Harness the Power of an Employee Suggestion Program

Employee Suggestion Program Musts Beyond the Proverbial Suggestion Box

Business people having a meeting to brainstorm ideas for the employee suggestion program.
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The pitfalls of an ill-conceived employee suggestion program are multiple, legendary and most frequently—easy to avoid. A carefully constructed employee suggestion program, that is launched with organizational commitment, clarity and ongoing communication can positively impact your bottom line and your employee motivation and enthusiasm.

An ill-conceived, hastily launched, undefined employee suggestion program can turn people off and generate ill will, cynicism, and misunderstanding. This is the fate of many employee suggestion programs that are thoughtlessly launched via an employee suggestion box.

Does Your Company Need an Employee Suggestion Program?

Before launching an employee suggestion program, consider your corporate culture. Are you currently receiving fresh and thoughtful ideas?

Are employee suggestions already percolating to the surface at staff meetings and in casual conversation? If so, maybe more informal methods for cultivating new ideas are warranted rather then a full-blown employee suggestion program or an employee suggestion box.

Perhaps you can schedule departmental brainstorming sessions or generate ideas about particular topics during portions of your weekly staff meeting. You can set a day a month for a luncheon at which every employee is asked to submit at least one idea.

You can ask your managers to bring three employee ideas to each manager’s meeting. Creativity serves you well in idea generation.

If not, begin by asking what about your culture is currently stifling ideas? Will these issues continue to exist when you implement an employee suggestion program? If so, your successful employee suggestion program must eliminate or circumvent these roadblocks before you ever begin.

Employee suggestion programs including the often implemented suggestion box must be carefully constructed and implemented since they are unwieldy, difficult to keep up with, time-consuming, they can cause more hard feelings than positive outcomes and they must be strictly and fairly managed.

Elements in a Successful Employee Suggestion Program

A few employee suggestion programs have succeeded, but the employee suggestion programs that did succeed shared common success elements. You may take a pause at the number of factors considered significant to the success of an employee suggestion program, but these are factors common to any successful work process that takes employee time and offers the possibility for significant rewards and recognition.

If you pursue an employee suggestion program, the following must happen for its success.

Appoint a Cross-Functional Suggestion Review Team

A cross-functional team must review the suggestions which must be acknowledged within 48 hours. If this team is all managers or all directors, it can be perceived as out of touch or blocking change. It will, however, have the power to implement the suggestions it receives.

If it involves other employees, the process can be time-consuming and perceived to serve self-interests. Senior management agreement and ownership become a second step in the approval process. People on the team must be willing to change and willing to ask “why not” rather than “why"?

Finance, especially, and all other departments must be represented on the suggestion review team. If the managers or directors review suggestions, the review must be part of a regularly scheduled meeting, with suggestions distributed and considered in advance.

If the team meets more often than monthly, it becomes more work than people are usually willing to do. Rotate members of this team 4-6 times a year, but not all members at once, if a cross-functional employee team is your selected suggestion review vehicle. The choice of team members for the suggestion review team should reflect how business is generally accomplished in your culture.

Here are more ideas for designing and administering an effective employee suggestion program—beyond the suggestion box.

Establish Guidelines for Your Employee Suggestion Program

Publically Communicate the Suggestion Submission and Review Process

The process decided upon for the submission and review of suggestions in the employee suggestion program should be publicly communicated. Share all of the guidelines and especially, the goals that you are trying to accomplish, by starting an employee suggestion program.

Establish Guidelines for the Employee Suggestion Process

You'll need to set guidelines such as which topics are open to suggestions. These will likely include ideas that affect cost savings, quality, productivity, process improvements, revenue-generation, and morale-enhancement.

Otherwise, as a small company manager in Florida discovered when he promised $25 per employee suggestion in the employee suggestion box; he received a series of employee suggestions that included these. Put an ice cream machine in the lunch room, put a corn popping machine in the lunch room and any employee who meets their daily production numbers should be able to go home no matter the time of day.

The Employee Suggestion Must Provide Details About the Improvement

An employee suggestion needs to be more than a suggestion. It must provide some detail about how the proposer thinks the suggestion should be implemented. It is easy to dash off an idea, so you need to require that additional detail accompany the idea not a full-blown action plan—but at least more detail than an idea.

The Employee Suggestion Must Describe Potential Impact

Definitely require the “why” and “how” the idea will impact the company, including a cost savings analysis. At the same time, within these parameters, the suggestion process should be simple. One company that attempted to solicit employee suggestions had a three-page employee suggestion form and the managers wondered why they didn’t receive any employee suggestions.

Deal Differently With Suggestions About an Employee's Own Job

Ideas that are integrally connected to a person’s job should not be considered or should be dealt with differently. At Toyota, millions of suggestions are generated each year. The reason they have so many employee suggestions is that their employees are closely focused on improving their own jobs.

