Are These Bad Suggestions About Suggestion Boxes?


I've written a lot about suggestion boxes, and usually in the context of how they don't work well. Many aspects of traditional suggestion box systems sound great, but don't work in practice.

What doesn't work: Boxes not being opened very often, being reviewed by a committee or executives, focusing on suggestions instead of identifying problems to solve, a lack of interactive discussion, a focus on cost reduction and financial rewards… the list goes on and on. And “electronic suggestion boxes” tend to have many of the same problems, by the way.

I'm all for improving the suggestion box model. I think an active “Kaizen” program and methodology is the modern alternative. See my recorded webinar on this topic. Our KaiNexus platform, by the way, is more of an electronic Kaizen approach than an electronic suggestion box.

So, on improving suggestion boxes, I'm aways on the lookout for articles about this. I recently saw two articles that miss the mark…

Some might say “there's no such thing as a bad idea,” but that's not always really true. If there's a “bad idea” (it's unsafe, not practical, too expensive), then the role of a leader is to help find SOMETHING to implement… something that solves the problem (we do know what problem we're trying to solve, right?) in some way. Read more on this.

With these suggestions below, we'd have to test things out in practice to see if it's a bad idea, but my hypothesis (based on experience) is that the things suggested here wouldn't work. You're welcome to try them… maybe you can prove me wrong.

Suggestion 1: Choosing the Best Ideas

This article from the Phoenix Business Journal doesn't really have a new suggestion, as much as it dredges up an old practice: “How to build a culture of originality.” It's sort of ironic that a culture of originality has a very unoriginal idea.

One suggestion:

Revive ye ol' ‘suggestion' box. Often viewed as an outdated approach, recent evidence states that suggestion boxes can actually be quite useful for generating original ideas. Just be sure to have a system in place for culling these unique contributions, as well as rewarding and pursuing the best ones.

Yes, it's an outdated approach :-)

I'm curious what “recent evidence” is out there. Maybe she means Kaizen methodologies, but I wouldn't call that a suggestion box anymore than I'd call a car a “horseless carriage.”

Rewarding the best ideas… this gets problematic. Who decides best? Often, it's that far-off committee or the executive team who 1) don't have a good understanding of the real problem at hand and 2) aren't best position to evaluate what good is. And the rewards generally mean a percentage of cost savings, which tends to generate ideas about cost reduction and nothing else. Rewards and financial incentives lead to fighting and squash intrinsic motivation.

In an effective Kaizen system, we're tapping into intrinsic motivation – there's no need to force participation or incentivize it.

Pursuing the best suggestions, again, means the right people need to be evaluating them.

A Kaizen process generally has the team and their manager evaluating ideas. Things should only be escalated by exception. For example, if an employee is suggesting building a new parking garage. That has to go to executives… but that's not the type of idea we're looking for in a Kaizen process. A Kaizen process is less focused on implementing the “best ideas” and more focused on spreading out the workload so everybody can be involved in implementing something.

Now, the author DOES have a few good thoughts on suggestions:

Generate numerous ideas. It's no secret that quantity improves the odds of generating incredible ideas. In fact, the greater the output, the more original and perhaps trailblazing some of it can be. But how much is enough? Most industry experts say around 20 ideas is a good goal to start. Yet, studies increasingly show that more than 10 times that amount can be even better. The key is to encourage team members to generate quantity and variety, striking a proper balance, without sacrificing focus and productivity.

In a Kaizen approach, we get an impact from implementing a large number of small ideas instead of just focusing on big ideas or projects. As a Japanese hospital CEO said, “The best way to find a big idea is to have lots of small ideas.”

And she wrote:

Encourage independent thinking. Group settings are not always a platform people feel comfortable sharing their most unique suggestions. Research shows that employees working alone often come up with higher quantity and quality of ideas. Ask your staff members to “brainwrite” and contribute their ideas before meeting with the larger team.

I've found that a mix of solo thinking and group discussion is very powerful. Some people won't speak up in team huddles and they're more comfortable writing a problem or idea down on paper (or entering it into a computer system).

Suggestion 2: Emphasizing the Positive

I also saw this article: “Take steps to manage negativity at work” from a farm industry publication, of all places.

I don't think “negativity” is necessarily a problem to solve. As they say at Toyota, “No problems is a problem.” I'm comfortable with people pointing out problems… as long we're figuring out how to solve those problems. That's the positive aspect of Kaizen… we identify a problem and brainstorm and test solutions (or “countermeasures”).

The article says:

Suggestion Boxes: These can be a simple and effective means of acquiring frank, anonymous feedback from employees. Provide a box for workers to submit suggestions during their breaks or lunchtime.

You might get “frank” comments… but the fact that the box is anonymous might lead to unhelpful complaints about other people. That's bad negativity. We need to identify a problem AND a solution (see these Kaizen cards). An anonymous system means we can't discuss the situation in a constructive way, as we'd want to do in a Kaizen process.

Also, why do employees have to use the suggestion box on “their” time?? The company should be willing to PAY people to participate in improvement, and that means using the suggestion box (or a Kaizen system) while on company time, as there should be benefits to the COMPANY.

Encourage employee participation with the suggestion box by posing a new question or topic each month. Post a sign by the box with the topic of interest, such as:

– What benefit beyond compensation do you find the most valuable?

– What has been your favorite social activity provided by the operation?

– What do you like best about your job?

Notice the tone of these questions; they are deliberately focusing on the positive. You are still gaining valuable feedback, but encouraging employees to think about things in a constructive manner. If you find out what employees really enjoy, you can emphasize these things to outweigh negativity.

Those are feedback questions… not suggestion box questions.

The point of a suggestion box (or a Kaizen system) is to drive improvement. Kaizen organizations would say they're also trying to develop employees, but that's a different discussion.

I'd be afraid that asking questions like those suggested above would send a message that says:

“We don't take your input seriously… we just want to hear about how great the organization is, instead of how we can be better.”

A Closing Video

See this LEI video with me talking about the differences between Kaizen and suggestion boxes:

What do you think about the topics discussed here? Leave a comment!

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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.


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