Reader Question: Managing Suggestions


Here is a question from a Lean Blog reader, posted with permission. Here's something to chew on with your Monday morning coffee. I'll post some thoughts later, but what do you think?


The company president recently commanded that we will have a staff suggestion box on our Intranet. As a 3rd tier manager, I thought this was a good idea but needed a little more thought: How would we handle suggestions after they were submitted? What if no one put in a suggestion? Who would handle the avalanche if we received a dozen a week? No one spoke up so it was installed. Since it was opened, only a few ideas have trickled in. 

I recently attended a meeting where a suggestion was discussed. An employee from the procurement division made a suggestion about improving the procurement services. But the senior managers were puzzled. Why didn't he just speak to his boss? Later, this was brought up with the procurement line manager and he shook his head in embarrassment,”Yes, I don't understand it either!”


I don't think managers were expecting the suggestion box to be used in this way and this confusion led to a diagnoses of failure in the manager-employee relationship. Given the mission of continuous improvement, how should a suggestion box and the “management pyramid” co-exist?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I think it was a good thing that this lead to a “diagnosis of failure in the manager-employee relationship.” It is important to know that and while this was not the intent behind the suggestion system, it uncovered a serious problem that was, hopefully, improved upon.

  2. One of the most common problems I have seen is the suggestion box. At a recent presentation, I had a participant bring up a similar situation.

    I’d suggest a more visual form of interaction (even though I’m a technology freak). We use a “Kaizen Improvement Request” form. It has space to draw the current state and your future state suggestion, then areas to write descriptions of the problem, a possible solution, and cost/benefit. The operators determine how much time would be saved (or other waste reduced). The suggestion is given to either the employee’s boss or our Lean office. We (the lean office) have a spreadsheet that provides the $ value of time to compare the cost and savings benefit.

    With the cost/benefit complete, the idea is given to the appropriate supervisor/manager. That person either approves, declines, or amends the idea (defined in a reviewer box) and shares with the operator.

    Most importantly, all ideas are placed on boards in several locations throughout the facility. They are kept posted in the “open” or “completed” areas of the board, showing the status of the request. Once completed requests have been posted long enough for review, they are placed in binders available at the boards for historical reference.

    This facility is new to this process, so it is a learning experience. However, it seems to be working fairly well, as we have implemented over 200 suggestions since March, 2007 (approximately 350 employees work here). This is a Union facility with a history of less than adequate respect for people, so it is an uphill battle.

    In all, the form and process are changing opinions in all areas. One highlight is everyone has to look at their ideas objectively to see if they reduce more waste than they create. Another is people are beginning to see that someone is reviewing the suggestions and making decisions, not merely shuffling the paper around.

  3. I’m with Mike T on the visual importance of suggestion systems. We have recently implemented a suggestion system as noted by David Mann in chapter 9 of “Creating a Lean Culture,” whereby boards are placed in departments and suggestions are placed on the boards with post-it-notes. Suggestion boxes have a tendency to collect more than truly defined opportunities for improvement. With a visual suggestion board, the items are more specific to what really is being presented as an opportunity. We just started the boards in this one particular plant and already there have been several credible suggestions submitted and being processed.

  4. Ditto on the visual systems above.

    In a previous job, we had an online suggestion system that was visible to everyone, and doubled as the official system for “getting credit” for the suggestion and improvement. “Getting credit” was the carrot for the ulterior motive of improving communication. Anyone could log on and see 1) what projects were occurring on site, 2) what suggestions had been made, and 3) who was involved. Even if an improvement was discussed with a manager and implemented, it was still put on the system, so that everyone knew that improvements were being made.

    That openness compounded suggestions, and accelerated further improvements.

  5. Good discussion.

    A suggestion should only hit the box after the suggestion originator and that person’s team leader or manager have spoken eye-to-eye.

    Once there you have consensus on the issue and a concise problem statement, root causes separated from mere causes, tested various countermeasures and confirmed effectiveness of the best available countermeasure, then the suggestion can go to the box.

    In other words, the box is the last step in PDCA problem solving in a suggestion system. Having an online suggestion box just makes it easier to “manage by dashboard” rather than go to gemba.

  6. Thanks, readers! A lot of the points I would have made have already been stated.

    1) Visual management of suggestions works great. I have helped a few hospital departments implement the system from the David Mann book

    2) Suggestion boxes aren’t the best method — cycle time for review of suggestions tends to be slow and it encourages anonymous suggestions, which discourages interaction and discussion

    One other point I’ll try to make though is about the “approval” process for suggestions. Going through committees or management approval can be very bureaucratic. Try treating suggestions as the start of an experimental PDCA process. Let someone try the suggestion (unless it seems apparent safety or quality will be impacted) and see if the experiment works and gives good results for the process.

    We get hung up sometimes on the need to approve suggestions. Toyota implements over 90% of the suggestions that come in… partly because they use the suggestion as the starting point for a discussion and supervisors are taught to find something to implement, rather than finding ways to say “no.”

  7. Also, to answer the question more directly…. I wouldn’t take down the suggestion box (it’s a good “release valve” for things that employees are uncomfortable bringing in a non-anonymous way), but I would certain encourage most suggestions to be done in a face-to-face manner.


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