas that have more impact on profitability get bigger rewards. Dan found that this works up to a point. His findings show that it works as long as the task involves mechanical skill – like Stan’s work in smaller companies where you get paid on your output. However, once the task involves creative or conceptual thinking monetary rewards actually lead to poorer performance.
Let’s be clear that money is a motivator, in that people have to be paid enough. If people are underpaid they struggle to be motivated. However Dan Pinks findings, as well as that of other sociologists, psychologists and behavioural economists indicate that the true key to motivation lies in three interconnected areas.
For more check out Dan Pinks RSA animate film.
Does your charity have a employee scheme to encourage innovation and ideas? Is it driven by financial rewards or something else?
Who knows what happened to the Brainwaves scheme. Does it still exist or did it evolve? It’s been impossible to talk with anyone at British Airways about how they approach innovation. If you are reading this and can help please do get in touch.
*£2million is just over £5million and £10k approx £26k in today’s money.
At the age of thirteen Giles was diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t allow a bone tumour in his arm to put an end to his swimming career. Today Giles is one of the most successful Paralympic swimmers of our time.
Giles is the proud owner of a total of seven Paralympic medals, but when he first showed them to people, the confused expression on their faces revealed that they didn’t know how special the medals were, because they simply didn’t understand the parameters of Paralympic sport.
Confusion around disability in sport
The general public is confused by disability in sport. This is compounded by a fear of offending people, so they keep questions they are bursting to ask like, “Why is a guy with one arm racing with a guy with one leg?” and “How come their wheelchair is different to theirs?” to themselves.
After Giles came back from Sydney in 2000 he had the idea to answer those types of questions in the form of LEXI.
LEXI is a graphic that helps people understand why different impairment types are grouped together by using human icons to show affected areas of the body. In combination with approved narration scripting, it crucially shows how a disability affects an athlete in a sport-specific way. For example, a disability that impacts a runner will impact a skier in a different way, which is different again for swimming. In fact, it’s different for every single one of the 27 competitive Paralympic sports. No wonder the people watching are confused.
“My dad always says if you’ve got a lot to say in a short space of time then draw a picture”
Giles thought he was onto something, and told a few people in the broadcasting industry about LEXI, in the hope that it might be used to support the Paralympics in Athens in 2004, but he didn’t get anywhere. He tried again 4 years later for Beijing in 2008. No one was interested.
Giles believes that the lack of interest in LEXI wasn’t about the product itself, or the quality of the graphic or the concept. The biggest challenge was culturally what LEXI represented. LEXI is about talking about disability. Prior to London 2012, the Paralympics actively tried to avoid talking about disability. The Paralympics was about sport, only sport. If you look at the camera shots of the 1996 Paralympics in Barcelona they rarely even showed disability.
It wasn’t until London 2012 that the culture for addressing disability in sport began to shift. It all started when the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) decided for the first time to sell the broadcast rights to the Paralympics separately from the rights for the Olympics.
Channel 4 won the broadcast rights. As part of the bid for the rights, Channel 4 had committed to explaining about the classification of Paralympic sport to the watching public. And it just so happened that Giles was asked in conversation if he had any ideas about how they might do this
So, he drew LEXI with a biro on a pad for the team at Channel 4.
Finally a breakthrough
Finally, Giles had the breakthrough he needed and LEXI was piloted at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester in 2011
It was then, with LEXI out in the public domain that Giles realised he needed to protect his idea. And he needed to do it quickly. He was advised to make sure that he had copyright on everything, at every stage of development and that he had this in writing.
“It made me pretty unpopular – people were rolling their eyes every time I mentioned copyright – thank God I did because I wouldn’t have a business now if not.”
After the Manchester Paralympic World Cup, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said LEXI needed improvement. David Abrahams, the now outgoing CEO Channel 4 said for LEXI to make the cut it needed to be redrawn to look “more sporty”. The Paralympics were drawing close and there was a heightened nervousness about the topic of disability combined with extra anxiety about being a host country under a lot of scrutiny.
The time pressure of the Paralympics may have served the launch of LEXI well. With an immovable deadline fast approaching, people were forced to adopt a looser approach that would allow Channel 4 to meet the commitment it had made in its pitch for the rights to the London Paralympic Games.
Meet the superhumans
The 2012 Paralympics on Channel 4 was phenomenal. The ‘meet the superhumans’ campaign tackled sport and disability head-on. It is still massively powerful today. Remind yourself here.
London 2012 Paralympics saw viewing figures like never before. Six million people watched Jonnie Peacock win the men’s 100 meters. Six million people saw LEXI.
A focus group following the games said 85% of the audience approved of LEXI. And no one was offended by talk of disability (the thing everyone was afraid of).
Giles thought that after London 2012 developing LEXI would become easier.
He was wrong.
Despite the world-class Paralympic campaign by Channel 4, outstanding viewing figures and massively positive imagery, it took about two weeks for the entrenched mind-set of “we talk sport, not disability” to re-establish itself. Even with all the stats and data to back it up, many people just reverted to type.
The battle to change mind-sets continues. Rio 2016 was again successful and LEXI was used in the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia, as well as the UK giving it a potential audience reach of 500 million people. It had moved from 2D to 3D animated characters and there is less text on screen (which is an important consideration in multiple languages with massive differences in text length). This is what LEXI looks like today.
The next challenge for Giles is to get LEXI into the Paralympic host feed coverage – the coverage that the host country produces from which all other countries take their sports pictures from.
Giles will keep pushing LEXI because he is passionate about the Paralympics and knows first-hand that what athletes’ want is to have their story told to the world, a story partly of sporting performance, partly of disability but also of hopes, dreams and aspiration that anyone can have, regardless of their gender, sexuality or ability. Watch this space.
Making an idea happen
No idea operates in isolation; there were a series of things that lined up in the story of LEXI; the idea in Giles’ head, Channel 4 winning the broadcast rights and committing to a massive cultural shift to explain disability in sport.
Giles’ advice to anyone who is nursing an idea or an innovation is…
This blog was first published at Lucidity.
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