What’s the Big Idea?

By Malcolm Fleschner

If the reward and recognition industry had to come up with a slogan, a good option might be, "Incentives: they’re not just for sales anymore!" One area where recognition programs are becoming more popular is in suggestion programs that reward employees for generating ideas to cut costs, increase sales or otherwise streamline an organization’s operations.

Yet as Vic Anapolle, an employee recognition and involvement consultant with the Bill Sims Company (www.billsims.com) observes, managers are never short of excuses for why they don’t run suggestion programs. "They’re too time consuming," "They don’t pay off," and "You wind up getting too many suggestions that aren’t workable" are a few Anapolle says he commonly hears. But all these objections can be addressed, he suggests, by adopting the following six guidelines for an effective employee suggestion program:

1. Be Open To The Ideas
It may seem like an obvious point, but you can’t run a functioning suggestion program without first recognizing that not all great ideas come from the folks at the top. A good way to start is by giving employees some constraints and letting them know the areas in which you’re soliciting their suggestions.

Next, let everyone know how the process will work, and how their suggestions will be considered. A flow chart on display can do this effectively. Then, as you launch the program, give one person responsibility for advocating the program within the organization. This person will be tasked with cheerleading, soliciting ideas and clearing any bottlenecks that arise.

2. Get Managers On Board
The program will likely fail if middle managers and front-line supervisors view the suggestion program as just something else to undermine their authority. Impress upon supervisors that this kind of program can address their problems too, and give them more opportunities for coaching and mentoring.

3. Cash Is Out
Cash is not the only means of rewarding employees and may be an obstacle to an effective suggestion program, particularly if the cash reward is tied to money saved from an idea’s application. Instead, consider a points-based program, allowing idea-generating participants to redeem points toward items from preferred catalogs. Such merchandise-oriented programs typically boost employee participation and generate higher submission rates.

4. Pick A Coordinator
Choose one person to be the central repository for all ideas. He or she will log the suggestions, forward them to evaluators and maintain records of how ideas have been applied. Suggestion evaluators will likely be managers – assign enough of them to keep ideas flowing through the system promptly. The suggestion evaluators should take no more than 30 days to respond to each idea.

Once it’s decided that an idea should be implemented, get the person who came up with the idea to participate in the implementation. Ownership over new ideas is a remarkable motivator that will help generate even more ideas down the line.

5. Take A Second Look
At most places, when one evaluator says a submitted idea isn’t worth pursuing, that’s usually the end of the line for that idea. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Sometimes one person may be biased, or fail to appreciate an idea’s potential. Just in case, let a backup committee of program participants confirm the first evaluator’s opinion. This committee review can salvage good ideas that might otherwise slip through the cracks, or offer ways to refashion a suggestion so that it becomes more workable.

6. Reward A Job Well Done
One criticism of suggestion programs is that they reward employees for doing something that’s already part of the job. But this attitude tends to discourage managers from interacting with front-line employees. This leads to workers doing little more than what’s absolutely necessary, which diminishes potential innovation and creative thinking.

If your organization recognizes front-line employees as a great but mostly untapped resource for talent and new ideas, a suggestion program can make a huge difference. Approach it with the same diligence and planning you would any other major project, offer rewards that will genuinely motivate and create the right environment for hearing those ideas, and the results may astonish you.