Do we really need suggestion systems?
The people that promote the use of suggestion systems might not like this page very much. It is my hope however that I present a logical set of arguments against this practice (as it is commonly deployed) instead of merely bashing it. You will have to decide that for yourself as you read on. In general, it is my belief that we do not need suggestion systems IF we instead have an effective system in place for consistently incorporating the ideas of ALL associates into the improvement efforts of the organization.
What is my operational definition of a suggestion system?
As in most cases, it is important to clarify what is being debated before entering into the debate. In my mind, suggestion systems are those systems where forms are provided for people to fill out and turn in with their ideas on them (the suggestion box approach). I use this definition because that is how most organizations install such systems. It is not the right way, or the way that effective advocates of such systems would propose themselves, but it is the easy way out that most people take. It is a smoke screen for true involvement - it gives the illusion that the organization wants to hear from its people. The reality is that such systems break down, people because disenchanted and discouraged when their ideas are not addressed to their satisfaction, and management suffers credibility damage.
What is my primary argument?
Whenever the use of suggestion systems is brought up, I use one simple statement to present my position - if I came into your organization right now and met with a group of your people for one hour, I could work with them to identify enough improvement projects during that hour to keep your engineers, project teams (if you have them), and managers busy for at least the next two years! I would also bet that most of the things we would come up with would not be things that you are currently working on as part of your formal improvement efforts (that is unless you already have have an effective project identification and management system in place).
What do I have against suggestion systems?
In short, suggestion systems raise the expectations that something will be done with the ideas that are submitted, only to see those expectations dashed when the organization does not have enough resources to process those ideas (either promptly or to the necessary degree of completion). The morale and credibility damage that follows is not pretty - I have seen it for myself time and time again, but you may not have (unless you really try to stay in touch with the people on a consistent basis). The bottom line is that any organization has a limited amount of project development resources that they can put to work at any time - it is a lot easier to define a lot of potential improvement projects then it is to actually evaluate all of them, and develop and implement the good ones. We won't even get into the disparity that exists between managers and the front lines as to whether or not an idea is 'good.'
Don't suggestion systems work in some cases?
That said, there are places where suggestion systems have worked quite well (most notably in Japan). The reason for this success is only partially cultural however (the Japanese in general tend to be more disciplined). These programs succeed because (1) the idea submitters are responsible for helping to develop their ideas further, (2) a disciplined approach to both completing the suggestion form and following through on each form is followed, and (3) each person knows what type of improvements need to be concentrated on the most - these people have been kept informed about the organization's goals and they have been trained to know how to prioritize their improvement ideas so that those with the greatest potential impact get worked on first.
What is the alternative to suggestion systems?
It is my belief that you can't complain about a system unless you can suggest one that is better. Suggestion systems are a substitute for having an open door policy, a formal means of involving all associates in the organization's annual planning efforts, and a formal means of regularly identifying and prioritizing the improvements that EACH workgroup needs in order to move closer towards the performance goals that they have helped establish. When you use suggestion systems, you are taking what appears to be the easy way out. You are substituting bureaucracy for taking the time to train and regularly meet with your people. Keep in mind that I am NOT condemning all suggestions systems, but only those approaches that are used by 95% of the organizations (fill out the form, turn it in, and wait to see what happens).
What does an effective project management and development system look like?
This is not an attempt to create a 'new' product by using different words. The semantic distinctions are critical! Ideas, properly defined, are potential projects. How we capture, prioritize, and convert those ideas into actual improvements determines the degree to which people feel involved, money is saved, and performance improves. There are three main pieces to an effective project management and development system. I won't get into all of the details here, but you can learn more about each of these three pieces by clicking on the links provided below, thinking about what you see, and experimenting with the tools. As always, let me know if you would like me to work with you further in this area or others. Keep improving!
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates