Got a Suggestion?

The time-honored suggestion box is back in business, providing a low-cost way to incorporate new ideas and build staff input.
Got a Suggestion?
Ron Kaufman

Markets today demand greater innovation. Changes are coming faster than ever before, and your competitors are ready to jump on them and get a leg up in the industry.

Customers have rising expectations too. So you need new ideas, better processes, innovative products and services, and more effective ways to build strong futures with those customers.

Market research, research and development, customer surveys and focus groups are valuable tools for incorporating the best and brightest innovations into your company. In the current economic climate, though, those tools are not always affordable. So why not turn back the clock and take a stab at the good old suggestion box? When done right, it's a low-cost yet effective technique.

Companies can no longer survive with staff members who expect management to provide all the answers. Today, businesses big and small require a steady flow of ideas and solutions from those closest to the processes and the customers — front-line workers with their "ears to the ground."

Business leaders and managers are more receptive to this approach than ever before. But how can you transform the mindset of staff who, for years or even generations, have been trained to "just follow orders"? How do you encourage them to open their minds, explore new ideas and share their best recommendations?

The suggestion box is a time-honored process that encourages employees to submit their ideas for management consideration. Many companies have tried this approach, but few can report real satisfaction with the number, consistency or quality of staff contributions. Even fewer can report widespread enthusiasm for the project at all.

Here are six ideas to make your suggestion process effective:

Respond to all written staff suggestions within one week and in writing.

Be up front. If the answer is no, say so. If the answer is yes, state when staff will see implementation. If the answer is maybe, explain the issues involved and give a date for further reply. And stick to it. Nothing builds trust and credibility faster than making new promises and keeping them.

One exception: Do not reply to obscene or abusive suggestions. A strong company culture has no place for destructive "input." Your best response is not to reply.

Respond to suggestions publicly for all to see.

Usually, a staff member will write about something on the minds of many. Reply openly on a designated bulletin board, in a weekly printed update, or by email. Thank writers for their contribution. Include staff names on suggestions to be implemented.

Give awards for best suggestions, and give them right away.

Many suggestion box efforts call for a multi-step process of evaluation. First, the suggestion boxes are emptied, maybe once a month. Second, the manager or other designated person sorts for "realistic" submissions. Third, management appraises each suggestion for freshness, feasibility, cost savings or increased revenue. And finally, the prize or award is presented. The cycle can take four weeks or more. In some cases the review of suggestions may be conducted only once a quarter.

Try allotting $100 a month to the project for one year. Award $50 to the best idea, $20 for the second best idea, and $10 each to the third, fourth and fifth best suggestions. For small businesses with fewer employees, adjust accordingly.

In the first months, few staffers may believe that you will give out the money in a timely manner, and possibly only a handful of employees will participate. But no matter how small or meager the suggestions, give out the money anyway. As soon as employees realize you're serious, the boxes will fill with suggestions.

Establish different categories for your awards.

Clear categories can help employees focus and generate new ideas: ideas that can be implemented immediately, ideas for improving customer service, suggestions for cost savings, or suggestions for increasing revenue.

Make awarding your prizes a big deal.

Some companies use lunches or monthly meetings to award prizes. One company makes up large, special "dollar bills" for each winning suggestion. In the center is the face of the staff member who contributed. In the corners is the amount of money the suggestion earned. And surrounding the portrait is a description of the suggestion. These "dollar bills" line the walls of the company, giving the winners recognition and keeping the suggestions coming.

At the end of the year, give recognition to the volume of suggestions received, the winners who have been rewarded, and the changes enacted as a result. Then pose a challenge to everyone to double the volume of suggestions in the coming year.

And if the quality of ideas warrants it, double your cash prizes, too.

Most of all, implement.

Act upon staff suggestions. Nothing demonstrates your commitment to this approach better than a staff suggestion that is recognized, rewarded and immediately put to work.


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