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 min read

How to run a successful employee suggestion program

Your employees are a great source of innovative ideas. In this article, we'll run through our seven top techniques for how to encourage them to share.

Every business relies on getting good ideas from employees, and on improving processes over time in response to these ideas. After all, your workers are the ones at the coal face - it’s only natural that they’ll have the best suggestions for how to make things run more smoothly.

If you’ve established a positive and open workplace culture, your employees will offer their great ideas without you having to ask. If this is already the case, then well done!

However, not everyone wants to take the time and effort to offer their ideas. For many employees, the day to day demands of the job are enough to keep them busy. 

A great way to overcome this barrier and encourage your employees to contribute their most valuable suggestions? Commit to an employee suggestion program. 

In this article, we’ll take you on a tour through seven helpful tips on running a successful employee suggestion program. We’ll also examine how the world’s innovation leaders seek out employee ideas, and look at some of the major mistakes to avoid with suggestion programs. 

What is an employee suggestion program? 

An employee suggestion program is any system or process encouraging employees to submit helpful ideas for new products, identify potential improvements to the workplace, or call attention to any problems or difficulties they may be experiencing. 

In the past, businesses have used simple tools like suggestion boxes or public notice boards to encourage their employees to pass on their ideas for business improvements. 

Now, there are even better ways to encourage employees to make valuable suggestions. These include using anonymous suggestion forms, dedicated online processes, or even engaging via social media. 

In industries around the world, businesses are creating employee suggestion programs using the following techniques:

  • Improvement inboxes: Having an email portal gives employees the chance to submit their ideas and concerns either anonymously or by naming themselves.
  • Innovation competitions: To encourage the sharing of ideas, companies can host regular innovation competitions, with public recognition and rewards for the best ideas.
  • Human resources: Many companies incorporate employee suggestions into processes such as annual performance reviews, encouraging people to share any ideas they may have for how to boost company performance.
  • Monthly leaderboards: Competition is always a great motivator, and monthly ideas leaderboards are a great way to get people thinking and contributing their best ideas.
  • Cash awards (or gift cards): Offering awards is another great technique to get people interested in contributing great ideas for workplace improvements. These don’t have to be huge - even a modest prize is enough to get people talking and thinking. 
  • Staff meetings: A lot of businesses take the opportunity to ask employees for their ideas at staff meetings, creating the opportunity for public discussion. 

Staff meetings are a great chance to encourage employee suggestions. Source: Unsplash

Whichever technique you decide to use, employee suggestion programs offer some excellent benefits for your company. 

What are the benefits of an employee suggestion program?

Employee suggestion programs offer a way to gather new ideas, boost business performance, and commit to continuous improvement. The right program also helps employees to feel more engaged, empowered, and motivated to do their best work.

For new and emerging businesses, employee suggestion programs are a great way to increase performance - especially in your first year, when you’re still establishing systems and processes.

Here are some of the most significant benefits of employee suggestion programs. 

Increased employee engagement 

It’s human nature to want to be listened to. Knowing that management is interested in what employees have to say is a simple and effective way to boost engagement and motivation, and lets people feel like they have more control over their working environment.

This way, employee suggestion programs are more than just a conduit for management to access valuable and transformative ideas - they are also a key technique for boosting workplace morale and productivity. 

Efficient systems

As the people with the deepest hands-on experience of how your systems and processes work in practice, your employees will naturally have some great ideas on how to find new improvements and efficiencies. 

For example, let’s say you’re a car manufacturer looking to boost the efficiency on your production line. Who do you talk to first?

Your supervisors and managers might have some great ideas, but the ones with the most valuable knowledge are those working on the assembly line. Seeking their input is a great way to boost your efficiency and get products out the door a lot faster.

Continuous improvement

Every market leader knows that improvements to processes aren’t just a one-off thing. Excellence in business is a question of continuous improvement, and workers at every level need to be on the lookout for better ways of doing things.

Employee suggestion programs are a core part of continuous improvement. Creating a way for people to share their valuable ideas and suggestions helps to embed this mindset in every layer of your business.

Cost savings and increased revenue

The best employee ideas don’t just improve efficiency - they can also lead to lower costs, too. Even the most modest improvements to business processes can make all the difference to a business’s competitive edge. 

