Are suggestion boxes useful?

Opportunity 17Suggestion boxes are one of those seemingly good ideas that can easily backfire. When we are studying a process area we create a big wall map which is a visual presentation of how the process works. It makes it easy for employees to see how and where their part of the process fits into the whole. To encourage collaboration we walk employees through the process and get them physically involved in identifying where the constraints and operating problems are. We give them a red pen and they scribble whatever detailed information is appropriate to highlight the issue. Afterwards we make a list of all the identified opportunities and create what’s appropriately called an “Opportunity List.” It’s a similar concept to a typical suggestion box, except we effectively take the box to the employees rather than wait for them to go to the box.

However, there’s a real danger lurking in this tactic and one that has burned us a few times over the years. If you ask people for their ideas and insights, you heighten two key expectations. The first is you get people thinking that something will be done to remove their problems. Unfortunately, in many improvement efforts, most of the problems will be left untouched. The simple Pareto principle usually governs these type of lists which means only 20% of the opportunities will be addressed (in practical terms even that number is probably high). The second key expectation is somewhat related to the first. If you ask people for their ideas, you create a reciprocal obligation where people expect to be kept informed about what is happening to their ideas. It’s all too easy in the heat of a project to forget this simple obligation.

So the danger of going the suggestion box route, however you do it, is that you raise people’s expectations and then leave them feeling uninformed and that their ideas have been seemingly ignored. Despite the pitfalls, it’s a useful way to encourage collaboration and generate opportunities but you need to make sure you manage expectations and have a communication strategy figured out well in advance.