Harness the Power of an Employee Suggestion Program

Go Beyond the Proverbial Suggestion Box

Business people having a meeting to brainstorm ideas
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A well-constructed employee suggestion program—launched with organizational commitment, clarity, and ongoing communication—can have a positive impact on a company's bottom line and infuse its employees with 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 thoughtlessly launched via an employee suggestion box. So plan first.

Does Your Company Need a Suggestion Box?

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

If employee suggestions already percolate to the surface at staff meetings and in casual conversation, more informal methods for cultivating new ideas are called for then a full-blown employee suggestion program or suggestion box. For example:

If you need to do better, begin by asking what about your culture is stifling ideas? Your program must eliminate or circumvent those roadblocks before you begin, or any employee suggestion program is destined to fail.

How to Set Up a Review Team

Successful employee suggestions programs require management. Set up a cross-functional team with the power to implement the suggestions it receives. The team should review suggestions and acknowledge their receipt within 48 hours. If this team is all managers or all directors, it can be perceived as out of touch or blocking change. So people on it must be willing to change and willing to ask "why not" rather than "why"?

All departments, especially Finance, must be represented. If the managers or directors review suggestions, make the review part of a regularly scheduled meeting, with suggestions distributed and considered in advance. If a cross-functional employee team is your selected suggestion review vehicle, the choice of team members for the suggestion review team should include the positions that reflect how business is generally accomplished in your culture.

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.

Steps to Success

Establish areas for suggestions: Set guidelines for topics open to suggestions—unless you want to encourage only things like "put an ice cream machine in the lunchroom" or "let us go home early on Fridays." These will likely include ideas that affect cost savings, quality, productivity, process improvements, revenue-generation, and morale-enhancement.

Communicate the submission and review process: Publicly share all the guidelines and especially the goals you are trying to accomplish by starting an employee suggestion program.

Require details about the implementation: It is easy to dash off an idea, so require an explanation from the suggester of how they think it should be implemented. You don't need a full-blown action plan, but more than a sentence or two.

Solicit potential impact: Require the “why” and “how” the idea will impact the company, including a cost savings analysis. But keep the process simple. Don't turn off employees from the get-go with a three-page form that appears burdensome.

Deal differently when it's the employee's own job: Employees should always be thinking of ways to improve their own job without having to run it past an approval team. Give managers a way to reward people who come up with ideas that should be implemented immediately, yet fit the goals of the suggestion program.

Put an employee in charge: Designate an administrator for the employee suggestion program who will make sure the process moves as promised and does not get bogged down by a morale-busting inefficient review committee.

Designate a champion from senior management: This lends credibility to the employee suggestion program and makes suggesters feel important.

Rewards and Recognition

The reward for implemented suggestions must be clearly defined on the front end. If the employee idea saves the company money, in many employee suggestion programs the employee receives a percentage of the cost savings. This award can equal 5-20% of the proven cost savings.

Recognize that cost savings are hard to “prove” if you don’t have good numbers defining the process before the employee suggestion is implemented. Often, the first step in a cost-saving suggestion implementation is to “measure” the process to make sure you know how it is currently performing.

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

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.

Feedback in Your Employee Suggestion Program

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

When an employee suggestion is implemented and 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.

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

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

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, set an implementation timeline the suggester understands.

More Pointers for a Successful Suggestion Program

Employee suggestion programs must emphasize quality over quantity of suggestions. Many programs encourage the opposite, causing discouragement when they don't supply much bang for the money and time invested.

Anonymous employee suggestions are not recommended. People should be willing to publicly stand behind their ideas. That’s the type of company culture you need to encourage to create a successful organization.

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

Game-changing ideas come from everywhere. Consider including customers and suppliers as suggesters, too, especially as your employee suggestion program matures.