As the long list of real-world examples show, even a simple employee idea can lead to huge benefits for the business as a whole, helping to cut costs and boost revenue.

One great example here is British Airways, where a suggestion from a single employee about descaling bathroom piping has helped save the company over $750,000 in fuel costs each year. 

Greater connection between management and staff

If you’re in management, it can be easy to forget what it’s like to work at the coal face. Having a suggestion program helps to communicate the employee experience directly to managers, giving them a more accurate sense of working conditions.

This communication helps to build a greater level of understanding and connection between management and staff, and contributes to greater morale and higher productivity. It also makes managers aware of any problems nice and early, meaning solutions can be found quickly.

Higher levels of customer satisfaction

Finally, employee suggestion programs aren’t just useful for management and staff - they also contribute to a more positive experience for the customer. 

That’s because systems and processes are smoother as a result of employee input, leading to faster and more responsive customer service. For example, if you’re running a coffee shop and one of your baristas suggests a way to serve people faster, your patrons will benefit too.

Is an employee suggestion program right for your business?

Having an employee suggestion program gives your people the chance to contribute their best ideas for improvements to the workplace. When done well, it can make all the difference to a positive and open working environment. 

Before you commit to a formal employee suggestion program, however, there are some factors you’ll need to consider:

  • Transparency: For a suggestion program to work well, you need to commit to a degree of transparency between workers and management.
  • Management burden: The best employee suggestion programs require close management, including the time and resources needed to follow-up on great ideas.
  • Hard truths: Suggestion programs can lead to the discovery of some amazing ideas, but they can also lift the lid on some unpleasant things, too. If you’re managing a suggestion program, you need to be ready for anything. 

As noted in Forbes, some businesses can access great ideas from employees without having a formal employee suggestion program in place. If you have a sufficiently open and trusting relationship with your staff, you may not need a formal program to encourage ideas.

The big mistakes to avoid with employee suggestion programs

If you decide to commit to a formal employee suggestion program, there are some key mistakes you’ll need to avoid.

Insufficient commitment from leadership

Suggestion programs work best when leadership is supportive and excited about the idea. If company management isn’t on board, it won’t work. 

As a first step, you need to get company leadership and management committed to the program. People need to recognize the potential upsides to having a suggestion program, and need to understand the potential it has to benefit every part of the business.

With the right commitment from company leadership, your suggestion program will be off to a running start.

Lack of transparency

Employee suggestion programs are an excellent way to boost transparency and encourage greater participation in the running of the business. To truly work well, however, these programs require a degree of transparency on what happens once a suggestion is received.

If suggestions simply disappear into a black box, employees will get frustrated, and will wonder why they bothered putting in the time and effort. Instead, you need to keep a public record of the suggestions people are making, and the response to these suggestions. 

This can feel like too much exposure, but trust us - being clear and transparent about the suggestions and your response to them will build a lot of faith in the system.

Poorly defined processes

If you’re going to commit to having an employee suggestion program, don’t do it in a haphazard way. Instead, develop a formal plan with standardized rules and expectations, and show this to your employees.

This is a great way to ensure consistency in the process and get buy-in from your people. With clarity and transparency, the suggestions will start rolling in.

Slow response

One of the most common complaints with employee suggestion programs comes down to a sluggish response from management. Far too often, employee suggestions are ignored in favor of more immediate concerns. In the worst cases, management simply forgets about them. 

This doesn’t just lead to missed opportunities for improvements - it is also terrible for workplace morale, with employees feeling like they’re being ignored completely. 

If you’re going to commit, make sure you put aside the time and resources to respond to suggestions promptly. Having a slow and unresponsive suggestion system is worse than having no system, so make sure you set yourself up to succeed.

Poor communication

A successful employee suggestion programme requires clear and consistent communication from company leadership. People at every layer of the company need to understand how the system works, or else they won’t be interested in participating. 

If the purpose and operation of the program isn’t clearly communicated to the whole business, your employees won’t know how to offer their best ideas. So, take the time to explain the program in clear and enthusiastic detail, and be ready to answer questions. 

7 tips for running a great employee suggestion program

Getting employee suggestion programs right can a lot of take time and effort. If you’re looking at a blank sheet of paper and wondering where to begin, the exercise can be a little intimidating! 

