Markets today demand greater innovation. Changes are coming faster than ever before, and your competitors are ever more nimble.

Customers have rising expectations. You need new ideas, better processes, more innovative products and services, and more effective ways to build strong futures with those customers.

Market research, R&D, customer focus groups and surveys are valuable tools for innovation. In the current economic climate, though, it is time to revisit the “staff suggestion program” – a low-cost yet effective technique when done right.

Companies can no longer survive with staff members who expect management to provide “all the right answers”. Today, companies require a steady flow of ideas and solutions from those who are closest to the processes and the customers – those with their “ears to the ground”.

To maintain an adaptable and responsive organization, you must develop a culture that actively solicits input and recommendations from every level of your staff.

Most leaders and senior managers are more receptive to this approach than ever before. But how can you transform the mind-set of staff, who, for years or even generations, were trained to “keep your mouths shut, lay low, just follow orders”? How can you encourage your frontline staff to open their minds, explore new ideas and share their best recommendations?

The staff suggestion program is a time-honored process of wooden boxes and pre-printed forms for staff to write out their ideas and submit them for management consideration.

Many companies have tried this approach, but few can report real satisfaction with the number, consistency or quality of staff contributions. Even fewer can report widespread enthusiasm for their suggestion programs at all.

Here are six ideas you can implement right away to make your suggestion program more effective:

1. Respond to all written staff suggestions immediately (within one week) and in writing.

Be candid. If the answer is no, say so. If the answer is yes, state when staff will see implementation. If the answer is maybe, explain the issues involved and give a date for further reply. And, stick to it. Nothing builds trust and credibility faster than making new promises ... and keeping them.

One exception: Do not reply to obscene or abusive suggestions. A strong company culture has no place for such destructive “input“. Your best response is not to reply.

2. Respond to suggestions publicly, for all to see.

Usually, when one staff member writes, she speaks what is on the mind of many. Reply openly on a designated bulletin board, in a weekly printed update, or by electronic mail. Thank the writer or writers for the query or contribution. Include staff names on suggestions to be implemented.

3. Give an award, prize or monetary incentive for best suggestions, and give it right away.

Many suggestion programs invoke a multi-step process for evaluation and eventual granting of an award. First, the suggestion boxes are emptied (sometimes only once a month). Second, a committee sifts and sorts for “realistic” submissions. Third, a management committee appraises the freshness, viability, cost savings or increased revenue from each suggestion. Fourth, someone in senior management decides upon the amount of reward to be given to the appropriate staff members. And finally, an actual awarding of the prize is conducted.

The cycle time for this process is usually four weeks or more. In some cases, the senior management review is only conducted once a quarter. What is your company’s cycle time for awarding prizes to a staff suggestion? Would you be inspired if you had to wait that long?

Try this approach: Dedicate $1,200 (or your local equivalent) to the project. Give the money away in $100 increments every month for one year. Each month, give $50 to the best idea, $20 for the second-best idea, and $10 each to the third-, fourth- and fifth-best suggestions.

In the first months, few may believe that you will give out the money in a timely manner, and possibly only a handful of staff will participate. But no matter how small or meager the suggestions, give out the money anyway! As soon as staff members realize you are serious, the boxes will be filled with suggestions.

4. Establish different categories for your awards.

Clear categories can help staff members focus and generate new ideas. Here are examples of categories you can use:

  • Ideas that can be implemented immediately

  • Ideas for getting closer to our customers

  • Suggestions for cost savings or increasing revenue

  • New ideas focusing on a chosen theme for the month

  • Ideas that most dramatically challenge the current paradigm of your thinking

  • Recommendations for the future direction of our business

5. Make a big event out of awarding your suggestion program prizes.

Some companies use lunches, staff teas or monthly meetings to award prizes. One company makes up large, special “dollar bills” for each winning suggestion. In the center is the face of the staff member who contributed. In the corners is the amount of money his or her suggestion earned. And, surrounding the portrait is a description of the suggestion itself.

These dollar bills line the wall of the staff lounge and company cafeteria. The result is popular group recognition for winners and a culture-building impact that keeps the suggestion program going strong.

At the end of the year, give recognition to the volume of suggestions received, the winners who have been rewarded and the changes enacted as a result. Then, pose a challenge to everyone to double the volume of suggestions in the coming year.

And, if the quality of ideas warrant, double your cash prizes, too. Four winners a month last year? Increase it to eight winners per month next year. If the ideas are good, it’s certainly worth your investment!

6. Most of all, implement.

Act upon what your staff suggests. Nothing demonstrates your commitment to this approach better than a staff suggestion recognized, rewarded and immediately put to work.

Are there even more practical ways to improve your company’s suggestion program? Sure there are. Got a suggestion?

About the author:
Ron Kaufman is an international educator and motivator for uplifting customer service, partnerships and superior service culture. He is the author of the best-selling book series “UP Your Service!” and the 11-title inspirational book series “Lift Me Up!” As the founder of UP Your Service! College, his clients include government agencies and multi-nationals in every major industry sector. For more information, visit www.UpYourService.com.