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.

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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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 just removed two suggestion boxes at my facility. Guess I did not get the memo about them making a comeback. Sadly I found a few suggestions from 2008 in one of them. That tells you how important the ideas are.
    I am working on a board now for ideas not suggestions. The person that has the idea takes control of the process. Management must post on the board for all to see withing 24 hours if the idea can be done then or reasons why it can’t be done quickly or at all. This puts pressure on all of us. Not sure it is the right system but it is a start at a new system.
    Once this gets going I want to do a Wall of Fame for ideas.

  2. Great, glad to hear it, Dwain!

    That’s certainly a problem with the opaque, closed box… ideas tend to get stuck in there without visibility.

    Keep us posted on how this new improvement journey is going!

  3. Nailed it on the Suggestion box. Suggestions are critical but should be the springboard to engage the suggesting person in solving the problem associated with the suggestion (most ideas tend to be solutions to problems we’re dealing with). The engaged leader’s job is to help teach a strong method for analyzing problems, synthesizing solutions, and evaluating alternatives. These are the building blocks of intellect; we don’t want to waste this.

  4. Getting input from employees is invaluable but I think suggestion boxes as a mechanism are outdated. Most of them still require judgement from people in higher places. These are often people so far removed from the actual problem that they’re not well placed to make those judgements.

    Think about the open source movement however and if people see a problem then they are given the resources and permission to form their own teams to work on that problem.

    So by all means open up the company to suggestions but make it fully democratic by letting employees judge the merit of those suggestions rather than a committee.

  5. I think the discussion about talent should be explored more. When Toyota says they “get extraordinary results from average people when others get average results from extraordinary people” and when Knute Rockney is frequently quoted (or misquoted as coming from John Wooden) as having said “the secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my eleven best, but my best eleven”, isn’t it more about how well the team works together rather than having the best and brightest? How does having a distributed “talented” workforce create a better team? Is that really the best solution for the customer, or is it some fantastical idea that someone has that the all-stars can beat anyone?

    Russ Ackoff would have argued that the best people, no more than the best parts, cannot create the best system by simply being the best individually. The people, or parts, that work the best together makes the best system. Most measures of talent are inadequate for determining how well someone will benefit a team. Unless that individual can accomplish everything alone, he/she will be part of a team. The strength of the team determines the sustained quality of the output.

  6. […] saw a post the other day called: “Will Suggestion Boxes be a Trend in 2012? What Method(s) do we Need for Employee Engagement?”  And it made me think about the entire process of the “suggestion box” and what it […]

  7. Remarkable idea! well employee suggestion box is still in the trend up to present day. But with the help of technology a simple box becomes a digital system, where in employees and clients have access or allowed to give ideas and raise queries or concern to the company or to the product/services provided. the advantage of this also,it is more faster and easy to collect/gathered information, also everything is organized. you can get result in a numerical basis and it is more easier to translate and analyze results from the produced result.


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