Submitted for your approval Featured

10:04am EDT July 22, 2002
These days it seems you're as likely to have a "Dilbert" cartoon making fun of suggestion boxes as it is that you have a working suggestion system. But employee involvement and empowerment activists say if you want to eliminate waste and save money, a well-considered suggestion system should be part of your company's operations.

"What I always say, unless I'm speaking to the United Way, is that everyone is interested in the bottom line," quips Tom Dupre, president of the Employee Involvement Association of Longwood, Fla. "People are naturally creative. People not only want to do a good job, but they want their jobs to be easier." Employers can tap into a valuable source of money-saving ideas by creating outlets for these natural inclinations, Dupre and others agree.

Tom Jensen, president of The Center for Suggestion System Development in Orlando, Fla., cites 1997 EIA research indicating each idea generated at the 700 member companies saved $4,700 over the course of a year. Member companies generated 28.6 ideas per 100 employees, with an adoption rate of 40 percent. Though most EIA members are large businesses, Jensen and Dupre argue that even half or one-quarter the amount of annual savings at a smaller business would repay the investment of time and money in a professional suggestion system.

They add that an effective system is usually produced in consultation with a paid adviser. "If someone were to try to design a process themselves," Dupre believes, "they would get frustrated, because they'd probably miss something." John Tschohl, president of the Service Quality Institute in Minneapolis markets his BAD (for "Buck-A-Day") program to inspire employees to reduce costs, identify recurring problems, eliminate bottlenecks and generate revenue. "We want little ideas" that add up to big savings over the course of a year, Tschohl explains. Yet, "Our goal is not the total dollar value as much as it is participation. The closer we can get to 100 percent participation, the better."

Even if you don't want to hire a consultant, here are some tips to make a suggestion system work for you:

  • Throw out the suggestion box. "That just gives the whole idea of a suggestion program a bad name," Jensen says. Distribute to employees preprinted cards, with name, department number, manager's comment space and final disposition to route their ideas through the system.

  • Recognize and critique every suggestion. Acknowledgement should take no more than 48 hours. A progress report, preferably with final disposition, should follow within 30 days. Prompt feedback is key to convincing employees their ideas are really welcomed.

  • Start a friendly competition. Offer companywide recognition through a newsletter, poster or prominent bulletin-board notice to the department and the employee that submits the most cost-effective suggestion. Publicly track results of suggestions that save money and time.

  • Be sparing with prizes, but generous with praise. Tickets to a theater or sporting event, dinner for two, a special coffee mug or a plaque will usually be appreciated as much as money. Offer different awards each month. Keep monetary prizes small. No amount will be enough, and too much could spark controversy.

  • Encourage everyone to submit ideas. The purpose of a suggestion system isn't just to save money, but to get every employee to participate. Don't worry if some of the ideas stink; acknowledge participation and explain why the idea isn't appropriate at this time.