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Tap the Experts (Your Employees) for Ideas

Posted on Thu, January 1,2015 @ 10:47 AM


A few years ago while heading Investor Relations for an iconic sports organization, I volunteered to run an ad hoc, internal committee charged with soliciting employees’ ideas, rewarding those deemed worthy, then championing (as much as possible) the implementation of the best suggestions.

The first two parts of the process were very democratic and very offline. Not all employees had access to computers, so we stocked suggestion boxes throughout the facility, collected completed forms and restocked. The committee met periodically to review the submissions, vote for worthwhile ideas, and then pitched the concepts to the leadership in the appropriate areas of the organization.

The upside to the program was three-fold: all employees were encouraged to continually think of ways to improve the organization (best ideas won monetary awards); a broad-based oversight committee built relationships and knowledge about all areas of the company; and some of the “big ideas” created opportunities to generate new revenues, save money or improve the customer experience. As an example, if you attend this organization’s second biggest event, you might hold in your hand a very popular (and profitable) glass and drink that was once a “big idea” winner (cheers to Joe B.).

Every company could benefit from an employee suggestion program. Such initiatives empower and engage workers by telling them management is listening, and at the same time create a pipeline of potential game-changing ideas.

3M’s “Post-It” notes were borne from an employee’s suggestion. Amazon’s wildly successful loyalty program, Amazon Prime, was an idea submitted in the virtual idea box on the company’s internal website. A maintenance crew worker for Japan Railways East (the largest rail carrier in the world) suggested bottling the spring water discovered while cutting tunnels in a certain mountain, seeding what would become a profitable business line.

There are thousands of examples of organizations large and small reaping great benefits from suggestion programs. Great ideas typically aren’t spawned in an R&D department, the board room or from those crazy cats in marketing. They come from the front-lines – the employees serving customers, building better widgets and trying to out-pace the competition.

An effective program can be created with a little time and money, but more than a little commitment. You can find incredible software that will do much of the work for you – or, you can do it yourself. Either way, here are a few things that have to happen to make it work:

1. Get the brass on board

Your organization’s leadership must champion the program. An initiative backed by the boss can quickly create a ripple effect of support which removes bureaucratic barriers that sometimes stem the flow of ideas.

2. Appoint an administrator

A successful program needs a point person to run the program, keep management apprised and measure success.

3. Spread the word

Inform all employees about the program and consistently remind them of the opportunity. Participation hinges on awareness – market your program like you would market a product or service.

4. Offer incentives

A simple cash award. A percentage of the increased revenues or money saved. A gift card. A day off. Find something you can offer that motivates employees to constantly think of ways to improve the organization.

5. Provide timely feedback

It’s imperative that participants know you take the program seriously. Set a realistic schedule for when ideas will be reviewed and when those making submissions can expect to hear something. Aim for a quick turnaround, and handle non-suitable ideas with as much (or more) courtesy as winning suggestions.

6. Keep it simple

Make the process as simple to negotiate as possible. In the program I referenced above, we made available a hard copy form that requested the individual’s contact information, idea and a quick business case for the idea. (This same sort of approach could be recreated electronically on an internal website using tools offered by good registration software.)

7. Create a cross-functional committee

You want those spearheading the program to come from a variety of segments within the organization so that you convey representation and encourage the broadest participation. You obviously want folks with energy and enthusiasm, and you will likely want to rotate committee membership periodically to bring in fresh ideas and passion.

8. Open your program to vendors and customers

This is always an option, as vendors and customers also provide a great resource for ideas. Just be cautious not to diminish (or dissuade) your employee program as you allocate time and incentives to constituents outside your workforce.

9. Review the program annually

In a program all about organizational improvement, it only makes sense to continually assess ways to improve the program itself. Are you getting an adequate number of submissions? Are you rewarding too little or too many ideas? Are winning ideas getting implemented? If not, why not? If so, what is the financial impact of the implemented idea?

In this age of continuous improvement, global competition, instant communications and minimal time-to-market, an employee suggestion program is simply smart business. Incentive-based initiatives lead employees to thinking outside their silo, they remove some of the layers that prevent ideas from being heard, and they deliver value that extends from the customer through the bottom line.

If you would like to pick our brain about such programs, or just want to know more about ABC Signup and registration software, please contact us by e-mail or phone (866.791.8268 ext. 0). If you have some suggestion program ideas you would like to share or just want to say something about this blog, please use the Comments section below.

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