Fortunately for you, we’ve outlined our seven top tips for how to run a great suggestion program. From offering incentives to suggesters to having a team in place to review company responses, we’ve got everything you need to get it right.

#1) Offer guidance to help your employees provide their best ideas

As with crowdsourcing, co-creation, and open innovation, employee suggestion programs get their best results when participants have access to crisp, clear guidance and instructions. 

Your suggestion program guidance should answer the following questions:

  • How should employees submit their suggestions? In what format? 
  • Can employees submit ideas anonymously? 
  • What level of detail is required? 
  • What happens once an idea is submitted? 
  • How long should an employee wait for a response to a suggestion? 
  • What kind of incentives are there to encourage great ideas?

It might seem like overkill to lay things out in such detail, but trust us - writing clear and comprehensive guidance will also help you figure out what you want from the process, too. 

#2) Provide an incentive for suggesters

When designing a suggestion program, it pays to remember one key thing: your employees are already busy people. Offering their ideas for workplace improvements and opportunities shouldn’t just be one other thing they have to deal with in their packed days.

A great way to incentivize people to take the time to contribute their best ideas is to create an incentive for suggesters. This could take the form of a small cash prize, or even a share of the profits resulting from a new product. 

Professional recognition is a great incentive for people to contribute ideas. Source: Unsplash

Alternatively, you can offer a non-monetary incentive, like public recognition or professional awards. The key thing is to make people feel valued for their contributions.

#3) Match the process to your workplace culture

When it comes to employee suggestion programs, there’s no one-size-fits-all. What works well for one company won’t necessarily be a good fit for the next.

That’s why you need to take the time to design a program that matches your workplace culture, including your preferred model of teamwork, the demands of your particular industry, and the interpersonal dynamics within your workplace. 

For example, let’s say you’re a software company with an established history of fun and productive office getaways. In this case, you could dedicate some time during these getaways to receiving and discussing employee suggestions for workplace improvements.

Alternatively, if you’re a company with more of a focus on individual projects, this kind of communal discussion might not be so suitable. In this case, an anonymous suggestion portal would be more appropriate. 

The goal is to design a suggestion program that suits the communication and teamwork preferences of your particular business. 

#4) Commit to responding within a set time period

The best way to avoid a stagnant suggestion program is to set a target response time for each suggestion submitted.

For example, if you tracked the time it took to go from suggestion to decision to implementation, and posted these figures on a monthly or quarterly basis, this would create a lot of public accountability, and would boost faith in the program.

Show your people how serious you are about continuous performance, and set a target time for company responses to employee suggestions. It’ll create a lot more interest in the program.

#5) Set up a review team to manage responses 

Responding to employee suggestions shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of some poor soul in management. That’s not only inefficient - it’s also unfair to the submitters.

Instead, you need a team representing a cross-section of the business to decide whether to implement a particular suggestion. 

This helps to ensure the right information and expertise is brought into play when responding to a suggestion, and makes it more likely that a particular suggestion will succeed. After all, continuous improvement is a team sport - one person can’t just go it alone.

#6) Evaluate the process

As with every other part of the business, an employee suggestion program can always be improved upon. Once you’ve got your program up and running, remember to set a time to look back and evaluate how it’s going, and where you could make improvements. 

This evaluation should examine the average response time, the clarity and frequency of communication concerning the results of suggestions made, and the number of suggestions received on a monthly basis. 

Looking honestly at these questions will help you to improve the suggestion program over time.

#7) Don’t forget to promote the program

Lastly, don’t forget to promote the suggestion program. You’ve taken the time to design a bespoke process that matches the particular demands of your workplace - don’t let it fail just because nobody knows about it! 

Instead, be sure to communicate the suggestion program to all employees on a regular basis. Where you have specific incentives available, let people know about these. 

Above all else, make sure everyone knows about the improvements made as a result of the suggestion program. Celebrating these improvements is the best promotion there is.

Employee suggestion programs: some real-world examples

When thinking about how to get up a great employee suggestion program, there’s nothing more useful than looking at how some of the world’s market leaders are doing it. 

Now, we’ll take a look at what British Airways, 3M, and Amazon are doing when it comes to employee suggestion programs, what their results are, and how you can learn from them. 

