Who knows your company, and the daily challenges it faces, better than those on the inside?
But many managers are not effectively tapping into their employees’ brain power. Staff may be a company’s best resource for innovative cost-saving ideas, and all it takes is a little work and ingenuity to get those suggestions implemented.
Forget everything you’ve heard about the old suggestion box — this is idea generation for the 21st century. Rather than passively waiting for employees to share their great thoughts, it’s important to jump start the process with a well-structured program designed to get the most out of your staff.
A successful employee-idea program has three elements: buy-in, a good design and recognition.
Here, experts explain how to bring the best out of your workforce.
If employees don’t see active involvement from management, they won’t buy into the program.
The key, experts say, is to establish a work setting where staff members feel empowered to make things better. They must be eager to offer suggestions. And much of that starts at the top.
“Create an environment where ideas are encouraged, valued and implemented, and where feedback occurs, so an employee knows why an idea wasn’t taken,” says Susan Heathfield, management consultant and writer, Williamston, Mich.
Indeed, feedback is crucial. If employees don’t hear back on their suggestions, they may feel ignored. And that could lead to the sense that they’re being devalued.
And there’s another benefit to staying vigilant. “People typically won’t give you their best ideas first,” says Gregory Smith, president of Chart Your Course International in Atlanta. “Instead, they’re testing to see how serious you are about the program. You want to encourage a culture of long-term idea generation.”
Top management, therefore, must be consistently enthusiastic and committed to the program’s success.
Now it’s time to kick off the initiative.
It’s a good idea to start by developing a policy statement that covers all aspects of the program. This will help eliminate any doubts as to how ideas are evaluated and rewarded.
It’s also important to explain up-front what constitutes good and bad suggestions.
“You want to prevent getting ideas like, ‘We need softer toilet paper,’ or ‘We should get to leave early on Fridays,’” Smith says.
When introducing the program, be sure to address a few key issues, such as why it’s being started, what you hope to accomplish and the recognition that awaits participants.
The submission system itself can be handled in a number of ways including written proposals, a bulletin board for posting ideas or an e-mail address devoted to employee suggestions.
As far as how to implement the program, you might choose to make it part of a regularly scheduled meeting, or opt for separating the program from all other staff duties.
Some experts prefer the first approach because it aligns the program with the employees’ existing responsibilities.
“The goal is to make it part of the job,” Heathfield says. “Add-ons are bad because the employee then thinks, ‘Great, here’s one more thing they want from me.’ But this way it isn’t an add-on.”
Others recommend making it a splashy standalone event, complete with a catchy name and perhaps even a logo that can be printed on T-shirts or pens. By making the kick-off a big deal, the theory holds, you’re giving the initiative its own identity.
“Brand it as much as possible,” says Thomas Jensen, president, Center for Suggestion System Development in Fairchild, Wisc. “It’s now a habit that the employees can get into and adopt as opposed to just being a suggestion program. So go out and market it a little. Keep it fresh.”
Before the suggestions come in, it’s important to establish a system of timely responses. This reassures employees that their ideas aren’t lost in the ether. A good benchmark is 15 days, experts say.
Quick adoption is also an effective form of recognition. “Most employees like instant gratification,” Heathfield explains. “They’ll start to think, ‘Hey, this is worth my time — I’m already doing it, and I only made the suggestion a week or two ago.’”
A larger idea — perhaps revamping your customer relations management program — may take longer to implement. But it still should be acknowledged within that two-week period.
To help retain interest, keep employees up-to-date on the program’s progress, as well as provide feedback on ideas that have been submitted. If a contribution is not accepted, let the staff member know you appreciate the suggestion but that at the moment the company is not in a position to pursue his or her idea.
“It’s important to be very transparent, especially in a small business,” Smith says. “You kill morale when you fail to explain why ideas are or are not accepted.”
Employees often are gratified simply by your soliciting and using their ideas, says Frank De Raffele, host/executive producer of the Entrepreneurial Excellence Radio Show in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Many will contribute based merely on the fact that they’re being asked.
“People ultimately want to feel like they have purpose and can add value to an organization,” he says. “They are now more aware of themselves. They will look for positive areas of improvement and bring those back to the team.”
If an employee’s idea is being adopted, make a big production out of it. Post the results on a bulletin board or send out a companywide e-mail saying the idea is going to be implemented.
“Make the person who suggested it a hero,” Smith says. You might even consider holding an annual dinner honoring your top idea generators.
Some companies may choose to distribute a fraction or percentage of all savings realized through the idea as part of an annual profit-sharing program.
However, experts warn there could be danger in using money as a reward.
“What if it’s something they should be doing anyway?” Smith asks. “Now they want money for it. So it really depends on money as a motivator.”
You may opt instead for a more random system of payment. Some like to enter the submitter’s name in a weekly or monthly drawing for a larger prize.
Along those lines, beware of anonymous suggestions.
Anonymity brings a host of problems, experts warn, such as disgruntled employees who only want to create friction. Plus, anonymity is an indication that management isn’t doing its job, Smith says, as the goal is to make employees feel compelled to take ownership of their ideas.
“We’re saying we want openness,” Jensen says. “And these are [the employees’] ideas. So why should we take ideas that are submitted anonymously? It goes against the grain of the culture you’re trying to create.”
Finally, don’t hesitate to require a trial period before ideas are fully adopted. Instruct the originator to test his or her idea over a one- or two-week time frame, then report back with the outcome. You could be pleasantly surprised by the results, Heathfield says.
“Don’t forget there’s a psychological aspect to it as well,” she adds. “If an employee comes up with an idea and says it’ll work, they’ll make it work. People aren’t in the business of proving themselves wrong.”
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