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  • 06.02.04

Shoot the Suggestion Box

Unfortunately, Roger’s experiences with a poorly run idea system are more the rule than the exception, it seems.

Unfortunately, Roger’s experiences with a poorly run idea system are more the rule than the exception, it seems.

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Ever since William Denny put up the world’s first suggestion box in his shipbuilding company in 1882, suggestion boxes have become the method of choice around the world to collect employee ideas. And don’t be fooled by modern touches, such as web interfaces, databases and hotlines. The underlying process is still the same as it was in the nineteenth century. We haven’t yet seen a suggestion box process that got more than a fraction of one percent of the number of ideas of a more efficient idea process, like the one Dean Schroeder described. When Stalin mandated suggestion boxes in every Soviet enterprise in the 1940s, he eventually had to get the KGB involved to give the system even a semblance of paying attention to worker ideas!

Roger commented how his system handled half-baked ideas exactly the same way as good ones. This highlights a critical limitation of the “box” approach — it immediately takes ideas (many of which do need some work) and dumps them on the desk of an evaluator, who is often quite distant from the underlying problem. Not only is the urgency lost, but half the time that person is in fact looking at a half-baked idea, takes much more of a risk approving the idea than rejecting it, and needs more information and data to feel comfortable making the decision than if he or she were closer to the problem. (One remedy is to insert a step in the process that requires peers to look over and discuss ideas before they go any further. That way they can be critiqued, built on and improved, before they go outside the group.) The result is huge backlogs of ideas, and poor decision-making about ideas. We routinely come across backlogs of several years. At one Fortune 50 company that advertises continually about its innovativeness, one general manager told us he still had ideas on his desk from more than ten years ago. “I really should get to those sometime”, he said.

A bad system will beat a good person every time, as a Soviet manager once remarked to me years ago. A lot of the secret to managing ideas is in the processes you choose.

I would be interested to know of other people’s experiences with suggestion box systems, good or bad. To me, at least, the book has still to be written on how much damage they have done over the last 120 years.