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5 Reasons Company Suggestion Boxes Fail — And What To Do Instead

3 minutes, 21 seconds read

Have a company suggestion box? Consider this suggestion: ditch it for a system that works. 

Most suggestion systems consist of empty suggestion boxes—physical or digital—waiting for input from employees who are tired of seeing their ideas go into a black hole of intentions. On the other side of the box are frustrated managers who don’t have the time to review, validate or implement these ideas.

We recently worked with executives at an automotive company who were trying to understand why their employees no longer submitted ideas to their suggestion scheme. We went down to the shop floor to ask the employees just that. A maintenance associate who had participated in the committee of the suggestion system was happy to explain his frustration. As he put it, the ideas “didn’t have a chance to survive.”

Obstacles to success

Company suggestion boxes typically go through five main obstacles:

  1. Lack of ownership. Putting a suggestion into a box means surrendering an idea, hoping that somebody else will look at it, care for it and approve it. That demands a lot of faith, faith that is often unfounded as you’ll see shortly.
  2. Lack of quality. Committees evaluating ideas are often frustrated with the low quality of the ideas suggested. Most are complaints, impossible to implement or likely to have little impact. Yet this is understandable. Employees aren’t likely to care about the quality of their suggestions if they’re not going to be the ones implementing them.
  3. A committee bottleneck. Most companies that put a suggestion system in place also put in place a committee whose job is to analyze, evaluate and approve ideas received. Too often this committee is looking for impossible ideas: big transformations, with no risk and no cost. With goals like these, this rejection committee is likely to turn down 99% of the ideas that come their way.
  4. No feedback. When you’ve already got a committee bottleneck, you can’t expect the committee to provide feedback on all the rejected ideas. But without that feedback, employees lose trust in the whole system and stop submitting ideas.
  5. Implementation drag. To make matters worse, there’s the 10% of 10% implementation problem. Let’s say your committee typically approves 1/10 of the ideas that come into the system. Each of those accepted ideas gets an implementation plan. Yet only 10% of those approved ideas actually sees the light of day. (And this after a 6 to 12 month implementation process.) So after all these suggestions, the company may be implementing a grand total of 1%.

No wonder most companies are frustrated with their suggestion system!

How to fix the suggestion box problem

Often in trying to solve this problem, management offers a greater incentive to participate. But this really doesn’t change anything. People may simply offer more poor ideas, the bottleneck will grow worse, and implementation still hovers at 1%.

Instead, consider changing the process to embrace a true Kaizen approach:

  • Replace the centralized approval process with a centralized coaching system. Train frontline managers, supervisors and other change agents to act as coaches for frontline employees. Help the employees close to production learn to capture their ideas.
  • Empower frontline employees to execute their own experiments. Give them the resources, process and support they need to run small experiments that can be executed offline. This demands virtually no resources but will help them learn whether an idea may work or not.
  • Lower the bar. Instead of asking for big, innovative ideas, ask for any sort of ideas  especially small incremental improvements. These ideas require no budget and no validation, but actually set everything in motion. Small ideas can prepare your team to ready to any execute larger ideas that might come into the system.

This is the definition of a true Kaizen culture: employees empowered to improve everywhere, every day.



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