Have a company suggestion box? Consider this suggestion: ditch it for a system that works.
The idea of employees giving their managers suggestions on how to improve their output sounds productive. It mostly seems useful because workers might interact more with the customer than their supervisors and, as a result, could be more aware of what their clients want. Propositions make sense, but there should be a better way of handling them than putting them in a physical or virtual container. Sometimes an employee shouldn’t have to propose certain things. Taking other approaches doesn’t have to be hard; it could be easy to implement a new system for listening to and applying your workers’ ideas. The advice box is obsolete, but there are reasons why some companies still cling to this old method.
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.”
Why the Proposal Container was Easy for Companies to Use
Sharing a proposition via a suggestion bin was a simple process for both the business and the employee. All that needs to happen is an employee writes down their advice and places it in the container. A company can then read the proposals from their suggestion boxes and apply them if they are affordable or necessary. That used to be an effective way for businesses to listen to any suggestion given to them by their staff members on the ground floor. However, as comfortable and productive as this process was, it would eventually become less useful over time as companies and careers evolve. There are multiple reasons why the suggestion box is more hindering than helpful.
Why the Advice Container is a Time-Waster
Many employees who have provided their suggestions in a proposal bin have expressed that the higher-ups ignore their advice. As a result, they don’t bother providing any proposal of any kind after a while. Even though companies are the ones that implement the suggestion boxes, managers can sometimes feel frustrated whenever they receive propositions from their workers. The easy thing to do that supervisors are aware of would be to ignore all of the advice they receive. That may seem cynical and unfair, but managers might already have way too much on their plate for them to pay attention to the advice box. Even if the company establishes a committee to handle their suggestion box, proposals are more likely to be thrown out because they don’t align with what the board members want for the business.
Obstacles to success
Company suggestion boxes typically go through five main obstacles:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
Improving the Suggestion Box
If you don’t want to replace your suggestion container, then you could improve it instead. Offering an incentive for employees to use this box usually doesn’t work. Specifically, your advice boxes can be more of a metaphorical concept. You can teach your ground-level employees to do things like observe the needs or wants of a customer and then pass them on to the higher-ups. Instead of having your top-level employees use your suggestion boxes, please encourage them to experiment with their ideas. You can give them the resources they need to execute it in a controlled environment without them having to wait until you read their proposals from some box. If it works and could potentially enhance your average customer’s experience, they could apply it to your business.
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.
Just because you don’t have an advice box doesn’t mean you should ignore any propositions your employees provide. Though these boxes were once useful, times change. If a worker wants their suggestion heard, then you must employ a new system where that can happen. These new proposals don’t only have to do with helping the average customer. It’s okay to listen to and apply any suggestions that could improve your employee’s work ethic and motivation. In the case where you don’t want to dump the boxes, make sure you don’t ignore the smaller ideas your workers provide.
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