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Whatever happened to the company suggestion box?

Employees reluctant to share their views

Time was when the traditional suggestion box in offices was as ubiquitous as the traffic enforcer willing to lend an ear to commuters and motorists who’d lost their way. Today, you will hardly see one in corporate organizations. And if you do, it has generally turned into a mere office fixture coated with dust—something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Egotistic and insecure managers feel threatened by it even if a flood of ideas from employees will help improve work processes and conditions, products, and customer service, and save costs for their companies (or save them from costly blunders).

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Fact is: the suggestion box, which represents everything employees want to tell management, is dead.

The reason suggestion systems fail, says Robert F. Bell, author of the book IIE Solutions, is that employees may feel reluctant to offer suggestions if they believe management is not truly interested in their ideas (read: the quality of leadership leaves much to be desired).

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“If the company issues only a lukewarm invitation for suggestions or creates an atmosphere that might be perceived as intimidating, employee suggestions are unlikely to be forthcoming,” he says. “Employees are unlikely to participate in the program if they experience a slow response, or no response, to their suggestions, if there is no clear explanation of the acceptance or rejection of suggestions, or if employees perceive that management is making biased judgments about which suggestions to approve, or when the rewards offered for good ideas are inconsistent.”

Tips

In his book, Bell says the elements of a successful employee suggestion system can be divided into four main areas: management support, program structure, program visibility and promotion, and recognition and rewards.

He gives these practical tips in making successful suggestion programs:

“Managers must show enthusiasm and commitment.”

“It is important for managers to raise the topic frequently in meetings and incorporate the positive results of employee suggestions themselves,” Bell says.

“A single administrator should be responsible for program development and implementation by selecting employees from all parts of the organization and to represent various demographic groups. Bell says suggestion programs succeed when employees are encouraged to make reasonable suggestions within the parameters of their own work experience.

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“The real goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, and over time, to improve the quality of the suggestions through prompt feedback,” Bell notes.

“Both managers and employees should understand a clear policy statement that covers all aspects of the suggestion program. If employees view the process as open, it will help eliminate any suspicion about how ideas are reviewed and rewarded,” Bell says.

“Suggestion systems should be widely publicized and promoted. Other than the suggestion box, such systems may include, for example, the old-fashioned bulletin board, a special toll-free telephone line to allow employees to phone in suggestions, and sending e-mail or postings to a website dedicated to such purpose,” Bell says. “Managers must recognize participants and provide rewards for good ideas.”

“Employees are more likely to participate in a suggestion program if the ideas they submit receive quick and thoughtful responses from management. Experts recommend a timetable in which receipt of an idea will be acknowledged (ranging from 24 hours with electronic systems to one week with more traditional systems). Then employees should be notified within 30 days whether or not their ideas will be adopted,” Bell suggests.

“Even in cases where an idea is not used, the employee who submitted it should be thanked…it may be helpful to provide a small, tangible reward for employees who submit an idea to the suggestion system for the first time, such as a T-shirt, pen or an umbrella,” he says.

Success

For a suggestion system to succeed, Bell says, it is also important to publicize the suggestions used and their positive impact on the organization.

He suggests honoring in an annual dinner, for instance, those who have made suggestions within the year and establishing reward systems for employee ideas that lead to cost savings or improved processes.

Bell, however, cautions management as regards jealousy and resentment created among employees.

This problem can be addressed by delegating the task of recognizing valuable employee contributions to an employee advisory committee.

He says the key is to evaluate ideas based on factors like innovation and ingenuity as well as monetary value when rewarding deserving employees.

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