The employee thinks of an improvement idea, shares it with his or her supervisor and then, if warranted, the idea is implemented immediately. There is no time-consuming process or group of managers that must consider most ideas. In this scenario, managers must be able to reward people who come up with ideas that fit the parameters of the program.

Put an Employee in Charge of the Employee Suggestion Program

You need to designate an administrator for the employee suggestion program who will make sure the process moves as promised. A mid-sized Michigan manufacturing firm found itself with a list of over a hundred suggestions that were bogged down in a review committee that kept postponing meetings. What a morale buster for the people who had so hopefully turned those suggestions in for consideration.

Communicate the Suggestion Process and the Goals

Publicly communicate the process decided upon with all of the guidelines and especially, the goals that you are trying to accomplish, by starting an employee suggestion program. Set guidelines such as the topics open to suggestions: cost savings, quality, productivity, process improvements, revenue-generating ideas, and improved employee motivation and positive morale.

A senior manager needs to champion the employee suggestion program and sit on the evaluation committee. This lends credibility to the employee suggestion program and makes suggesters feel important.

Here are more ideas for designing and administering an effective employee suggestion program—beyond the suggestion box.

Rewards and Recognition in Your Employee Suggestion Program

The reward for implemented suggestions must be clearly defined on the front end. If the employee suggestion is a cost savings idea, in many employee suggestion programs, the employee receives a percentage of the cost savings: often this award can equal five-twenty percent of the proven cost savings.

When thinking about your employee suggestion program, recognize that cost savings are hard to “prove” if you don’t have good numbers defining the process before the employee suggestion is implemented. So, often the first step in a cost-saving suggestion implementation is to “measure” the process to make sure you know how the process is currently performing.

Other, less measurable process ideas need a standard reward designated. Often, the recognition is most important to the employee.

Rewards can include merchandise with the company logo, gift certificates, lunch with a manager of the employee's choice, a quarterly award dinner and points toward purchasing more expensive items from catalogs.

Indeed, given the difficulty of measuring the outcome of many employee suggestions, some companies offer these recognition rewards even when the ideas added to the bottom line substantially. This is not as motivating as the employee receiving a portion of the savings realized during a defined time period such as a year, however.

Feedback in Your Employee Suggestion Program

Make the feedback to people with suggestions private, especially if the idea is rejected. Otherwise, people will be loath to stick their necks out by offering out-of-the-ordinary, and possibly your most fruitful, suggestions.

On the other hand, when an employee suggestion is implemented and it results in a reward, publicly acknowledge the contribution at a staff meeting, with the permission of the employee involved. Additionally, you can post the employee suggestion, the names of the employees on the implementation team and the reward given for the suggestion.

Keeping the employee suggestion program participants abreast of the progress of their suggestions in the program is more important than providing the suggester with quick answers. Employees just want to know what is happening along the way with their ideas.

In many organizations, suggestions seem to disappear into a dark hole from which they may not emerge for months—guaranteed failure for the employee suggestion program.

A popular approach to suggestion implementation is to include the suggester on any implementation team. This also keeps the suggestions turned in reasonable. At a minimum, if a suggestion is accepted, you need to have a timeline for implementation that the suggester is aware of and understands.

More Pointers for Your Successful Employee Suggestion Program

Employee suggestion programs need to emphasize the quality of the suggestions rather than the number of suggestions. Many programs encourage the opposite, which is one of the reasons people become so easily discouraged with them; they don't supply much bang for the money and time invested.

Anonymous employee suggestions are not encouraged as part of your suggestion process or employee suggestion box. People should be willing to publicly stand behind their ideas. At least, that’s the kind of company culture you need to encourage to create a successful organization.

In fact, Peter Block, one of the most important organization development gurus working today, is opposed to any anonymous feedback (from employee surveys and so on) because of the culture anonymous feedback encourages. Will some employees not turn in suggestions? Probably, but ask yourself what kind of company do you want to create? You want to encourage employees to practice organizational courage.

Reward not just the employees who submit winning ideas. Reward and recognize the managers and supervisors who have done the best job of both encouraging employee suggestions and getting out of the way of progress.

Consider including customers and suppliers as suggesters, too, especially as your employee suggestion program matures and is successful.

Many suggestion programs have been implemented in the past. Most failed because of the failure of the organizations to pay attention to these points.

People tend to start ill-defined, fuzzy programs that fail to define rewards, implementation strategies, and communication systems. People, who fail to get timely feedback, stop submitting ideas.

If every idea becomes a “why should we” rather than a “why should we not”, people get discouraged quickly. The process becomes a joke. Or, the suggestion process or box is simply ignored. How many empty suggestion boxes are sitting in companies in America? More than you would care to count. Use these suggestions to make sure your employee suggestion process or program thrives.