British Airways

The airline industry is among the most competitive in the world, with carriers duking it out to stay on top with increasingly thin profit margins. 

In this environment, airline companies need access to the best ideas to stay on top. Sometimes, these ideas can come from management or industry consultants. An even better source of innovation? Airline employees.

British Airways has benefitted from some helpful employee suggestions. Source: Skift

That’s why British Airways has invested so heavily in its employee suggestion program. With this program, workers in every part of the business can contribute their most promising ideas for workplace improvements and company savings. 

This suggestion program has already resulted in some big wins for the company, with one employee’s suggestion to descale airplane bathroom piping saving more than $750,000 a year in fuel costs. In a competitive market, that’s huge.

In the case of British Airways, the company rolled out a formal staff suggestion program, allowing workers to submit ideas online, either anonymously or as part of their staff performance review process with management. Given the mobile nature of British Airways’ workforce, this remote system for employees to submit ideas is a natural and convenient fit. 

This example helps to illustrate just how valuable employee ideas can be in competitive industries, and how important it is to ask your workers for their suggested improvements. 

3M

A famously innovative company, manufacturing giant 3M is the official birthplace of the 15% Program, whereby employees at every level are asked to spend 15% of their time on innovative projects. Now, even tech titans like Google are following suit with their own innovation quotas. 

In addition to this groundbreaking approach, 3M also places a huge emphasis on employee suggestions for new products, systems, and processes. This approach reflects the idea that every one of 3M’s employees could be responsible for the next world-shaping invention.

It’s this commitment to recognizing and celebrating employee innovation that has led to genius inventions like the Post-It note. 3M engineer Arthur Fry dreamed up this deceptively simple combination of paper squares and low-grade airplane adhesive way back in 1974.

3M’s approach to encouraging and celebrating employee suggestions recognizes that innovation and inventiveness can come from anywhere, at any time. By making innovation an ongoing consideration for employees, 3M can stay on top.

Amazon

Amazon isn’t just any innovation leader. It’s arguably the most innovative company in the world today, and has the potential to completely reshape modern commerce. 

Arguably one of the key factors in Amazon’s global dominance stems from Amazon Prime, the company’s fast-shipping subscription service. Using Prime, customers simply pay a flat-rate annual fee and benefit from low-cost shipping for the entire year.

This idea came from Amazon software engineer Charlie Ward, who pitched the idea in the company’s digital employee suggestion box. Fed up with frustration at having to click through multiple pages to access low-cost shipping, Ward proposed charging customers a flat-rate each year and doing away with additional shipping costs at all. 

So far, this sounds like a standard story of company innovation, right? The real difference lies in how Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded to Ward’s suggestion. 

Amazon Prime is one of the most valuable ideas ever suggested by an employee. Source: CNET

Recognizing the value in the idea, Bezos gathered Amazon executives in November of 2004 and demanded a viable proposal by the end of the next quarter. By the time Amazon started offering Prime in mid-2005, the company already had thousands of subscribers interested. 

Now, Prime is an integral part of Amazon’s business model, with over 100 million global subscribers, and a range of additional customer offerings, such as streaming media. 

This example illustrates one of the key factors in running a successful suggestion program: responding to promising suggestions quickly, and assigning the right people to the task. By making Amazon Prime such a priority, Bezos set the company up for future success. 

So, when setting up a suggestion program for your business, remember to dedicate the resources necessary to respond to promising ideas as promptly as you can. Otherwise, you could miss out on a potentially world-changing opportunity. 

Your employees have the answers - all you need to do is ask

In every industry, in every part of the world, the beating heart of business comes down to one thing: employees with great expertise and ideas.

Rather than just relying on your employees to produce great work on a daily basis, you should also be asking them for their suggestions on how to improve things in the workplace. 

Whether you’re talking about ways to speed up production, increase the efficiency of your systems, or expand your operation into new markets, chances are your employees have got some great suggestions to offer. 

All you have to do to get access to these great ideas is know how to ask. 

So, take a look at our seven tips for running a successful employee suggestion program, our most common mistakes to avoid, and our collection of real-world examples. 

Then, think about how you could encourage your staff to submit their best ideas for workplace improvements. 


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