To the Point – Is your suggestion box empty? Blame Yourself

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It’s interesting to me how common the “open door” and “suggestion box” policies are but rarely seem to generate good feedback. I heard that issue recently from the owner of a $6 million manufacturer and installation contractor. Despite the presence of a suggestion box for several years, he hadn’t received a single input — ever.

I began my work, and within a week, we received numerous ideas that doubled the company’s profit. They were given without coercion, bribes or other special tactics. What’s more, the contributions came from all aspects of the business, including graphics, metal fabrication, finishing, installation, quality, finance and more.

Going from no suggestions to a plethora of concepts that double profits in one week isn’t rocket science. Our biggest challenge as consultants became prioritizing which good ideas to pursue first based on their potential value to the company.  Every business can achieve the same results provided they look at how to garner input differently. Here are three recommendations.

Stop Asking For “Suggestions”

Ask open ended questions in a confidential questionnaire or suggestion box form. In the case of the manufacturer, we sent a confidential survey asking team members this question: “The Company would be more successful if I/we did the following…” 

Doing so establishes company success as the undisputed goal of the organization. It elicits a response, but, perhaps more importantly, it asks the employee to acknowledge their responsibility.  It invites an admission and a solution.

Problem team members usually point at everyone else and demonstrate their lack of commitment by offering nothing of value.  Not surprisingly, some people whose responses can be characterized this way also happen to have supervisory and managerial titles.  Caring employees, many without titles, that possess the ability to think and solve problems are often our best source of ideas. 

Keep Comments Confidential

Many of the opportunities we pursued at the manufacturer were the subject of prior conversations between employees and managers.  Often, team members’ insights and requests for support can be misconstrued by weak and insecure supervisors as a challenge to their authority. 

To counter this, don’t run to management and share the “suggestions.”  Instead, visit and observe operations in the area where an opportunity was purported to exist.  Without singling out the person who directed you to the target of opportunity, ask simple, curious and skeptical questions. Often the employee will be present but unidentified. Don’t challenge or question the authority of the person responsible for the area. Instead, create an atmosphere where the supervisor can safely recognize the problem or opportunity and acknowledge their responsibility for making it better. One side benefit to this approach is getting the grapevine working in your favor. The team member whose issue was addressed constructively clearly communicated the effectiveness to fellow employees. Soon after, others in the department will offer additional valuable suggestions.

Train For Best Practices

Employees and managers who identify, acknowledge and commit to needed changes should be supported with training in problem solving skills and best practice tools.  Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) that align departmental performance with company success and introduce the concept of continuous improvement. The benefits are wide ranging. Not only will productivity improve, but supervisors that don’t desire to see these changes take effect — the incapable, obstructionist and intimidators — will find themselves working elsewhere.

An empty suggestion box doesn’t mean that things are fine or employees don’t care. It usually means that team members don’t feel that they work in a safe and inviting enough place to raise issues. Create a culture that welcomes inputs, identifies problems, takes ownership and rewards those that do. A company that exhibits those qualities will generate more profits.

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