Many companies try to fill their employee suggestion box. The Jel Sert Company, at the time a 700-employee manufacturing company headquartered in West Chicago, was no different. Over the course of four years, the company tried many initiatives to increase the number of ideas collected from employees, with some success.
In 2002, the executive team kicked off a suggestion program, cleverly called Jel-A-Vision, with much fanfare and high rewards: the top prize was $5000 and each idea that was selected to be implemented earned the idea generator $250. The publicity and awards encouraged employees to place approximately 130 ideas into the suggestion box, of which 28 were selected and awarded a total of $19,000. Only 17 or 13% went on to be implemented.
After the kick-off, the criterion was added that the idea must be implemented before the monetary award was given. The number of ideas and awards dropped. The executive team started to wonder why they weren’t receiving very many ideas, and why the ones they did receive were not very good. By the end of the Jel-A-Vision program, only 21 more ideas had been collected and only 4 of those ideas had been implemented and awarded. By 2003, the executive team at Jel Sert had become disillusioned with the suggestion box program.
When the newly appointed Director of Organizational Effectiveness offered to take over the suggestion program, it was handed over to her without much opposition in 2004. She rebranded the program as the Process Improvement Network (PIN) and formed a cross-functional and cross-hierarchical steering committee with 9 members. All of its members were director level and below. In addition, the following changes were made to the program:
- Whereas the executive team had met monthly, the new steering committee met weekly to review and address each outstanding idea.
- The committee created a formal follow-up procedure. One member of the steering committee was assigned to immediately thank the employee for the idea. The same steering committee member was responsible for helping the idea be considered and implemented.
- Monetary awards were disbanded, to eliminate the artificial hurdle of idea worthiness. Employees whose ideas were implemented received t-shirts with the PIN logo and recognition at the monthly employee luncheon.
- The committee published a one-page weekly newsletter called the Ideation Station that included program updates as well as fun ways to stay creative. The newsletter was a regular reminder to think of and submit ideas.
- Employees were trained in creativity methods presented by Blair Miller & Associates (www.blairmiller.com).
In 2004, 183 ideas were submitted through the PIN program, almost 9 times the number of ideas submitted in the previous 18 months.
When the time came to decide if the PIN Steering Committee should be refreshed with new members, they decided they would instead distribute and embed the suggestion box further into the organization. Responsibility for idea collection, documentation and follow-up was transitioned to the managers of the company. On a voluntary basis, 21 department heads held regular meetings with employees and tracked the status of ideas within a centralized database.
This iteration of idea collection proved to be the most effective. In 2005, 287 ideas were collected, a 57% increase over the previous year. Most ideas were collected through the departmental meetings instead of the suggestion box. Of the ideas collected in 2005, 39% were implemented.
There are four key lessons to engage employees to submit improvement ideas that were learned from this roundabout path:
- Monetary awards are superficial. More ideas were collected and implemented with no award at all. Generally, when employees turned in an idea, it was presumably because they wanted it to be implemented, not because they wanted something in return.
- No centralized team or committee is a substitute for a manager who listens, documents and follows up on the ideas presented by her employees. Simply knowing that they have an ally who will help implement an idea works wonders toward encouraging employees to share their ideas. Also, managers are usually in the best position to implement their employees’ ideas.
- If you want “good” ideas, you need to be willing to listen to the “bad” ones. First, don’t be too quick to judge ideas as good or bad. Even “bad” ideas address a perceived problem. Look beyond the idea itself and work with the employee to formulate a solution.
- Find a way to make generating ideas a regular part of doing business. A scheduled (but not mundane!) meeting, or a regular communication will remind employees to look for problems and solutions in their daily routines.
While special programs can move the organization in the right direction, change has not truly occurred until new behaviors and attitudes are adopted into the regular running of the business. In the end, employee engagement is not about filling the suggestion box – it is about not needing the suggestion box in the first place.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy: