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Listen Up - Learning From Employee Suggestions

Tuesday, September 02, 2008   By Mike Reddy


When an employee comes to you with a suggestion, what is your usual reaction? If its along the lines of "That's never going to work", "That's not your problem" or "We don't have time to think about that" - or any equally negative response, then you could be missing out on a great opportunity to pick up on ideas for increasing productivity, cutting costs, or improving working conditions.

Too many managers simply dismiss ideas put up by their employees without giving them proper consideration. Yet employees are the people closest to the action, be it on the production line, in the admin office or on the floor dealing with customers. They see and hear a lot and are often led to think about, or even invent for themselves, better ways of getting things done. Better ways that can improve productivity, morale, process efficiency and ultimately, profits.

It is important to openly encourage employees to come forward with their suggestions and to make them feel that they are a part of the decision making process. As with everything in business, the better the planning you put into an initiative the more value you get out of it. A poorly conceived, hastily launched, undefined employee suggestion programme can backfire and achieve just the opposite of encouraging ideas - it can turn people off by creating bad feeling and making them more cynical.

There are a number of channels you can create to receive employee suggestions. Some will suit one business more than another, some businesses may find they can use more than one of them.

Most basic is the suggestion box. These days a suggestion box needn't be a physical thing, it can be an email address employees use to email in their suggestions.

The brainstorming session is a more formal approach and involves a greater commitment of time and money.

Tips for an effective employee suggestion system

Set clear goals and guidelines for the suggestion programme. If the programe is publicised as being about ideas that will achieve cost savings or about achieving a better level of workplace safety then you have immediately screened for what you want to hear about. If the programme is totally open to any suggestion then point that out.

Deal with suggestions quickly. Delay a decision more than a week and people will see the suggestion box as a black hole.

Acknowledge receipt of valid suggestions. Never reply to obscene or abusive suggestions. Your best response to that sort of negativity is to not indulge the sender with a reply.

Let the contributor know the result. If their idea got the thumbs down explain in detail why you can't use it. If the idea is worth implementing, tell the whole team so they can see the process at work.

Make the decision process transparent and fair - if the suggestion reviewer is the boss alone or just the top managers, rejection may be taken as just another instance of management negativism. If the suggestion gets the thumbs up carry through the implementation. Nothing builds trust and credibility faster than keeping a commitment.

Tie implementation into a reward programme but don't reward for suggesting alone, reward only acceptable suggestions. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of money on rewarding 'get a new coffee making machine' type suggestions. The programme is about quality suggestions. Your rewards don't have to be of great monetary value. Common rewards include tickets to events, gift vouchers and restaurant meals. Employee suggestions that have saved their company significant amounts of money run from the 'eureka' moment to the banal - but they all save money. It was an employee's suggestion to build an elevator on the outside of the hotel he worked for rather than, as the engineers had suggested, cut a hole through each of the floors internally. That saved engineering fees, cleanup costs and loss of income from having to close for the duration.

Smart managers understand the potential of employees to come up with good ideas and encourage them to do so. You can too. But do it properly. People are easily discouraged and the process can become the butt of jokes if not taken seriously by management.

Mike Reddy is a Chartered Accountant, business coach and advisor helping businesses in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Gold Coast to easily increase their profits and cash flow. He is currently President of the North Sydney Chamber of Commerce, a Regional Councillor for Sydney North East and a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Sydney leadership team. As well as advising businesses, Mike presents business development seminars and webinars and is regularly contacted by the media to comment on small business matters. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.