The pitfalls of employee suggestion programs

I wrote in last month's column, there is no doubt that organizations need to do a far better job of tapping into the human capital of their team members as a vehicle to drive improvements and innovation. Unfortunately, too many organizations may have such policies in place but don’t actually make it real in their business.

One retiree from the automotive sector once commented on the day of his retirement, "you paid me to do my job for over 35 years and you could have had my brain for free".

As process improvement professionals, we recognize the importance of capturing the ideas of team members that are closest to the process, yet what can we do to make it more routine?

Is is possible to make ideas and innovation routine?

A common approach that organizations implement is to create an employee suggestion program. While this is often a great concept, suggestion programs continue to treat the idea generation as an exceptional event as opposed to a way of doing things.

Additionally, these programs are often plagued with high volumes of poor quality ideas (that either take a significant amount of effort to implement or don’t get implemented and result in team member apathy) for only a few golden nuggets.

When financial rewards are incorporated, these programs can create new layers of complexity around awarding incentives and occasionally create conflict when several teams feel they had a similar idea. By paying for "good ideas" we’re essentially communicating that by coming to work we’re not expecting you to use your brain and generate ideas.

So what other options exist?

For one, every effort should be made to turn the idea generation process into a regular pattern whereby each leader has regular dialogues around generating improvements to the process. And by involving team members in not only the idea generation but also the piloting process, we’re now also improving the quality of the ideas as team members rapidly see what the impact of their suggestion was.

Idea suggestion programs could then be integrated with such broad based team engagement techniques to help capture and address opportunities that are more cross-functional in nature.

Additionally, consideration could be given to certain social media tools that can capture ideas and allow team members to cross-functionally vote ideas up or down based on their particular vantage point. This helps simplify the selection process while mobilizing a larger number of team members in the process.

What methods have you seen work to better tap into the ideas and innovations of your team members?