Improving the work is difficult, if not impossible, without suggestions from those who actually do the work. But in many companies, getting the workers to submit suggestions is a constant struggle. What could be the root cause(s) of this problem? Two lean practitioners weigh in with their thoughts.
Gavin Martin (Executive Director – Strategic Accounts, Ventera)
I would recommend going to talk to somebody who’s been working at your company for a while, and asking him or her, “Why aren’t people making suggestions?”
There are two reasons I often hear for a lack of suggestions. You might hear that it’s because things have never changed, which is to say that the status quo became the norm. And so while your people hear the words coming out of management that they’re “open to suggestions” and “have an open-door policy,” the people don’t actually see any change happening. They haven’t seen any results and they have no reason to believe things are going to change. So why are they going to take the time to think, articulate, walk over to the box and submit a suggestion when they don’t think it’s going to mean anything?
It could also be that your people don’t trust that the person who could make the change has any basis of reference as to what they (the people) need to happen. Has the change agent been to the gemba? Does he or she know what your people do? Does he or she even care, or is he or she just working of a checklist?
If your people don’t see or feel that the change agent is genuinely interested in them, their situation, and their needs, you’ll find it very hard to get suggestions.
Kelly Moore (Operational Excellence Lead, Syngenta)
We hear so much about employee suggestions that I find many groups want to rush out and hang that box on the wall (the ‘box’ may also be a computerized form or sticky notes from employees on the manager’s desk). In our haste to engage, we probably haven’t adequately designed a process, in granular detail, that addresses the necessary steps of an idea system:
(1) soliciting ideas (all ideas vs some ideas, who signs off?, how to submit),
(2) approving ideas (signoffs, timelines, expenses) and rejecting ideas (feedback, signoffs),
(3) implementing ideas (resources (time and people), visibility benefits, recognition).
Designing the process BEFORE asking for any ideas is important to a successful suggestion program.
Once a process is designed, I believe feedback, visibility and recognition (not incentivizing) are the keys to endless employee suggestions. The successful idea systems I have introduced have interested leaders that recognize that they have been entrusted with someone’s idea and those leaders honor the process time in responding to the idea. For ideas that will not be approved, the leader typically has a face-to-face conversation with the employee explaining why. Prompt feedback on ideas demonstrates respect for the employee’s contribution.
We are all busy at work and progress gets lost as we do our day jobs. Employees keep submitting ideas when they see ideas being implemented. For the sites I support, the areas that do the best job keeping ideas visible (some use stickies on a wall) have the highest sustainable numbers of new ideas.
Recognizing progress and team contribution is important. I’m not describing incentivizing – that’s a slippery slope once you start. I have some areas that call out implemented ideas and team names as part of a daily huddle, to the applause of those present. It’s fun to watch the teams hamming up their bows and curtsies. Another area selects a monthly winner of the implemented idea that had the most impact to the area (the entire shift of the originating idea wins). The shift receives a snack but it’s the recognition from the other shifts that lights them up.
Employee suggestion boxes can work without incentivizing; however, they cannot be left unattended. With a well-designed process that provides feedback, visibility and a little bit of recognition you’ll never run out of ideas.