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The New Suggestion Box: Improving Your Business Through Employee Feedback

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Encouraging input from your employees is one of the best ways of exposing potential shortfalls within your operation. Employee contributions can also generate innovations that can boost your company’s bottom line. However, you must be open to the reality that not all ideas will translate to viable processes, policies or programs.

“Trying new ideas for improving operations is risky, it is pushing the edge. If we push the edge, we are going to fall. Great ski racers fall all the time. If they are not falling, they are playing it too safe. They are not giving their all, they are just cruising; and we don’t want to be cruising,” stated Joseph Flahiff, a leadership coach and speaker based in Bothell, Washington.

The time-honored tradition of the suggestion box may seem a bit old-fashioned in the 21st century workplace. However, the suggestion box represents a low-cost strategy for generating employee input. Encouraging and even soliciting suggestions from your employees is an excellent means of tapping tremendous benefit from one of your company’s greatest assets – your workers — with minimal risk to the overall well-being of your company.

Suggestion Box Success Stories

One of the earliest suggestion boxes was introduced in Japan 1721 by the eighth shogun Yoshimuni Tokugawa, who reportedly posted the following note: “Make your idea known . . . Rewards are given for ideas that are accepted.”

Since that time, variations of the suggestion box have made their way around the world, and with good reason. Companies benefit from a well-managed suggestion system, both in increased employee morale and in the bottom line.

For instance, the artificial sweetener aspartame was discovered in 1965 by Searle Pharmaceutical Company research scientist Jim Schlatter while he was researching anti-ulcer treatments. Aspartame was developed as a consumer product marketed as NutraSweet largely through Schlatter’s suggestions. In 2003, banking giant PNC Financial Services Group initiated a program called the Chairman’s Challenge designed to engage its 24,000 employees in generating new business. The program generated more than 60 percent participation among the company’s non-sales staff, resulting in more than 100 million dollars in new business.

Small companies benefit from encouraging employee input, too. Galactic, Ltd, a company with just nine employees initiated an Internet based system known as Ideaworks in 2001 to allow its employees to submit revenue generating and cost savings suggestions. In one year, the system had generated 2.3 million dollars in savings for the company.

Encouraging Input and Reassuring Employees

To generate an active suggestion box system, employers must work to create an atmosphere that encourages worker input. One way to do so is by announcing and promoting the suggestion box through upper management – or even through the business owner. This type of high-level messaging assures employees that their input is valued, according to Flahiff.

“Creating organizational safety requires a dedicated effort on the part of the managers. You must over communicate the fact that you want people to share ideas, that it is safe to do so,” he explained.

Employees often worry that they will be putting their jobs on the line by offering critiques of company policies and practices. Allowing employees the option of making anonymous suggestions. However, it is ultimately the job of management to reassure employees and encourage active engagement in a suggestion box system, according to Flahiff.

“For employees to want to contribute ideas for improvement they first need to feel safe to do so. When you have the power to fire me, I will not tell you things that I think will get me fired,” he insisted.

Implementing and Administering a Suggestion Box System

While a suggestion box system can be simple to implement, it is not self-sustaining. Appoint a director to oversee the administration of the suggestion box – not to screen out ideas, but to ensure they are processed in a timely fashion. Allowing suggestions to languish for weeks without acknowledgment is a surefire way to put a full stop to the flow of ideas.

Publicize submitted ideas and actions taken in response to suggestions on an employee bulletin board or through the company newsletter to allow workers to see their suggestions in action. Consider a reward system for especially worthwhile ideas, especially those that generate considerable revenue or which reap significant savings. Possible rewards include lunches with high level company officials or good old-fashioned cash.

As for those ideas that aren’t quite ready for prime time, it’s important to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance to maintain the flow of suggestions, according to Flahiff.

“I encourage my clients to ‘Teach Your Team to Fail,” . . . By doing so you will build trust and model that failure is good, as long as you learn from it,” he stated.

Audrey Henderson

Posted In: Management

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