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suggestion_boxThe quintessential suggestion box is a joke. In fact, these days suggestion boxes are often used to symbolize all that’s wrong in relationships between employees and managers. The trope appears in cartoons all the time - the crowded “Complaints” box next to the empty “Suggestion” box. The booby traps set up around the box. The box that empties directly into the recycling bin, or as in this comic, the paper shredder.

Everyone knows that a suggestion box isn’t going to make a significant difference in the workplace - so why do we keep hanging them up?

Some managers hang suggestion boxes as a false pretense, hoping to trick employees into feeling that their ideas are valued. Let’s assume that these managers are the exception, though, and that most people utilizing suggestion boxes are doing so with the best of intentions.


Why do companies in all industries turn to suggestion boxes?

  1. They know their front line employees have ideas for improving their work, and are hoping to give them an outlet for those ideas

  2. They want to improve the relationships between managers and employees by creating an open flow of communication

  3. They hope that by identifying more opportunities for improvement, jobs, customer service, and the bottom line will all improve

All of those goals are admirable. Engaging employees in improvement is the best way to continuously improve every aspect of the business, every day. The result of this is increased employee and customer safety and satisfaction, improved quality, reduced cost, and increased revenue and efficiency.

Yes, the goal of these companies is spot on. Where they’re falling short is in the actions they take to achieve that goal.


Why do suggestion boxes fail?

In a suggestion box system, both sides of the equation end up unsatisfied. Managers responsible for reviewing the suggestions are frustrated by non-constructive complaining, unrealistic requests, and rants about known issues that make it hard to filter out the
good ideas. On the flip side of the equation, the people who submitted those good ideas are equally let down when their submission doesn’t result in any changes.

The suggestion box is a one-way model. Ideas go into it, but it provides no help in assigning accountability for identifying, implementing, tracking, or spreading great ideas. There’s not even a guarantee that ideas will be reviewed at all - much less that the good ones will be recognized and implemented.


Common suggestion system mistakes:

  1. Ideas in exchange for rewards

    If you’re making the mistake of paying your people directly for ideas, you may want to put your pocket book away. Employees want autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and you should strive to develop these every day.  It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth it.  

    Rather than offering people rewards for good ideas, offer them recognition. Praise those who participate in your improvement efforts, and encourage others to get similarly involved. Provide the necessary transparency for people to understand that you value their contributions, and that their ideas really do make a difference to the organization. Employee recognition is key.

  2. Every suggestion becomes a committee decision  

    The typical idea routes from the suggestion box to a committee of “peers” who vote on which ideas will be implemented.  While this sounds like a good idea, in reality it causes people to stop submitting ideas, and creates a situation in which only 1-2% of suggestions are implemented.

    The problem is that committees look at an idea as the end of a process, when it’s really just the beginning. Ideas should not just be voted up or down, especially if they haven’t been discussed with the person from whom the idea originated. Additionally, committees often fall into the trap of thinking that big ideas are the only ones that can make a difference to your organization. It’s important to recognize the value of small improvements, and that even little ones can add up for a significant impact.

  3. Lack of feedback and collaboration

    Suggestion boxes are an input-only system. Staff drop their ideas in the hole, and receive no immediate feedback (often, no feedback at all). This apparent lack of interest in their ideas diminishes their desire to contribute, and the suggestion box fails.  Additionally, there is usually no way to work collaboratively with the person who submitted the idea and the people who can implement it.

    To avoid making this mistake, make sure your suggestion system provides accurate, timely feedback, and pay close attention to the ability for employees to collaborate with their managers and colleagues as an idea is implemented. Being kept in the loop is a strong motivational factor, as employees see that their leaders respond quickly to engagement and value their ideas.

What if we make it digital?

Taking a suggestion box and recreating it online only advances the idea if it is simultaneously transformed and improved. A digital box is slightly better than a physical box (better because you can put stuff in it from anywhere), but if the follow up process is the same, the results will be just as dismal. The problem with the suggestion box isn’t that it is a physical thing, but rather, that it provides no structure enabling ideas to be captured, implemented, measured, and communicated. Unless the tool you’re putting the ideas into does that, your results will stay the same.


But what if we really want those suggestions?

If you’re serious about engaging all of your employees in continuous improvement, you’re much better off investing in continuous improvement software that connects the entire organization around identifying ideas and empowers employees to make the improvements. Rather than feeling discouraged and ignored by their managers, employees become actively engaged in the successful implementation of great ideas, and management has concrete data to demonstrate success.


Kill the box, not the suggestions.

How is continuous improvement software different?

Continuous improvement software enables organizations to collect ideas for improvement from their staff (like a suggestion box), but differs in that it provides the follow up capabilities necessary for identifying and implementing more ideas. Here’s the basics of how continuous improvement software works:



Whereas a suggestion box is a stagnant tool that does nothing to encourage employees to identify opportunities for improvement, continuous improvement software increases the number of ideas people submit by enabling leaders to recognize those who are participating, share great ideas, respond quickly to every submission, and promote collaboration. Continuous improvement software improves on the traditional suggestion box with features that engage more people in identifying improvements opportunities and accelerates the spread of adoption.

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In a typical suggestion box system just 2-3% of improvement ideas are actually implemented. Continuous improvement software empowers employees to implement their own ideas for improvement, resulting in an average implementation rate of over 80%. The software takes the burden of implementation off of the managers and distributes the workload across the entire workforce. More people focused on improving results in more improvement! Software features such as smart notifications, distributed teams, and enhanced visibility keep improvements on track and the implementation rates high. 

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Visibility into the key metrics of engagement, activity, and impact results in a marked increased in all three areas. People are encouraged to participate as they see the success of their peers, leaders get more support for continuous improvement from their executives, and continuous improvement spreads. Improvement software trumps suggestion boxes by simplifying the reporting of all of these metrics so that management can spend more time improving and less time crunching the numbers.

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The best way to spread continuous improvement in an organization is to share successes. Announcing the impact and recognizing the person who made the improvement encourages others to get involved, and sharing new best practices expands the reach of each idea. Tracking the process and impact of each improvement in improvement software creates a permanent knowledge repository that can be searched by anyone, at any time, so that employees can learn from each other efficiently and effectively.  Unlike suggestion boxes, continuous improvement software automates this sharing with smart notifications, ensuring that your improvements have the maximum impact throughout the organization.

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For more information about how improvement software improves on the suggestion box, check out this eBook: 

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