What’s the One Common Feature on These Suggestion Boxes?


Today's post is a short one, a bit of a visual puzzler and a reader participation post (leave a comment!).

If you were in the market for a traditional “suggestion box” you might use this google search. Or check out Amazon

I actually don't recommend suggestion boxes. I teach people how to create visual idea boards, like this picture. I write about this in my book Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Satisfaction and the idea originally comes from David Mann's outstanding book Creating a Lean Culture.

But on to the pictures of the suggestion boxes:

What's the one feature of these boxes that might be indicative of a cultural problem? What does the presence of that one feature represent? Why is it there?

Your thoughts?

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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. The lock and key, obviously. The opacity of the boxes (and the fact they are boxes at all).

    Perhaps they are to be used to give rewards (a silly idea) so you don’t want someone stealing your idea, and claiming the reward.

    Like Lean being ‘open source’ – I would suggest ideas in the workplace are a) never perfect b) never finished and c) improved by being seen by a maximum number of people, polished up by the input of others and then displayed for maximum effect during PDCA/A3ing or whatever.

    The other misconception we see a lot of is the idea that suggestions/ideas have to be ‘grand’ – the reality of continuous improvement is that if it is to have any effect it needs to be concrete and real to that process. It could be moving the photocopier, changing a question on a form or changing the guide on a machine, really simple stuff.

    It is unlikely to be ‘I’ve invented a whole new way of building cars using polymers and sonic waves’ sort of thing from the front-line. And if any front line worker does such a thing, he is better off resigning and finding a good patent lawyer. He will make more money that way than from throwing such things at his distant managers through a suggestion box.

    • Richard wrote:

      Like Lean being ‘open source’ – I would suggest ideas in the workplace are a) never perfect b) never finished and c) improved by being seen by a maximum number of people, polished up by the input of others and then displayed for maximum effect during PDCA/A3ing or whatever.

      The visual idea board photo I linked to (did you see it?) makes that visibility and collaboration possible. It’s amazing to see in practice, as people walk by and see the ideas that are already posted or already working on and they build on those ideas, make further suggestions, etc.

      Visual board:

      Any other thoughts on why the lock is there? I have one answer in mind that I’ve heard from some hospitals, but I’ll hold that for later.

  2. Thanks Mark. I’m 200% into Visual. Wish our building managers were so keen though – they complain and threaten people by saying their [very cheap] coat of paint on the interior walls is more important that saving big dollars by eliminating wasteful practices through Lean. And hanging paper signs by fishing line is a ‘safety risk’.

    We have been looking at electrostatic options such as plastic curtains in their place. Lean Institute in Australia is marketing them for VSM but I’m actually wondering if we might have to use more electrostatic stuff for displays etc.

    I think an open ideas culture is preceded by a respect culture. We have had ideas generating sessions where people feel genuinely surprised that others, at management level, are actually interested in what they have to say. By inference, management before this weren’t interested, or ridiculed them, or whatever.

    • How silly to be more concerned about their precious paint than employee engagement.

      I’d ask somebody to point to the specifics of the supposed fire code. I’ve seen too many instances where there is urban legend (intentional or inadvertent) about supposed “regulations” that turn out to not exist.

  3. I think the lock is a good indicator of who is in control, and the lack of free-flowing information… ideas go in, but then where do they go? How often is it checked? Who checks it? etc etc. These one-way “in boxes” hardly receive anything in my experience.

    • Yes, that’s a common criticism of suggestion boxes — one-way flow of information…. managers and higher-ups review the ideas in a batch-y manner (monthly, quarterly) and these managers vote yes/no on the ideas without the courtesy of actually going to the gemba or talking to the person who submitted the idea.

      Lean Kaizen is very different than traditional suggestion systems on many levels.

      The lock representing “control” is interesting (and sad) — the ideas “belong to the company now.”

      Or as one person I know said “the suggestion box is where ideas go to die.”

  4. What about liability? The lock could be there to prevent (heaven forbid) open discussion / admission that problems might exist. I can see this applying in hospitals.

    • I’ve been told many times that the lock needs to be there because:

      1) Employees often use the box to submit anonymous complaints about their co-workers’ performance or attitude.

      2) That makes the suggestions an “HR issue” and therefore need to be confidential.

      I’d propose the root cause to point #1 needs to be addressed so that people don’t use such passive aggressive behavior. If they have a problem with somebody, they should talk to that person directly or talk directly with their supervisor.

      The visual idea board might *still* attract something inappropriate, but you can address that on a case-by-case basis. No need for locks.

      The joke I use in workshops is to ask if the lock is there to prevent competing hospitals from coming in and literally stealing your employees’ good ideas?!?!?!? :-)

  5. Hi Mark

    Everyone caught the easy to see lock, but there is another huge problem with them. They are all designed so that you cannot put any piece of paper like an A3 into them (they all have small narrow slots whichnot much will really fit into). Organizations that use these do not want real thougt ideas or open discussion, all they want is short useless memos inserted.

    Good suggestion may required that someone added supporting documentation such as pictures, or analysis reports. Even if the sum total of all these items doesn’t add up to more than an A3 page they would have a hrad time getting them into them.

    Additionally they are all very small in size which tells everyone they really do not want many suggestions.

  6. We have two different suggestion systems. Our continuous improvement idea system is a large visual pinboard (not unlike the picture you linked to). The ideas are out there for everyone to see. If an idea is truly put up to reduce waste, there should be nothing to be ashamed of.
    Our other system is the typical locked box system that was implemented by HR. Guess which one gets all the negative, attacking, passive-aggressive comments?
    I see absolutely no value in the small locked boxes. Hopefully we will learn from a system that is working and adapt it to a system that is not (continuous improvement, right???)

  7. Great post with visuals…

    Suggestion boxes also perpetuate that culture that there is one great idea submitted by the heroic employee that will solve all problems…when instead it should be that employee ideas are shared and built upon by each others suggestions..in a continuous improvement cycle..

  8. As a health care communications professional the primary issue I noted is that comment “goes in” but there is nothing to indicate next steps possible outcomes. An individual’s engagement begins and (likely) ends at the forlorn lockbox of improvement. By comparison, the terrific visual board, demonstrates the full arc of communication/action rendered visible to a broad audience: “idea, to do, doing, completed.” A beginning, a middle, an end. The visual board is a public commitment to improvement and transparency from leadership.


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