How to Make the Employee Suggestion Box Work

The Suggestion Box concept, of course, is simple: Employees in the trenches have some of the best insights on how to improve operations.

In recent years, several companies have updated the old suggestion box with new digital forms. Like so much else that’s gone digital, surely this means the old idea now works better?

Not quite. Many businesses have found that digitalizing the suggestion box has done little to fix its predecessor’s most fundamental flaws, writes Ethan R. Burris, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, in the Harvard Business Review:

  1. Even though technology makes it easier to amass more employee ideas, it doesn’t guarantee that staff members will use it. Burris adds, “In fact, my research with James Detert at Cornell suggests that they probably won’tuse it unless you explicitly say what kind of feedback you’re seeking and then spell out what you’re doing in response to it.”
  2. While managers put a lot of thought to how to gather as much input as possible, few think enough about how the ideas they get will be evaluated.
  3. Digital suggestion boxes, like their analog predecessors, can breed a sense of futility when few of the ideas are adopted.

The HBR piece highlights the work of KaiNexus, an Austin-based software company that endeavors to help firms create cultures of continuous improvement by engaging staff and leaders with better communication mechanisms, as a possible solution. KaiNexus is helping companies recreate the suggestion box experience, from their blog:

“Suggestion boxes were born in a time when management alone was responsible for solving problems and implementing improvement. It made sense then that employees would anonymously deposit ideas into a box and then hope for the best. That’s not how modern employees, especially Millennials and Gen Yers, think. They want to be in on the action and take the lead when it comes to positive change. In the best performing companies today, everyone is empowered to improve, not just management.”

“If you look at the culture codes from some of the best places to work, places like Hubspot, Netflix, Zappos and others, one key value they have in common is transparency. They generally share as much information with employees as they can without running afoul of the law. Boxes imply the opposite of transparency; their nature is to close things off. What today’s workers want is visibility. They want to understand how the work they are doing fits into the larger picture. They want to know what’s been tried before and how well it worked out.”

Ed Reeves, co-founder and director of Moneypenny, a provider of telephone answering specialists to companies, says he has also found deanonymizing the suggestion box as key to making it work for his company.

Inc. reports: “To encourage more of these ‘light bulb’ moments we set up a suggestions box, making it easy for our staff to submit ideas as and when they strike. The best of these then receive an award and are proudly displayed on our ‘wall of fame’.

Employees work hard to gain your trust, and in almost all instances will surpass your expectations if given a chance.”