Capitalize on the Power of Suggestion
by Christina Morfeld

In today's competitive environment, a company's ability to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and continuously innovate is vital to its success. And common sense dictates that line workers - the individuals closest to the processes, products, vendors, and customers - are in the best position to identify such opportunities.

Sounds a lot like the rationale behind the suggestion boxes of yesteryear, doesn't it?

But if the business drivers are as strong as ever, where have those dusty, cobweb-covered containers gone? More importantly, why does their mere mention send shudders up the spine of nearly everyone who has encountered them?

Simply put, the typical suggestion system was poorly designed and managed.

Not only were programs rarely linked to corporate strategy, they were often at odds with the organization's culture. Suggestions were seldom acknowledged, let alone implemented. In fact, had it not been for the lack of attention given to the initiative, one might suspect that a company was only paying it "lip service."

Clearly, employee suggestion systems can have a detrimental effect on workplace morale without the proper framing, ongoing maintenance, and follow-through. This is especially unfortunate because employers generally have the opposite goal in mind when launching a program.

An employee suggestion initiative that is well-planned and well-executed can reap huge rewards. So rather than abandoning the idea because of the potential downside, build the following "best practices" into your strategy

Assemble a cross-organizational evaluation team.

All major corporate functions should be represented to ensure that multiple viewpoints are considered. The IT, legal, and finance departments are especially important from a feasibility perspective. Be sure to select individuals who welcome change, value employee involvement, and possess a general - but solid - understanding of how the business operates.

Determine suggestion eligibility and submission requirements.

Establishing parameters up front is recommended, particularly if you wish to avoid complaints about less-than-appetizing cafeteria food and streaky restroom mirrors. Soliciting employee input in pre-defined categories (e.g., safety, quality, customer service, efficiency, etc.) is a simple and practical way to keep contributions relevant.

Another strategy for ensuring that suggestions have merit is requiring participants to provide a certain level of detail with their proposals. While they should not be expected to develop a full-blown action plan, it is not unreasonable to ask them to present the problem, their recommended solution, and a rudimentary cost/benefit analysis.

By no means should you set a minimum value for "acceptable" suggestions. Rather, make it a point to encourage, welcome, and celebrate small-scale improvements!

Urge employees to discuss ideas with their supervisor, but do not mandate it. Emphasize that management could potentially offer valuable insights - particularly as it relates to building the business case - but may not, under any circumstances, void the suggestion.

Ideas within an employee's existing job scope are typically ineligible for corporate programs. Managers, however, should be granted the authority to implement changes when the impact is limited to their own department, and to provide a small reward to the employee who made the recommendation.

In addition to the traditional suggestion box, consider establishing a voice mailbox, dedicated email address, and online form on your corporate intranet. Also allow employees to make suggestions through their direct supervisor or Human Resources, or even anonymously. A truly inclusive program - one that appeals to staff at all levels and in all "corners" of the organization - accommodates those who may not have access to a computer, are uncomfortable with their verbal or written communication skills, desire confidentiality, and/or are beleaguered by any number of other variables. It's impossible to predict who might make the next "killer" suggestion, so cast as wide a net as possible. That said, you might even want to involve your vendors and customers!

Define a reward structure.

The most popular compensation strategy is one in which the participant receives a percentage of the suggestion's estimated first-year cost savings. Most companies target an amount between 5 and 20 percent, and impose a "ceiling" - usually between $5,000 and $25,000 - on the payout. A flat cash award, gift certificate, or paid time off is provided when the value of a suggestion cannot be readily quantified.

Designate a program administrator.

This individual, ideally a management-level employee whose primary job responsibilities span divisional lines (e.g., HR, Quality Assurance, etc.), would act as a bridge between employees and the evaluation team. He or she would solicit suggestions, forward them for review, communicate status to contributing employees, and maintain all relevant documentation.

Demonstrate top management support.

