Will Suggestion Boxes be a Trend in 2012? What Method(s) do we Need for Employee Engagement?
I saw this article the other day on BusinessInsider.com: “10 Predictions For How The Workplace Will Change In 2012.”
Two of the predictions caught my eye:
3. “It's about the people stupid.”
4. The suggestion box will be reborn.
Other than the missing comma in #3, the author is right. We need to do more to engage our employees in improvement – the open question is “how?” or “by what method?” as Dr. W. Edwards Deming famously said.
As we discuss in our upcoming book Healthcare Kaizen, evidence and experience seems to show that the suggestion box approach just doesn't work well. The box is “where good ideas to do die,” as a nurse colorfully told me once. The suggestion box isn't transparent or collaborative. It's usually a slow, batchy process, where a group of managers or a committee review (and just accept or reject) ideas on, say, a monthly basis. If suggestion boxes didn't really work well before, why would they work in 2012?
We have to change the method and the process for engaging people.
Again, from the article:
3. “It's about the people stupid.” One advantage of the remote workforce is that you can hire the best, not just the closest. In 2012 mangers will learn that the opposite is also true. There will be more competition than ever for talented workers and companies will have to develop creative strategies to retain, grow and inspire their teams.
If the economy starts picking up, it will be nice to think about organizations having to compete harder for talent. In some professions, like nurses or pharmacists, individuals have a lot of choice about where they work. An important factor in attracting, retaining, growing, and inspiring people is how we engage them in the workplace. Higher engagement means lower turnover – which reduces hiring costs and you'd have to think a more stable organization is going to be more effective.
The follow on point from the piece:
4. The suggestion box will be reborn. While we're on the subject of people, in the rush to get social with our prospects and clients, we may have lost touch with our most important source of feedback, our employees. I bet more and more companies will figure this out in 2012 and provide methods to gather their valuable insight.
I'm all in favor of discussion about getting feedback from employees. In the Kaizen model of continuous improvement, employees shift from being passive “submitters” of suggestions to active participants in the full cycle of the improvement process. Suggestions are for others to implement – kaizen ideas are thins that we can keep ownership of, changes we can implement on our own (with our managers and teammates).
I'm working for KaiNexus because the software and process models don't just automate the broken suggestion box process. The software is embedded with Kaizen mindsets from the Lean management system, including transparency and fast feedback.
KaiNexus is also different than the “idea management” category of software that's growing in popularity.
The process model often looks like this (click for a larger image):
Systems like these are built around the model of crowdsourcing – having the masses vote and comment on ideas. The assumption in this approach is that we're looking for the “best” idea or ideas – often the one with the largest financial impact. This assumes that there is a limited capacity for improvement in an organization. Now, you might use a model like this to find big transformational ideas or you might use it to interact with customers – as Starbucks and Dell do. Customers can't take action inside the company, so voting and commenting is perhaps the best contribution they can make.
But, inside the company, this needs to be more than just a competition for the best idea with the highest ROI. The Kaizen model (which KaiNexus supports) is about lots of little ideas… and you will eventually get medium-sized ideas or large ones. But, we encourage people to start small. Instead of a funnel that winnows things down to the best idea, Kaizen casts a wide net. We can have dozens or hundreds of ideas being implemented in parallel. We don't need to run each idea all the way up the flagpole for approval at the very senior levels of management.
In an “idea management” approach, people will get discouraged when their good ideas aren't accepted for implementation. With Kaizen, people are allowed to make local decisions as ideas “bubble up.” But, to keep this from being too disconnected, leaders can help align ideas to broader goals and strategy. Step 1 of the above diagram says “Identify a Challenge.” You can do that with Lean and Kaizen (through the management approach called “strategy deployment“) and you can do it through KaiNexus (what we call a “KaiNexus Challenge”).
So here's my summary:
- Suggestion boxes: Broken model, mechanics, and mindets
- Idea management: The one big idea — helpful in some instances, has drawbacks
- Kaizen: Lots of little ideas – broader engagement in local continuous improvement efforts
Can idea management systems and Kaizen work together? Sure. I think they can, just the way organizations like ThedaCare use structured weeklong “Rapid Improvement Events” and what they call “Daily Continuous Improvement.” I don't think it's either/or – it's a matter of building the organizational capabilities and leadership mindsets that make improvement happen.
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