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Suggestion Boxes: From Scraps to Solutions

By Ed Bernacki |

Managers often admit that their early strategy to be creative was a suggestion box. These were launched with a lot of enthusiasm. In time, a few ideas came in, perhaps a flurry of ideas at the start.

But then the black hole of innovation opened up. Ideas that were submitted disappeared. Someone thought the ideas seemed irrelevant or that they were mediocre. Soon the suggestion box became a receptacle for waste paper and it was relegated to the storage room. The boss said they tried to be innovative, but "creativity did not work at our company."

This is typical of companies that try a suggestion box but forget to involve people in the process. To be successful, people must be motivated and pointed in the right direction. Here are two ways to beef up innovations from a suggestion box.

1.Focus the Ideas
If you ask for ideas, you are likely to receive as many ideas on fixing the toilet as you are to receive new customer strategies. People need to focus their creative thinking on a particular challenge, much like how a spotlight focuses on a particular spot with great intensity.

Your first step is to think about the areas or processes of the company that need new ideas. These do not have to be major problems, but they do need to have an impact on the bottom line. They should save resources or create new resources.

Make a list of 10 or so areas of opportunity. These areas must make sense to the people inside the company. If they do not make sense, you will not get much support. The best way to ensure that they do make sense is to ask your staff: "If we improve these areas, would you agree that we would improve the company?" You can also test the plan by asking: "If we ask for ideas on these topics, would people contribute?" Responses from even a few people may give you insights that can improve the process.

Use one or two challenges per month to start. Develop a way to post each month's issue on a bulletin board. Get creative yourself. Give the program a name. Get some artwork done like a poster. Plan how you will evaluate the ideas and how you will communicate the results back to the staff after each month. Launch the program and get people interested and involved. Your team meetings can talk about the challenge and why it is important.

Lastly, what incentives will you provide? These do not have to be big but they must be meaningful. Remember that people want to be recognized for their contributions. There is a story about an American CEO who got excited about an idea and grabbed the first thing at hand and gave it to an employee as a reward. The employee looked rather puzzled at the banana. The CEO saw how ridiculous this looked and announced that he would start a golden banana award for ideas.

2.Develop the Ideas
If the ideas seem weak, consider different perspectives.

If the ideas do not seem to match the situation, find out if employees really understand how the company makes money. A factor in the success of the open-book management strategies that many companies are adopting is teaching employees how the financial numbers work in the business. Do they know how you make money? Do they how their job contributes to the bottom line or contributes to others who have a direct connection to the bottom line?

The more that people know about the dollar and cents of your businesses, the more likely they are to find the ideas that save money or make money. Some ideas may have merit but they are not complete in some way. You can greatly enhance the success of the suggestion box if you talk to the person about the idea and give them some resources to go to the next step. Treat the employees with good ideas as in-house consultants.

Discuss the pluses and minuses of the idea. Add some background or further information. Challenge them to advance the idea.

Finally, consider training that teaches people how to find ideas, how to write them down, how to develop them into opportunities and how to implement them. This type of training helps people to solve problems and make better decisions. When people make better decisions that focus on the bottom line, that's an asset that will benefit every organization. Suggestion box programs are not all alike. Like any business process, innovative thinking can pay off once you harness the imagination of people and focus it onto specific problems. When you do this, you have a suggestion box on steroids!

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