The program should be "kicked off" by the company's owner or CEO. Communications should clearly articulate that employee ideas and opinions are instrumental in achieving or retaining a competitive position in the marketplace.

Additionally, a senior-level "champion" should consistently reinforce the organization's commitment, sustain employee enthusiasm and participation, distribute rewards, and publicize successes.

Important: If employees perceive a disconnect between your organization's work environment and the very existence of a suggestion program, your credibility - as well as their job satisfaction - will suffer. The success and integrity of your initiative, therefore, depend upon your ability to foster an atmosphere that embraces innovation and a participative management style. This could mean a major culture shift for many companies.

Train managers and reduce their anxiety about the initiative.

Managers should not only be informed of the program's guidelines, but also coached on how to incorporate it into their day-to-day supervisory activities. Staff meetings are an especially valuable opportunity for bolstering interest and participation and - better yet - brainstorming as a department.

While training in facilitation, coaching, and team building skills will certainly prove useful, you also need to reassure managers that helping their staff "shine" will not in any way work against them. Performance appraisals should certainly evaluate managers on their ability to foster employee creativity, but recognizing and rewarding their efforts outside of this administrative context is the ultimate confidence booster.

Educate employees and continuously promote the program.

Distribute materials that clearly explain the goals, procedures, and personal and organizational benefits of the initiative. Also provide tools and training to enhance the creativity and problem solving abilities of your workforce.

Use posters, payroll stuffers, newsletters, and the corporate intranet to constantly remind employees about the program. Demonstrate the critical role that employees play in the success of your organization by publicizing the business impact of past suggestions.

While program participation can obviously be quite lucrative, management recognition seems to be an even more powerful motivator. Formal ceremonies during which personalized plaques or trophies are awarded by senior management, for example, have a tremendous influence on workplace morale. Importantly, the positive effects of such activities are not limited to reward recipients; rather, they inspire all employees to take ownership of their work, proactively explore ways to enhance business operations, and confidently offer their own ideas for improvement.

Promptly acknowledge all suggestions and keep contributors "in the loop."

The program administrator should thank the participant in writing for his or her suggestion within two business days of its receipt, and provide an estimated decision date.

Much of the literature on this subject advocates accepting or rejecting an idea within a week at most. My personal opinion, however, is that maintaining contact with contributors and managing their expectations are much more important than a super-quick decision. I believe that it's impractical to gather members of the evaluation team each and every time a suggestion is submitted, and unfair to require a thorough assessment under such intense time pressure. Instead, I recommend monthly meetings during which all contributions received since the previous meeting are jointly reviewed and discussed.

Immediately following this meeting, the program administrator should notify each participant of the status of his or her suggestion. This communication should be tailored to reflect why the individual's recommendation has or has not been adopted, and - if so - the anticipated next steps and implementation timeline. If the suggestion has been forwarded to an engineer or other subject matter expert for further consideration, let the employee know that, as well as when he or she can expect another update.

Regardless of the nature of this notification, the employee should be encouraged to continue to think creatively about his or her work and submit additional suggestions in the future.

Evaluate the initiative on an ongoing basis.

Continually assess - both formally and anecdotally - the perceptions of management and staff on the suggestion system, and solicit specific feedback on how it might be better operated, supported, and marketed in the future.

Can you think of a more appropriate way to demonstrate your commitment to a suggestion program, after all, than to ask your workforce to suggest ways to improve it?


Christina Morfeld is president of Affinity Business Communications, a provider of high-quality instructional design, technical writing, and content development solutions. Whether writing to instruct, inform, or persuade, our work is reader-focused, benefits-oriented, and results-driven. Contact us at 203-445-9964 or info@affinitybizcomm.com, or visit our website at http://www.affinitybizcomm.com to learn how we can increase your firm's sales and effectiveness!

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Copyright 2001-2003 Christina Morfeld and Affinity Business Communications, LLC.
Originally published by Suite101.com. All rights reserved.

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