Encouraging and Implementing Employees' Ideas

An employee feedback program helps demonstrate that management is paying attention to what employees have to share.

Nevada employees are spread out across the state in different buildings and cities. This can present a challenge for keeping employees connected to their managers, and keeping departments unified. This was the situation Teresa Thienhaus faced when she became the director of the state's Department of Personnel in 2008. After spending time with employees in her department, she came to the conclusion that communications were one-sided. She says that employees felt that they were not given an effective forum to voice their concerns, or more importantly, their ideas.

Thienhaus and Personnel Department Public Information Officer, Lesley Henrie, came up with the idea of a suggestion system where department employees could submit ideas that would all be read, considered and potentially implemented. "Got Ideas?," as the program is known, has grown in popularity since its inception in early 2009. Many of the ideas submitted by employees have gone on to save the department and state money and working hours. The program also helps prove that management is paying attention to what employees have to share.

I spoke with Thienhaus and Henrie about encouraging employee input during a recent phone interview. An edited and abridged transcript appears below.

Why was this employee feedback program created?

Teresa Thienhaus: I was appointed by the governor [Jim Gibbons] to be the director in November 2008, and I immediately started going around and having lunch with the various sections and divisions in this department. We're not all in one building, or one city, so that presents quite a challenge to have everybody have contact with me on a regular basis.

In my sessions with employees, it came out pretty clearly that communication in the department up to this point had been very one-way: employees received information from management, but they didn't feel like there was enough of a forum to give input to management. I sat down with Leslie Henrie, we talked about suggestion boxes and came up with "Got Ideas?" in March 2009.

How does an employee submit a suggestion?

Thienhaus: Employees can go in to the intranet; there's a nice little "Got Ideas?" logo there that you click on. It brings up a sort of e-mail format where they're free to submit [an idea] under their own name or anonymously. They can use as many words as they want to make a suggestion. It goes to a mailbox which Lesley checks on a regular basis

Lesley Henrie: I forward suggestions directly to the director to maintain the confidentiality of the employees.

: If they have an idea that involves something pretty drastic, or a cost-cutting measure that might affect employees they work with, they don't have to feel like they'd be criticized openly.

How do you follow up with employees' ideas?

Thienhaus: We do it a couple different ways. It depends on what exactly the idea is that they're submitting. Sometimes I'll follow up personally with a call and ask them a couple of questions. Or it might come out in a meeting with management staff that an idea came in from so-and-so through "Got Ideas?" and that I had decided to implement a change based on that.

Do you feel like "Got Ideas?" has achieved its original goal?

Thienhaus: I think so. We have the challenge of trying to coordinate things among our different offices and locations, and I think we have been able to. I feel like staff is feeling like they had at least something and somewhere to go to give feedback to me directly. They get the ear of the director, which for line staff is a pretty nice thing.

The other goal I think that we had is that we would get some very specific types of ideas for implementing cost-cutting measures or changes in the way we do things. The bottom line is: The line staff are the ones that deal with the nitty-gritty, day-to-day things we handle. They know best if there's a method that we're using that is not effective.

I get very specific types of suggestions. Instead of a forum where people say, "You ought to do something about costly leased space," we get very specific things like, "Why don't you move these people to this office or this office?"

How many employees have participated?

Thienhaus: We have had (to date) 57 ideas, and those came from 20 employees, which is a 23.5 percent participation rate. Only 10 were anonymous. Sixteen suggestions have been implemented, 15 are in process of being implemented and 18 are being researched.

What results have you seen from implementing some of the suggestions?

Thienhaus: We saved, for example, over $7,000 in lease costs for fiscal year 2011. There was also a "Got Ideas?" suggestion to eliminate five percent temporary salary increases [received by some employees]. That was taken to the governor's office and a mandate was put out. That resulted in savings to our department and [to the state]. The savings to the state on the whole in the last year or so has probably been upwards of a million dollars.

Have there been any unexpected results from setting up "Got Ideas?"

Thienhaus: The suggestion about the elimination of the salary increase. Originally, I thought it would be suggestions for our department, just involving what the structure of our department is. So that was an unexpected result: to get a suggestion through "Got Ideas?" that is actually saving the state as a whole a huge amount of money.

Henrie: I didn't expect the amount of people who are willing to provide very specific ideas without being anonymous. That surprised me. I thought we would get more anonymous responses. We have a lot of people willing to stand behind their ideas.

What do you think is vital to the program's success?

Thienhaus: One is that I didn't launch it before I had an opportunity to go around and introduce myself to all of the staff, so they could get to know me and know that I sincerely cared about what they had to say. You have to give a certain sort of foundation of trust to the employees before you launch into something like this. Let's face it. I could have come on board and stuck a box outside my office, and never achieved anything close to this. I think it's important that you let people know who you are so they know what kind of leader you will be in the department.

Henrie: Another element that was really important was the constant reinforcement of the program. Whenever the director sends out a message, it always has "Got Ideas?" as the P.S. [on e-mails], so she's constantly reminding the employees to use the feedback mechanisms. In addition, the director has sent messages proactively seeking ideas on specific issues or areas.

Thienhaus: The other thing is that people see that some of the ideas are implemented. I think that is a real boon to keeping it going. Once people see, "Hey, I submitted that idea, and there it was, it had happened," I think that reinforces that this is not just lip service to the employees. It is a method for implementing change.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for GOVERNING.com. She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.