Employee Suggestion Programs – What Works. What Doesn’t By Robert Bacal

Anatomy Of A Successful Employee Suggestion Program

We have talked to several organizations that have introduced employee suggestion programs to make use of the knowledge and skills of employees with respect to reducing wasted work, or increasing productivity and efficiency. Unfortunately, the track record of these programs is not great. Some of the comments received include:

“Staff said they wanted this, but when we set it up nobody even made the effort to make suggestions”

“We got some good ideas but nobody actually wanted to put in any extra time to make them happen”

“I know I made a number of great suggestions, but I never heard anything more after I made them” (staff)

How come suggestion programs are not as successful as they might be? Let’s look at a few points put forth by Phillip Capper, at the Centre For Research On Work, Education and Business, in Wellington, NZ. While he has supplied the points, we have added the explanatory text.

The Context For Successful Suggestion Programs

Capper suggests that if suggestion programs are to succeed, the following conditions need to be avoided:

  • The suggestions are fed into the system by individuals acting alone:
    It is rare that an individual employee, working alone, and without the support of co-workers, team-mates or management, can a) make a suggestion heard so that it is adopted, and b) contribute to the implementation of any suggestion beyond the simplest changes.

    They know that. The key is to encourage staff to work together to develop suggestion ideas, actions plans, and ways to bring the suggestion/change to fruition.

  • The originators of the suggestion do not have access to all the firm’s operational information which is relevant to the suggestion:
    One of the things about suggestion programs that frustrates staff into non-participation is that often, their suggestions are rejected in what seems to be an out of hand way, without proper consideration.

    However, it may only appear this way to staff, because when they made the suggestions(s), they lacked key information, usually held by management, that would clearly have indicated that the suggestion being developed would not fit. Making sure staff have adequate access to information is important, since it helps set the parameters for suggestion, eliminating the need for management to “kill” suggestions made on the basis of inadequate information.

  • The originator of the suggestion has no further responsibility for progressing it:
    People have the most investment in working on suggestions that they, themselves have originated….a pet project if you like. What is counter-productive is the notion that it is management’s responsibility for implementation, and staff’s job to come up with ideas. Let those that suggested an idea work on it.
  • There is no feedback from the system on how the suggestion has been dealt with:
    This is common when management is seen to have responsibility to “fix” things, and staff have no responsibility. It is also common when management is not really commited to a suggestion/work improvement program. Implement a feedback system that quickly acknowledges the suggestion, and includes updating on progress. The “black hole” syndrome will kill off any suggestion program in a very short time.
  • There is no feedback from the system on the outcomes of implemented suggestions:
    Similar to the previous point. When management needs to be involved in implementation, it’s has a responsibility to report back on the status and results achieved in a timely manner.
  • There are no rewards (which do not need to be monetary rewards) for successful suggestions:
    Most employees want less hassle in the workplace, and want to do a good job. Monetary rewards can be useful in encouraging further suggestions, and recognizing staff, but so can non-monetary rewards. Many staff will respond very positively to recognition of the fact that an idea of their’s had a sigificant positive impact on the organization.

    In most situation non-monetary rewards are better, since they are less likely to create negative competition and questions about the fairness of management in making use of suggestions.

  • The organisational culture is such that open expression of views is not respected, mistakes are punished, or management displays implicit of explicit mistrust of line employees.
    You can ask for suggestions from employees all day, but employees are going to hold back if they feel they will be punished or made to look stupid for thinking creatively.

If you have tried a suggestion program only to find that employees balk or seem uninterested, then look at the overall climate and culture. It may be that employees feel a sense of mistrust or cynicism.

For more articles relevant to the human resources community visit Robert’ Bacal’s article archive

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