History: The first company to introduce an employee suggestion program is believed to have been William Denny and Brothers, a shipbuilding company in Scotland, in 1881. The purpose of the program was to leverage employee knowledge and ideas to drive improvement. Initially, the shipbuilder’s employees were eager to contribute suggestions simply because they were asked. Later, rewards were offered. By 1888, of the 600+ ideas submitted, 196 were implemented. A low success rate by today’s standards, this was a significantly strong result back in those days when command-and-control was the way of life for people at work. At that time in our history, employees were not often asked for opinions or ideas.
- Today, suggestion programs designed in traditional ways typically fail to sustain employee interest. But, in today’s competitive business environment companies need a pipeline of ideas to drive improvement.
Today’s workforce expects a simple suggestion process that moves quickly with timely decision-making by management. Evaluation of suggestions needs to be done promptly by a qualified and objective group of people who have a track record of embracing effective change. In addition, suggestion programs need to be tweaked periodically i.e. quarterly, to hold employee interest.
1. Launch the program with enthusiasm, in group meetings. Use visuals and provide handouts and postings explaining the few, concise and easily understood rules. Explain the program’s purpose, i.e. to improve the organization’s competitiveness by continuously improving what we do and how we do it.
2. Be clear about the areas of focus. When you start up the program you may want to capture low hanging fruit, ideas people have had for a long time, as well as new ideas. In this case, you may request a wide range of suggestions. Explain what constitutes a suggestion as part of this program. For example, to be eligible for this program, suggestions need to pertain to improving operating processes, procedures, efficiency, effectiveness, on-time shipment, floor layout, and safety in the workplace. Examples may include ideas to simplify work, to make work faster, to improve quality, to reduce scrap, and to reduce time spent waiting, doing paperwork, entering data, and moving material. In 3-6 months a change of focus re-spark interest and creativity. You may decide on 1-3 specific targets for suggestions to address, but keep a “parking lot” for other ideas that are eligible but outside the current focus areas, for review as time permits. That way ideas won’t be forgotten in the meantime.
3. Hold a contest for employees to name the suggestion program, and provide the winner with a prize. Purchase program T-shirts imprinted with the name of the suggestion program.
4. Establish a Suggestion Program Review Committee. This might include a Production Manager, Cost Accountant, Manufacturing Engineer, Human Resources Business Partner, and 1-2 production employees. You’ll want a committee of people who have expertise in specialties needed for a quick but thorough evaluation of a suggestion and it’s impact, in terms of dollars, work process effectiveness, efficiency, and simplicity, and on interdependent work activities. It’s a good idea for the committee to agree on qualified back-up members to substitute in the event that a committee member cannot attend.
5. Schedule regular meetings of The Suggestion Program Review Committee, in advance, throughout the year. It’s important that the committee meet often enough to develop and maintain momentum. We recommend meeting often enough so that the committee can discuss the suggestion, complete their analyses, and communicate a decision in 2-4 weeks.
6. Ensure employees who make suggestions meet individually with the committee (during its regular meetings) to share all of the pertinent information and details the employee has in mind. The committee should ask clarifying questions and tell the employee the next steps and the timeframe. Each employee needs to be informed, in person, by the committee or a committee member of his suggestion’s status, decisions made (and reasons), respectfully and with sincere appreciation for the effort, including answering related questions the employee has. Someone from the committee should also inform the employee’s supervisor of the suggestion and of the decision. The work of the committee members includes fully understanding the suggestion and completing analyses such as assessing the impact of the suggestion on work processes, people, and customers, projecting the cost of piloting the idea and of full implementation, and estimating ROI. If the suggestion looks promising based on the review, a pilot should be approved. Success in a pilot would typically be a prerequisite for full implementation.
7. Maintain a suggestion log to document each suggestion, who made it, the analyses, decision, pilot, implementation and the suggestion’s impact.
8. Be clear about rewards. For instance, you may award a program T-shirt to each employee for his/her initial suggestion, a $25 gift card for each idea approved for pilot implementation, and another $25 for an idea approved for full implementation. We recommend providing certificates to employees whose ideas are piloted and/or fully implemented.
9. Keep everyone informed by holding brief monthly meetings to provide program updates including information such as the number of suggestions received, who submitted them, details on suggestions approved for pilot, suggestions approved for full implementation, results of pilots, results of full implementations. Give out applicable rewards and certificates publicly in each meeting. Post these results as well.
10. Integrate the Suggestion Program with other improvement idea generation activities such as those that are part of Lean.
Whether you’re developing a first-ever suggestion program for your organization or reincarnating one, you may want to consider these questions, as well: Have you obtained full support from your management team? Have they bought into your program design? Do you have a budget? How will changes and rewards be funded?