Suggestion-Box Sickness

Employee idea boxes seem like an obvious way to foster the ballyhooed notion of `continuous improvement.' So why don't they work?

We have a few friends and relatives in the entertainment industry, and they've taught us about something called "high concept." This applies to projects so simple and straightforward that they can be described in a couple of sentences or less. The movie "Titanic" was reasonably high concept: "High-class girl falls in love with low-class guy on big boat, which sinks. One of them dies."

There's a real benefit to "high concept" in government management, too. Managers don't have a lot of time to figure out complicated ideas. Simple is good. This has probably been one of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board's biggest problems over the years. They've got some really good ideas, but the explanations require many, many words.

We were thinking about all this as we started to explore the topic of employee suggestion programs in cities. Few efforts are easier to grasp. In fact, the three words--employee suggestion program--pretty much do it. The only additional thing you really need to know is that most of them are set up to reward staffers for ideas that are accepted.

Sadly, that's not where the similarity between many of these programs and the Titanic ends. All too often, these programs also have a lot of trouble staying afloat.

Officials in Houston, Dallas, Nashville, Richmond and a number of other cities have complained to us that their employee suggestion plans simply aren't living up to potential. Baltimore, for example, adopted a new Employee Suggestion Program in May 1995, and it was revised in July 1997. To date, 28 suggestions have been made. A grand total of one has been adopted.

In Columbus, Ohio, a formal suggestion program has existed for about 10 years, but it is close to comatose. Only three or four suggestions come in each year. The effort is being reviewed and city officials expect to make "substantial revisions."

Seattle's program sunk entirely about three years ago. The problems there included a cumbersome and bureaucratic system for evaluating ideas and plenty of battles over the value and originality of the suggestions themselves.

All these failures surprised us. Employee suggestion systems seem like an obviously good way to foster that much ballyhooed notion of "continuous improvement." What's more, employees who genuinely feel like their thoughts are appreciated are likely to be more productive.

Little more proof is needed of the utility of a well-run suggestion box than a close look at Phoenix. All employees there are eligible to participate. Evaluators in each department review the suggestions, and if they are implemented, they're referred to a committee, which determines what kind of reward is in order. Awards are mostly in the form of cash, although plaques or other non-monetary items can be used. Cash awards are worth up to 10 percent of the first year's net savings from the innovation--up to a maximum of $3,500.

Last year, almost 300 ideas were submitted, of which 41 received cash awards totaling $55,493. Total first year savings? More than $1.6 million. We rest our case.

So, then, what lessons can be learned from Phoenix? We called on Mike Ingersoll, assistant personnel director in Phoenix, and he shared some thoughts:

  • Like a number of other cities, Phoenix often used to disallow suggestions that affected an individual's own department, arguing that people shouldn't be rewarded simply for doing their jobs. But it broadened the scope somewhat, and unless a particular kind of idea is clearly someone's special responsibility, it's usually eligible for a reward. "We try to reward people rather than find a stupid rule that says we can't," he says. "In our city clerk's office somebody noticed tons of things being mailed out that could be sent out through e-mails or other methods. Was that part of her job? Maybe. But nobody else noticed it. And that's worth recognizing."
  • The city used some new technology to speed up response time. Participants are thanked for their suggestion within three days and made aware of its final outcome within 60 days or so. It doesn't take too much thought to see the importance of this. Delays could have a boomerang effect--ticking off an employee, rather than generating more enthusiasm.
  • Phoenix made sure that the people actually evaluating the suggestions took their jobs seriously by training them well and making sure they received ample recognition from their superiors. "It's a rotten job," says Ingersoll. "You get all these ideas, and if you say no, employees can be cranky. And if you say yes, supervisors may say, `We can't do this.'"

Not everything is ideal in Phoenix, of course. Recent focus groups uncovered the fact that many departments do little to acknowledge their winners at the departmental level. Also, there seemed to still be problems in getting information out about the program to enough employees, and some evaluators who still take too long.

But as far as we can see, the fact that Phoenix continues to seek out flaws in a generally successful program is probably the best sign that the program will thrive. Other cities could learn from that approach, too.

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