Six ways to create suggestion programs that succeed
By Vic Anapolle

Running a suggestion program is too time-consuming.

When you add up all the costs of running them, suggestion programs just don't pay off.

I tried a suggestion program several years ago and it failed. Since then, nobody has wanted to start another one.

I have a program, but the suggestion box sits in the corner and gathers dust. No one participates.

When talking with managers about suggestion programs, I hear these objections and more.

Yet some companies do reap benefits from suggestion programs. Their programs stimulate employee interest, foster teamwork, create positive behavior, and reduce the need for front-line supervision. These companies use employee suggestions to save time and cut production costs, building a significant new profit center.

Consider these examples:

By learning how suggestion programs succeed, you can join the list of winners.

What managers fear
Even when they acknowledge the potential advantages of a suggestion program, managers may still hesitate. Based on their personal experience or reported results from their peers, some business people want no part of such programs.

As a technique to stimulate creative thinking and solve problems, you can take any such objection and rephrase it as an open-ended question. Start this question with the words "how can we." For instance, "Our employees won't have enough suggestions to contribute" becomes "How can we ensure that our employees have enough suggestions to contribute?"

Applying this technique can lead to hundreds of ways to succeed with your suggestion program. I offer the following to start your list:

1. Create a receptive environment for suggestions
The first step toward a successful program is to approach the subject with an open mind. Recognize that you and your top managers are not the only possible sources of bright ideas. It's reasonable to assume that an employee who does a specific job every day has excellent ideas for improving that process. Perhaps those ideas could be modified to fit other tasks in your company, multiplying the benefits of each suggestion.

The challenge is to obtain these ideas from employees. And that means creating an environment where employees volunteer their suggestions.

First, set ground rules for acceptable ideas. Specify the areas in which you're open to employee suggestions. In the manufacturing sector, those areas typically include safety, housekeeping, and cost savings. Create categories to fit your business. Also specify the areas where you're not open to suggestions, such as key company policies.

Next, let employees know exactly what will happen to any suggestion they make. Create and display a flow chart that details the review process and how long you expect the process to take.

Finally, give your suggestion program an advocate. This person should be a key manager who's highly visible and has good relations with employees. As a cheerleader for the program, this person can carry suggestion forms at all times, actively solicit ideas, and coach employees to get those ideas in writing. In addition, the advocate can troubleshoot and clear up bottlenecks when it comes time to implement suggestions.

2. See suggestions as a way to support supervisors
Appointing an advocate to enroll employees is key to launching your suggestion program. Equally important is enrolling your middle managers and front-line supervisors. Some of these people may see the program as a subtle way for an employee to go over their heads and undermine their authority. If that attitude prevails, your suggestion program could fizzle before it starts.

In my own experience, supervisors' fears about suggestion programs seldom materialize. Instead of finding their authority lessened or their effectiveness diminished, supervisors often find themselves freed from their historical "straw boss" roles. As employee offer more ideas for streamlining workflow, supervisors can shift roles from taskmaster to coach and mentor. In most cases, this is a change that supervisors greatly favor.

3. Save costs by offering recognition instead of cash
Concerns about program costs can also stop a suggestion program in its tracks. Understandably, managers don't want to set up and pay for a program that yields ideas of minimal value.

These managers typically assume that rewarding employees for their suggestion means paying cash-often a percentage of the money saved by the suggestion. This is common in union shops where suggestion programs emerge from the bargaining process.

However, cash rewards are not critical and actually have potential drawbacks. In terms of reward, cash has no "trophy value." Cash can also lead to inequity in rewards and time-consuming disputes about exactly how much money a given idea saved the company. Sometimes an implemented idea does not deliver its projected savings over time. What's more, cash rewards can create new tax issues for your company.

Instead of thinking cash, think recognition. You can find many ways to recognize employees other than cutting them a check. Bob Nelson's book 1001 Ways to Reward Employees is full of ideas that work.

One idea in particular can help you save money, eliminate conflict, and simplify the suggestion program: recognize employees with merchandise. Take a cue from the old S &H Green Stamp programs and reward your employees with points that they can eventually redeem for merchandise. Consider adding drawings and other special events that can translate into instant rewards.

One example of a merchandise-based recognition is the BUCK program offered by the Bill Sims Company. Employees receive BUCKS in various dollar denominations that they can exchange for clothes and other items from catalogues. Families enjoy browsing the catalogues and selecting products to order. And the merchandise provides employees with a tangible, memorable reward for taking part in the suggestion program.

In short, you can run a successful program without cash. Merchandise provides an effective means of recognition and gives employees a wide range of choices. When offering merchandise to recognize suggestions, companies typically report 100 percent employee participation and 20 to 50 annual suggestions per employee. Some programs generate even higher submission rates. Recognition and fairness are the key ingredients.

4. Save time with a central coordinator, prompt review and employee input
Even if you're convinced that you can keep costs in line, you may still worry about the time it will take to run a suggestion program. Fortunately, there are several ways to address this concern.

To begin, designate one person to coordinate your suggestion program. Ideas from employees should go directly to this person, who will log the ideas, assign them to appropriate evaluators, and keep records about which suggestions are used and how well they work. Spreadsheet software works well for such records.

Normally evaluators will be department managers and front-line supervisors. Enroll enough evaluators to keep suggestions moving through the process quickly. Give these people 30 days to respond to each suggestion. Note that this is a time limit for evaluating and responding to an idea-not for implementing the idea.

You may be surprised to find that many suggestions flow from idea to reality in 30 days or less. This often happens when the person who submits a suggestion becomes involved in implementing it. You will be surprised at how many employees who normally complain about their workload will jump at this opportunity. Ownership is a powerful tool that moves ideas through the process and builds confidence in suggestion programs.

5. Reconsider rejected ideas
Effective suggestion programs also include a procedure for reviewing ideas that evaluators initially reject. Don't trash these ideas right away. Instead, submit them to a back-up committee of managers and floor personnel.

This committee can promote fairness, ensure that ideas are interpreted accurately, and overcome evaluator bias. Due to time constraints, evaluators may not fully evaluate ideas for their potential. And sometimes submitters have great suggestions but don't clearly express them in writing.

The committee can sort through these issues. Successful suggestion programs will implement about two-thirds of the ideas submitted. In many cases, committee review can salvage a rejected idea or modify it so that it becomes useful.

I recall an employee who suggested an extensive painting project for a plant. This project went well beyond the company budget. Even so, the review committee agreed that some painting was justified and chose an area in immediate need. The original suggestion was simply modified to fit the maintenance budget.

6. Reward employees for doing more than their job
Go back to the last item on my original list of objections to suggestion programs: "I don't want to reward employees for suggesting ideas; that's part of the their job."

This view sounds reasonable-until you consider the costs. For one, it discourages managers and supervisors from interacting with employees. When that happens, employees rarely volunteer suggestions. The organization loses a critical source of fresh ideas. Employees do their basic job-and no more.

If this is the kind of environment you want, then don't start a suggestion program! These programs work wonders by rewarding employees who do more than just punch the clock and put in their time.

Your organization has a source of talent that's waiting to be tapped for new ideas. Employees are that source. Get out there and get inside their heads. Set up a suggestion program and tackle it with the same planning and dedication you would expend on any other major project. If you offer enough recognition and set up the right environment, the results will amaze you.

Mr. Anapolle has technical and marketing degrees and spent almost 40 years in the development and manufacturing areas of the chemical industry. Units that he managed were recognized for productivity, employee involvement, safety achievement and innovative training. Since retiring, Mr. Anapolle has worked for the Bill Sims Company as a client consultant, working with employee involvement and recognition programs.