OMAHA—There are 46,000 employees at Union Pacific, making it one of the larger employers in the Midwest. And with that, comes a lot of hierarchy out of pure necessity.
But hierarchy can make it difficult for lower level employees to get an idea heard and executed quickly.
So UP came up with a solution to find “diamond in the rough” ideas and get them to the higher-ups without having to go to your boss, who then goes to their boss, then their boss’ boss and so on.
Innovation Station is a social web platform that UP has used since 2010 to share and refine ideas. The creators call it a “suggestion box on steroids.”
Employees anonymously submit an idea and it’s peer-reviewed on the site for two weeks. If the idea gets 10 or more up-votes, the idea gets fast-tracked to the top where higher-ups approve the idea, give employees three weeks and $3,000 to validate the idea. They also get guidance from an associate vice president to help execute the idea.
It’s sparked ideas and inspired employees, the creators say.
It’s also the next product set for a Nov. 1 release from Valvora, Union Pacific’s internal “startup” that takes its in-house created software and makes it available for public purchase.
Luke Christiansen, who heads up Valvora, said there are other suggestion box apps available, but none that have been a proven solution for a Fortune 500 company like UP.
“Our advantage is that we have a huge customer with a lot of data that says this approach works,” Christiansen (right) told SPN. “It’s proven.”
In what ways? Christiansen has more than a few answers.
It’s been used for things as small as getting wall clocks in all meeting rooms to make people more efficient and aware of time in meetings.
One idea submitted through Innovation Station saved the company $10 million by improving the algorithm at work in “hot box detectors,” which measure wheel temperatures to identify railcars that should be taken out of service, therefore reducing derailments.
“That idea single handedly paid for itself and all of Innovation Station’s ideas,” Christiansen said. “The majority of ideas don’t pan out, but when you get that kind of result, it makes the whole thing worth it.”
Christiansen hypothesizes other large companies with 100 or more employees, or companies that have multiple locations, have similar challenges with making great idea happen. Some Fortune 500 companies have already expressed interest in the web app, which is still in beta.
Innovation Station will be a subscription service and will live on Valvora.com where administrators and employees can login. It’s up to each company to decide how to go about executing the idea.
So far, Innovation Station has only been used in Union Pacific’s IT department, but Christiansen said it can be used department by department or company-wide.
“We’ve mainly used it as a tightly focused app to generate internal innovation,” he said. “But I’ve even had some people wanting to turn it around and use it as a place for employee questions that can be internally crowd-sourced.”
Read more about Valvora’s internal innovation through our previous coverage: “The startup that grew from inside a 152-year-old Fortune 150 company.”
Credit: Christiansen photo by Jordan Green productions