The Suggestion Box Syndrome (And A Better Alternative)

In an attempt to solicit ideas and generate enthusiasm from employees, companies often institute some type of suggestion box system. Employees write suggestions on a form and drop them in a special box.

Columns From: 2/1/2006 Modern Machine Shop,

In an attempt to solicit ideas and generate enthusiasm from employees, companies often institute some type of suggestion box system. Employees write suggestions on a form and drop them in a special box. Managers then read the suggestions and implement the ones they think will work.

In my experience, suggestion boxes rarely deliver what they promise and can actually cause more harm than good. Why would I, a person who recognizes the need for change and employee involvement in any type of organization, be so pessimistic about the traditional suggestion box? I offer four specific reasons.

First, the box method allows for anonymity, which can lead to anything from frivolous suggestions to mean-spirited attacks. Second, they are a vehicle for pointing out problems, but not necessarily solutions to these problems. For example, “fire the supervisor” is not a real solution. Third, the suggestions that are submitted can generate a lot of work for other people in the organization. A suggestion such as “Someone should find a way to . . . ” assumes that “someone” has the time to look into the problem and find a way to implement a solution. Odds are good that “someone” already has a lot of work to do and may not be able to get to the suggestion any time soon. Fourth, most suggestion box systems do not really reward successful implementation of the suggestion. There may be some type of reward for an idea that is eventually adopted, but this reward is rarely tied to any measurable gains over a given period of time.

I believe I have a better idea. I would replace all suggestion boxes with something I call a “solution box.” This solution box has three simple rules:

Rule 1: All solutions must include the name of the person who submitted the item. Any submissions that do not include a name will be discarded immediately. Perhaps even the “box” itself should be eliminated in favor hand-delivering the solution to a supervisor, or to a person who could review the solution and provide time and resources to the solution’s presenter. A log should be maintained indicating that the solution was submitted and reviewed with the presenter. Attaching a name to a solution should eliminate many frivolous, time-wasting submissions.

Rule 2: The solution must be something the presenter is willing to try. Any solution should be prefaced with “I want to try . . . ” A solution that the presenter could either control completely, or participate in, would assure ownership of the results. This sense of ownership would increase the level of focus on the effort, leading to a greater likelihood of success. Active participation by the presenter would also remove one of the major complaints associated with current suggestion box systems: namely “I gave them the idea, but nobody did anything with it.” This perceived lack of action (which is generally caused by a lack of resources) can actually have a huge demotivating effect that can derail any improvement program. If adding a name to the solution does not eliminate frivolous submissions, then the idea of being part of the effort (and therefore, partly responsible) should.

Rule 3: Finally, there needs to be some type of reward associated with successful implementation and impact of the solution. If deemed appropriate, this reward can be phased in over a period of time. For example, as soon as the idea is shown to be advantageous and put into effect, a portion of the reward can be administered. Then, when the solution has had an opportunity to show measurable results, the balance of the reward can be provided. A reward system based on realized gains encourages the presenter of the solution to be an ongoing advocate of the solution. There is a vested interest in assuring that the solution is understood, accepted and practiced by everyone. Put another way, the presenter is buying stock in the solution. The better this stock performs over a period to time, the greater the reward to the stockholder. Of course, you must determine the type of reward that is best suited to your particular organization.

If you still have a suggestion box in your organization, ask yourself whether it has provided the desired results. If, as in most cases, the answer is no, consider transitioning to a solution box system. I think you will find a greater return on the effort, with more employees willing to participate. Besides, how many bad jokes, pieces of trash and other unidentifiable items do you want to keep pulling out of your current suggestion box?

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