Are Suggestion Boxes Really Going Away? What Say Amazon?


Last week, I found and read an article, “Whatever happened to the company suggestion box?,” that makes some really great points about the problems with the ole' box as a way to facilitate continuous improvement. This is a favorite topic of mine (see previous posts).

One of my guest bloggers, Christina Kach (see her posts here), complained on Twitter that her organization hasn't gotten the message about boxes:

Why are boxes usually a bad thing, even if well intended?

From the article I mentioned earlier:

Today, you will hardly see one in corporate organizations. And if you do, it has generally turned into a mere office fixture coated with dust – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Egotistic and insecure managers feel threatened by it even if a flood of ideas from employees will help improve work processes and conditions, products, and customer service, and save costs for their companies (or save them from costly blunders).

Fact is: the suggestion box, which represents everything employees want to tell management, is dead.

Points from the article (which I agree with) about making improvement work:

  • People won't give ideas if they don't think management is really interested (which is why Kaizen requires much more personal interaction from leaders, not just hanging a box)
  • People won't participate if the response to their ideas is slow or non existent (the suggestion box process tends to be slow and batchy, which monthly or quarterly reviews)
  • Management must show enthusiasm and commitment to make Kaizen successful, discussing improvement and soliciting ideas pretty well constantly (as Joe and I write about in our new book  Healthcare Kaizen)
  • People must be thanked for their ideas, even if they can't be implemented
  • Success stories must be shared widely, with lots of recognition (but I'd add not necessarily financial incentives)

I guess all of those things  could happen with a box… but it seems more likely in a Kaizen program (including those facilitated with KaiNexus) than with boxes.

A recent FORTUNE article highlighted some improvement efforts at Amazon (“How Amazon learned to love veterans”). From the article:

Kaizen  suggestion boxes, referring to the Japanese term for continual improvement, dot the walls of Amazon's facilities. Amazon, you see, values the input of its lowest-level employees, whereas Army brass isn't known for soliciting opinions from grunts. Amazon has less hierarchy than the military too.

I've never seen a real Kaizen culture, including Toyota, Autoliv, my co-author's health system (Franciscan St. Francis), that used suggestion boxes. I'm surprised Amazon would call their boxes “kaizen.” Are they really embracing that philosophy or just latching onto a buzzword?

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  1. Pete Abilla says

    At Amazon, it’s called Kaizen Suggestion Box. And,at Toyota – at least in supply parts distribution – they were clear boxes and were everywhere. It’s how Toyota can implement over 10000 new ideas annually. In fact, Toyota rewards a car for really innovative ideas.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks for sharing that, Pete. I guess a clear suggestion box is more transparent than a locked wooden box :-)

      I’m sure if a box is consistently looked into daily to give a fast response and collaboration in a kaizen-y way, then maybe that part of Toyota could make a box successful in practice.

      I just don’t see why ideas need to go into a box. I know from visiting Autoliv in Utah (where they claimed 50 ideas per employee per year), they didn’t use boxes. I’m going to ask about this when I get to visit my new hometown Toyota plant in San Antonio.

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